Sermon for Tuesday in Holy Weekadmin | 19 April 2011
“What mean ye by this service?”
This question, which frames our reflections during Holy Week, takes on a disturbing quality of intensity on Tuesday in Holy Week. Why? Because it is not a pretty picture of ourselves at all. What is our service in the continuation of the Passion according to St. Mark? Well, it is simply more and more of the ugly spectacle of betrayal and hatred, of mockery and violence.
“What mean ye by this service?” What we see and hear is Pontius Pilate’s unwilling and unjust surrender of Jesus to the will of the crowd, being “willing to content the people.” That is itself an indictment of human justice. What we see and hear is the motivating principle that places Jesus in our hands. It is the “envy” of the Chief Priests. Envy is the most destructive of all the deadly sins. And the most ugly. It is about hatred. That theme, too, is more than amply explored in the First Lesson for Evening Prayer from the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon and then even more directly stated in the Second Lesson from the Gospel according to St. John. “He who hates me hates my Father also.”
And that is all part of the spectacle of this holy week. What is on display is the human capacity to hate the good or to be more specific and more horrific, to hate God. Ultimately, our hatred of God is what is visited upon Jesus. This is the darkness at the heart of the Passion.
We see a sequence of scenes through Mark’s eyes. First, there is Pilate’s abdication of justice; freeing the murderer Barabbas and giving Christ into the hands of his persecutors full knowing his innocence. Those who cried “Hosanna,” now cry “crucify” and with an ugly intensity. Secondly, there is the mockery of Jesus by the soldiers of Pilate as if drawing upon the blood-lust of what are simply and telling called “the people.” Thirdly, there is Simon the Cyrenian whom “they compel … to bear his cross.” There is everything in the verb, compel. Force and coercion; in short, violence is everywhere in the story of the Passion on our part.
At the heart of the Continuation of the Passion according to St. Mark is the hideous and yet poignant spectacle of the crucifixion itself with the repeated irony of the superscription. Jesus has been constantly referred to by Pilate as “the King of the Jews.” An ironic title, it captures so many of the ambiguities of power for ancient Israel at the same time as it expresses a deep truth about Jesus. But even in the face of the crucified, there is the further spectacle of dismissive mockery. Jesus is reviled by those who “were crucified with him.”
All in all it is not a pretty picture. Two things are on display here. The ultimate picture of human hatred and sin and the absolute picture of divine love and compassion. There is only one word from the Crucified in Mark’s account (and Matthew’s, too), and that is the cry of dereliction and abandonment. And yet, that, too, is actually a prayer. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
“What mean ye by this service?” On the one hand, human perfidy, hatred and violence; on the other hand, Christ’s willingness to bear the full brunt and force of our abandonment of God and our dereliction of truth and justice. Just so are we allowed to see the true nature of human sin. Each and every sin is captured in the story of the Crucified. Each and every sin is about our abandonment of God. Each and every sin is about the folly of trying to do away with God. And Christ Crucified feels acutely that sin and folly and voices it completely in a prayer that, at least, addresses God.
The full force of our human violence, the violence of evil, is heard in this solitary word from the cross. It is a prayer, though, that is addressed to God, and not to the Father. It is simply directed to God. That is powerful. Why? Because it belongs to the question of the Passover. “What mean ye by this service?” We are meant to see ourselves in all of the sorry spectacle of our disorders, confusions and disarray; even more, in the full horror of human sinfulness so graphically captured in the hideous spectacle of Christ Crucified. But more than ourselves, we are meant to see Christ in the full agony of the Cross and, yet, in prayer to God. And in seeing that it may be possible, just possible by the grace of Christ, to proclaim as the Centurion proclaims, “truly this man was the son of God.” And then, and only then, shall we have learned something.
“What mean ye by this service?”
Fr. David Curry
Tuesday in Holy Week, 2011