The Rev’d David Curry, Rector of Christ Church, preached this sermon for The Fifth Sunday in Lent/Passion Sunday.
“By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place”
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,” Jesus said at the approach of Lent on Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. And he told us exactly what that “going up” means, that “all things concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death; and on the third day he shall rise again.” In short, he tells us about his Passion and Resurrection.
Passion. It is, perhaps, an ambiguous word and yet, richly suggestive and evocative. We think of the word passion in terms of our appetites and our emotions – sexual and physical. We associate passion with a deep and emotional attachment to some object of our longing. The word seems inescapably bound up with the things of the body. How can this have anything to do with the things of the spirit? Because in the Christian understanding, the things of the spirit are altogether bound up with the things of the body. Christian spirituality is not a flight from the body or from the world. It is altogether about the redemption of the whole of our humanity and the entire order of creation. Anything less than that sense of the whole is a spurious and false kind of spirituality – incomplete and destructive.
This Sunday is known as Passion Sunday. It marks the beginning of deep Lent, a two-week period of intense concentration upon the passion of Christ. It is altogether wanted that we should have an increasing awareness of its meaning. In a way, the whole of the Christian religion is concentrated for us into the scope of these two weeks and, then, within these two weeks, into Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter, and then, within Holy Week, into the Triduum Sacrum, the three great Holy Days, Maundy Thursday through to Easter Eve, and, then, within the Triduum Sacrum, there is the ultimate concentration upon the passion of Christ which we call Good Friday, without which we can make no sense of Easter and the joy of the resurrection. In other words, there is a remarkable and progressive intensity to Passiontide. It is altogether about our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But what do we mean by the passion of Christ? We mean his sufferings for us. Passion signifies “being acted upon”; hence, suffering. It is inescapably part and parcel of the human condition, part and parcel of the finite reality of our lives. It requires a body, though suffering is by no means restricted to the body. There is an intense interplay between body and soul in human experience; sufferings that are at once physical and mental; an anguish of the mind as well as the body. The interplay between body and soul belongs to the understanding of what it means to be human and it is no less so with regards to the reality of suffering which seems so destructive of human personality, of the human community, and of human life.
We worry ourselves sick. Mental anguish results in physical ailments and complaints. And conversely, the agonies of the body can unhinge our minds. To speak of soul and body is to speak of their inter-relation.
This leads to a further consideration. Passion suggests our being acted upon; suffering means the hurtful things which happen to us in body and soul. Yet we have already alluded to our own power in this. For example, we worry ourselves sick; worrying is something which we do. Our acting upon our feelings can have disastrous consequences for us individually and collectively.
When we contemplate the bloody, sorry state of our world (same old, same old), we contemplate not the absence of God but the evil of our own doings in all of the troubling events of our world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. These troubles remind us about what we are capable of doing. To blame God is to deny the freedom and responsibility which belongs to human dignity, something which is actually God-bestowed. The passion of Christ allows us to see suffering in another light, namely, as belonging to our redemption.
The point is that howsoever much we are acted upon, we are also actors. Our actions have deadly consequences for ourselves and for others. The reality of actions, either our own or someone else’s, is present in the reality of our sufferings. Will they be for good or for ill? Will they be good thoughts or evil? Will they be good words or malicious words? Will they be good deeds or bad?
The passion of Christ illuminates the very potentialities which belong to our souls for good and for evil. In a way, our humanity is on display in the passion of Christ. “A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also”, Simeon says of Mary about the passion of Christ, but it is also true for us. Through the eyes of Mary, we contemplate the horrible things which we are capable of doing to ourselves, to one another and, most astoundingly and most foolishly of all, to God. They are all made visible in the crucified Christ.
The passion of Christ is about what he wills to suffer for us so that we can learn this and so that we can discover the grace of redemption that is greater than the sin of destruction. Sin, after all, destroys. All sin is death: it is the death of God in the soul. That Christ wills to suffer for us signifies the true meaning of sacrifice. It has altogether to do with love – the love of the Son for the Father in the bond of the Holy Spirit – the holy love into which we are drawn by the crucified Christ.
Passiontide focuses on the cross. At the cross all sin and all love is revealed. But the cross is veiled! Why? Because the full meaning of the cross is hidden from our eyes by the veils of our ignorance. On Quinquagesima Sunday, Jesus told us about his passion, but “they – [we] – understood none of these things.” Through the first four weeks of Lent we have struggled to understand something about the nature of our pilgrimage, contemplating the forms of demonic denial and the disorders of human personality, contemplating the power of God, too, who makes provision for us even out of our barren, empty nothingness, contemplating ‘the seven deadly sins’ that destroy human personality. And yet, for all this and more, we remain uncertain and confused. We see “but in a glass darkly.”
We are like the mother of Zebedee’s children in today’s gospel. As parents, we want what is best for our children but we don’t really know what that is. “Ye know not what ye ask”, Jesus says ever so gently and yet ever so devastatingly. What will it take for us to learn? Nothing less than our constant attention to the things of the passion of Christ, to the things that are unfolded before us and which are explained to us.
The Letter to the Hebrews offers the theological understanding to much of what we contemplate in Passiontide. We are all able, Christ suggests “to drink of the cup” which Christ drinks of because of his identity with us and “to be baptized with the baptism” which he is baptized with, again through his identity with us, for such things belong to the conditions of our humanity. Yet the further meaning of that suffering requires our waiting upon the will and judgment of the Father. The passion of Christ is about our waiting upon that judgment made visible in the sufferings of Christ, freely embraced.
“By his own blood,” which belongs to his incarnate reality with us in the fullness of our humanity, “he entered in once into the holy place.” So The Letter to the Hebrews teaches about the Resurrection through the Passion. The Resurrection ultimately culminates in its fullness in Christ’s Ascension; the holy place is at once Jerusalem, the heavenly city of the communion between God and man in the communion of the Trinity. We find our place in the love of the Son for the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Eternal redemption is accomplished and obtained for us.
We know the story but to grasp its fuller significance and to bring it to bear upon our lives requires our constant commitment to what is heard and seen. In other words, the Resurrection deepens our understanding of the Passion even as the Passion intensifies the joy of our redemption. The interplay of soul and body complements this interplay of death and resurrection. We enter into the passion of Christ in all of its intensity that we might learn the fullness of the joy of our redemption.
“By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.”
Fr. David Curry
Passion Sunday ‘09