Sermon for Passion Sundayadmin | 21 March 2010
“What wilt thou?”
What do you will? Not simply what do you want but what do you will? What are you committed to? It is the question of Passion Sunday.
The Cross is veiled. Present yet hidden, its shape is only dimly seen. “We see,” at best, but “in a glass darkly.” What does this veiling of the Cross mean? Should not the Cross be fully and visibly before us? What do we mean exactly by the Cross?
The paradox of Passiontide is that the Cross is veiled precisely so that we might come to learn more fully just what the Cross means in itself and for us. The journey of Lent is concentrated for us in Passiontide, deep Lent, and then is further concentrated in Holy Week and then, again, on Good Friday. It is all the way of the Cross. The paradox of the veiled Cross is that we do not know and do not see as clearly and fully as we should. What stands in the way is the disorder of our wills and our desires.
Our passions, we might say, stand in the way of our understanding of the passion of Christ. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” The gospel story suggests that there is an element of ambition and self-interest present even in the most holy of situations. Theologically, the point is simply that our motives are never pure and clear; they are always mixed. Why? Because we neither truly know what we want – “ye know not what ye ask” – nor do we fully will that which we do know, let alone do what we should do. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” We are divided creatures, divided among ourselves and divided within ourselves. The veil is the fog of our desires.
How, then, shall we learn “to love thee more dearly, to see thee more clearly”? Only through the passion of Christ. Only through the project of Passiontide. What is that project? Our participation in the passion of Christ signals the setting right of our desires. It means suffering and service; in short, it means sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ and that sacrifice in us.
“Learning through suffering” was a maxim of the ancient Greeks captured in the story of Odysseus. We know this lesson as the School of Hard Knocks. Most of us have attended there. Maybe a few have graduated. Odysseus has given his name to the journey – an odyssey – a kind of epic journey in which our homeland is achieved through much struggle and much suffering. But the suffering in the journey of the odyssey of antiquity is about our ignorance; we know neither ourselves nor our place in the order of things. Like another great hero, Oedipus, we might think that we know only to discover that we do not know and that our ignorance is destruction. Indeed, we have to be blind in order to see, another paradox; in other words, the awareness of our blindness marks, perhaps, the beginning of our wisdom, at least the beginning of the journey into understanding.
The spiritual odyssey of Passiontide is all of that and far more. It is about our blindness, our not knowing, to be sure, but beyond that there is our wilful rejection of the truth and the goodness of God. Our evil is a far more deadly force than the mere ignorance of the principles that govern and order reality; we reject God. Our desires are to have the world and God serve us; in other words, to be God ourselves. Such is the danger of ambition untempered by humility.
The gospel story hints at the problem ever so gently. “Ye know not what ye ask,” Jesus says to the mother of the sons of Zebedee. She seeks a place of prestige and prominence for her sons. What parent does not want the very best for their children? But what is that very best? Admission to Harvard, to M.I.T.? A secure job? A happy and fulfilling marriage? Two and a half (or is it one and a half?) children? Bishop of Nova Scotia? Prime Minister? Emperor of the New World Order? Do we know what is best and what is to be wanted? And is it not often, if not always, at the expense of others? The raising up of some through the putting down of others suggests the presumption of superiority, the exercise of dominion, and can only excite envy and indignation as we see in the Gospel. In short; we either want to be the Lord or, at the very least, we want to lord it over others.
Is the answer to let others lord it over us? Should we passively give in to the tyranny of mediocrity in a typically Canadian way? Should we meekly submit to the tyranny of brutal dictatorships that hold the world at bay? Should we allow ourselves to be defined by the tyranny of our own desires as shaped by the market? Should we simply acquiesce at the misuse and abuse of authority in the institutions of church, government, school, business and family? Is this what service means?
No. For such things are really about a spirit of fatalism. And as the word suggests, fatalism is fatal, fatal to the freedom and dignity of our humanity. Our fatalism denies our rational will and sense of responsibility. It denies the freedom of our service to God.
Our service to one another must be first and foremost our service to God, in other words, honouring God in whom we honour the dignity and truth of one another expressed in the moral and spiritual principles that govern our institutions. It means holding authorities accountable and ourselves accountable to those principles. We cannot submit to tyranny in any of its forms without abnegating our own spiritual responsibilities. There is, of course, the constant and difficult struggle to learn again the moral and spiritual principles that shape our social, political, economic and religious lives. But there is as well the sacrifice of ourselves to those principles. In other words, commitment is required. Such is the service that has sacrifice in it. What do you will?
Alongside the traditions of the Odyssey there are the disciplines of the Exodus. The Exodus is not only the name of the second book of the Scriptures; it also signals the spiritual nature of our pilgrimage. The Exodus is the going forth of Israel out of the tyranny of Egyptian domination. Even more the Exodus is the going forth of Israel into the will of God objectively and completely given in the form of the Law for all humanity. The Law as succinctly and comprehensively expressed in the Ten Commandments is the universal moral code for all humanity. We may learn it through the odyssey of suffering, by the long hard process of discovery, as it were, or we can take hold of it as it is objectively presented to us in those tablets of stone so that it can live in our hearts, as rehearsed this morning in the liturgy. It is not by accident that in the weekday offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in Lent we read from The Book of Exodus, and that on Passion Sunday, at Morning and Evening Prayer, we read from Exodus, too. Exodus reminds us that the defining pilgrimage of our lives is to God and with God, something which is concentrated for us on the way of the Cross.
The greater Exodus is the Exodus of the Son. It is about his going to the Father – his entering into the holy place of the Father’s will – but only through the wilderness of our rejections of God’s will. It is the meaning of Passiontide. He is “the mediator of the new covenant,” the covenant of the law perfected in love, as the lesson from Hebrews suggests. We confront the contradiction of our wills and desires – the inescapable reality of our own sinfulness, but even more we contemplate the mystery of God’s love.
The veiled cross reminds us of our double blindness. We are blind to the reality of our own sins and we are blind to the reality of God’s love. The project of Passiontide is the Exodus of the Son and our going with him into the will of the Father. Left to ourselves there can be no journey, only the limitations of our knowing and the frustrations of our failures. But in the Exodus of the Son we find the grace of salvation. We are given the opportunity to enter into his service and sacrifice and to will it in our lives. What wilt thou? Not what do you want simply, but what will you will?
“What wilt thou?”
Fr. David Curry
Passion Sunday ’10