Thursday, 24 March 2016

Holy Week 2016: a reflection on pain and mercy

It's a strange Holy Week, this first one in retirement. How I miss the great liturgies and profound music of Durham Cathedral. By contrast, this year feels like "Holy Week lite": no services to preside at, no sermons to write. Here in the village the liturgy is simpler and sparser though the pattern is the same. The Vicar is introducing an early morning Easter Vigil and eucharist up at the Old Church, not quite at dawn though with the clocks going forward it will feel like it. So we shall have kept the Sacred Triduum "properly", and that's good.

What's different this year is that I have a lot of time to think and reflect, to read, pray and gather wool. (And write, I hear you sigh, but no-one's forcing you to read this....) But it's not idleness, at least it doesn't feel like it. It's "work" too - spiritual work. Let me try and say where my thoughts have been leading me.

First, there's how much this week means to me, how it lies at the very centre of my Christian faith. I've written many times before about this but it's reassuring in an odd way to find that even though I am living as a lay person under the ministry of others, it hasn't in the least taken away the profound sense that without faith in Jesus' cross and resurrection, Christianity is nothing. I come back constantly to one of the greatest verses in the whole Bible, St Paul in Galatians (2.20-21): "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." You could feed off that magnificent affirmation for a lifetime. 

There are the familiar personal rituals of this season, chiefly to listen to both the Bach Passions at least once each during Holy Week. Like Galatians, they are inexhaustibly rich, so full of pain and pathos, yet charged with an exquisite confidence in tender mercy and undying love. This morning Angela Tilby spoke on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day about the final bar of the St Matthew Passion where Bach lingers on a dissonant passing note before resolving it into the last chord of this monumental work. There is a whole theology in that bar, she said. She is right: all of this week comes down to a painful dissonance and its ultimate resolution. Today I listened to the St John, a work I've written about in previous blogs. The same is true there, except that the conclusion is less tentative, less inclined to linger on the pain, more confident, even rapturous - precisely the difference between the two evangelists that Bach, one of the greatest theologians of the western church, understood so well.

But to go back to that dissonance: this has been a shocking Holy Week as we know. The atrocity in Brussels has left in its wake so many wrecked human lives: deaths, terrible injuries, trauma, loss and bewilderment. How self-professed adherents of a noble world faith, Islam, could carry out such destructiveness in God's name is just beyond comprehension. Elie Wiesel once said of the Nazi Holocaust, maybe even God himself doesn't understand it, let alone we humans. How to speak of such events with integrity without resorting to clichés and conventional expressions of sympathy, is hard. Like Job's friends, we would be better to remain silent like the mourners standing alongside one another in the Place de la Bourse. I think there must be silence in heaven in the face of such suffering and grief. What is there for God to say?

For me as a person of faith, this is where Holy Week comes in. The Passion Narrative echoes so many of the themes we are so familiar with. Fear, betrayal, cowardice, political compromise, the power of the mob, the oppression of the innocent are all sharply-etched on the page and in the music. Most of all the suffering of the victim.  In the St Matthew Passion he is not the obedient martyr of St Luke nor the victorious king of St John. In Matthew (and Mark) he is the lonely, agonised victim who cries out in agony "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" How true to experience. And like so many who are plunged inexplicably into terrible suffering, he gets no reply. He is alone in this long and terrible darkness. Hearing Bach this week, it couldn't fail to echo Brussels and Srebrenica and Istanbul, Syria and Iraq, the continuing refugee crisis and so many other horrors past and present we have heard about in recent days. That question comes back: what is there for God to say? What is there for us to say?

But faith wants to respond: God has not been silent, even though we didn't realise it at once. He is speaking out of the very heart of suffering to all the world, especially to those whom events have led directly into the reality of crucifixion. The broken Man of Golgotha is that Word of truth, mercy and the love that loves, as St John says, "to the end". Here's how one of the best modern hymns puts it.

And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow's iron rod,
Then they find that self-same aching
Deep within the heart of God.

It's the good news that is old and familiar and well-tried, but forever fresh and new in its capacity to bring strength and courage to face the days ahead. Once again it's St Paul's "faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me". This Holy Week I wonder like everybody else what ordeals the coming days and weeks will bring for our world and for each of us. But what we need to do is to hold the passion and resurrection in our hearts as the truth to live and die by. These "days of awe" from Maundy Thursday to Easter will strengthen us as we tell the story that lies at the very foundation of our faith. And point to the eventual resolution of all our sorrow and dissonance, and give us back our hope.

Andy Walton, writing in Christianity Today, quotes Coptic Bishop Angaelos whose church members have encountered fierce suffering in recent years in Egypt: "The darkness we encounter daily makes us not only realise the value of the Light, but pursue and hold onto It as our only hope and strength." His faith is a true inspiration. In that spirit I wish you a holy festival, and when it comes, a happy light-filled Easter, and "even at the grave", joyful alleluias.


  1. I have sung the St.Matthew Passion when I was in the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Stunning stuff. I enjoy sitting in a service as a consumer and thinking, "This is for me", much as you would have a day out or join a pottery class as refreshment. The Cathedral near me doesn't do stuff on Holy Week evenings in order to rest the choir (!!!!) I missed it. I hope you find the time to steep yourself in it profitable. Happy Easter.

  2. The thing about Easter is hope, shining amid all of the pain and despair. When I was young, as a Catholic, Easter was celebrated with great solemnity and mystery, in a foreign language (Latin) for the most part. Only when I trained as an Altar server, did I learn some words, that helped me to interpret what was going on.

    We didn't have Passiontide in the way that it is observed today, rather Good Friday was Stations of the Cross and Easter Sunday was high mass. I can look back and see how much I missed out on - as it seemed to us, that Easter was for Adults to indulge us with Easter Eggs (if we were lucky) or boiled Eggs, painted if we were the main stream.

    I suspect that the true meaning of Easter didn't really hit me, until I had become an Anglican (after a 25 year sojourn out of any form of church or God)and I found that Easter had huge theological and spiritual meaning with symbolism that brings alive (at least for me) Easter's true meaning.

    So, I find Lent and Easter and the period up to Pentecost as times of anticipation, expectation and waiting. We celebrate the Feast of the Ascension in our Parish, while many don't. And the imagery of that is something special. Witnessed by men (unlike the resurrection which was witnessed by Angels), where mystery and reality come together to put flesh on the bones of the Risen Lord. Roll on the Ascension.