Canon Douglas Pratt
Isaiah 43: 16 – 21
16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ* and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Pressing towards the Goal
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;* but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved,* I do not consider that I have made it my own;* but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly* call of God in Christ Jesus.
John 12: 1 – 8
Mary Anoints Jesus
12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
The Passion of Christ, the Redeemer
The Anglican Franciscan Prayer book – The Daily Office SSF – has within it a prayer of St Francis which is said regularly by way of a preface to the daily prayers and services:
We adore you most holy Lord Jesus Christ
Here and in all your Churches throughout the world
And we bless you because, by your holy cross,
You have redeemed the world.
I like this prayer. It is a reminder of the wider and deeper vision of Christ’s Passion. Easter is not simply, or only, a matter of what God did in Christ being of benefit to you and me as individuals; it affirms the belief that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ has to do with community, with society, with nations, indeed with the whole inhabited earth: ‘by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world’.
Today is Passion Sunday. It begins the last two weeks of Lent which bring into focus the Passion of Christ. We might know that phrase more from the Mel Gibson splatter movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’. Gibson focussed upon the visceral physical suffering of Jesus, highlighting it as the essence of God’s saving grace which, if one is prepared to believe and accept at a personal level, brings admittance to paradise.
This is the narrow evangelical appeal: Jesus bore suffering and pain – he truly felt it – in order that we needn’t; and further, in doing so for you and I as individuals, the least we can do is respond in faith – for if no one believes, his suffering would be in vain.
But this throws the weight and significance of salvation on the response of the believer; surely there is something about the passion of Christ which has to do more than with what you and I think about it in relation to our own lives, important though that may be.
The clue lies in the Franciscan prayer, and in thinking a bit more about this word ‘passion’ which, theologically, refers strictly to the redemptive suffering of Jesus in his final days.
‘Passion’ and being ‘passionate’ about something – anything – is a much over-used and abused term these days. But it does highlight the element of feeling, of deeply resonant intention and commitment that registers physiologically and not just as a mental or intellectual idea. The biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, suggests an undergirding divine ‘passion’ for creation: God is committed to it and acts intentionally, not capriciously. To that extent we might say the passion of Christ is indeed the passion of God.
Our prayers often presume, sometimes a bit crudely, that we can invoke God’s sympathy – the divine ‘feeling for’ – in respect of whatever petition or intercession we are making, in the hope that God will act in accord with His sympathetic response. Indeed, there are biblical narratives that speak of God changing God’s mind as a result of intercessory appeal.
The early Church, however, came to view God as beyond any form of feeling – of suffering, or ‘passion’ in any visceral sense – for God is without physical body. There is nothing visceral about God; certainly not God the Father; that dimension belongs, at best, to God the Son. On such a distinction we see the beginnings of the distinctive Christian trinitarian understanding of the being of God.
Ascribing feeling in this physical sense to God the Father – known as ‘Patripassianism’ – was deemed a heresy: suffering, pain, feeling, and the passions belong to the realm of humanity, not divinity. Jesus, as a man, as human, suffered; not God, or the divine, as such. Such views rather reflect the imprint of dualistic Greek philosophical thought and metaphysical presuppositions in the development of Christian ideas and interpretations of the biblical narratives. They can be, and are, challenged today for we have a worldview very different from that of the early church; but that is another matter.
Alongside ‘redeemer’ another term for Jesus, the Christ, is ‘saviour’, taken as equivalent to the word ‘Messiah’ which names the Jewish understanding of whom God will send to effect salvation. The Greek translation of ‘messiah’, Christos, gives rise to the naming of Jesus as ‘the Christ’ and so eventually ‘Jesus Christ’.
But if the function of saviour is deemed pre-eminent, it is not the sole function. Jesus was also a teacher (so the title Rabbi) and bears witness to – and is indeed himself an exemplar of – the ways of God (so he was given the title Son of God which occurred before the development of the trinitarian notion of ‘sonship’).
Together with the activities and events that befell him according to the passion narratives of the gospels – betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection – Jesus, the Christ, may also be regarded as the active agent of the Divine Will (thus the title or ascription Word or Logos of God). John’s gospel in particular makes use of this idea and terminology: Christ is the Word / Logos, in and from the beginning of creation.
In subsequent developments of Christian understanding, these multiple terms and functions ascribed to Jesus, the man, became suggestive of the ‘divine’ being somehow inherent to him. This is the realm of Christology – the Christian doctrine concerning the person and work of Jesus, the Christ.
On the whole Christian belief has been that, among other things, it is by virtue of the passion – the suffering and death – of Christ that human beings may be saved; reconciled to God; restored to full and whole relationship. And to this is the eschatological (end-time) belief that the divine intervention effected by Christ ‘saves’ the believer from the day of judgement and offers, thereby, the assurance of paradise. However, such an act of gracious intervention of divine mercy could only be brought about and sanctioned by God Himself. No mere mortal could grant or effect salvation for humankind: therefore Jesus, as the ‘Christ’, could not be merely human, but must also, in some proper sense, be God.
The key issue was that, if it is only the humanity that suffered and died on the cross, it would appear that salvation is owed to a human being, not to God. So there eventually emerged an insistence on Christ’s oneness in every respect: one person, one particular individual, human and divine together. So we affirm Christ as true God from true God; fully human and fully divine. Conversely, it can be said that it was truly God who suffered the pain of the cross. And so we affirm that in and through Christ, God has redeemed world.
The redemptive effect of Easter, the passion of Christ, is prefigured by Isaiah: ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ and finds resonance in Paul’s deep commitment to the way of Christ, even to the ‘sharing of his sufferings’ as the salvific route to his own resurrection. And resurrection is not a matter of physical return from the dead, as happened to Lazarus. That was physical resuscitation and is ever only temporary: human mortality is a steady 100%.
But let us return to the Franciscan prayer and the affirmation of redemption as something more than personal salvation. What might this mean? The biblical foundation of redemption is seen in the Deuteronomic Shema, reaffirmed by Jesus himself: Love God; Love neighbour. If the Easter Passion is the witness of God’s love for humanity, for the world, the response is not merely to believe but to act – to love God, actively. How might we do this? The clue lies in the biblical record – the Prophets’ advocacy of the ways of justice, compassion, and mercy; Jesus’ teachings in respect of acts of charity, kindness; the acceptance and nurture of those at the margins, the victims of this world’s many follies.
Redemption, like salvation, is a continuing process, even though it has been ushered in by the events of some 2000 and more years ago, events we mark and commemorate year-by-year.
The meaning of the suffering and death of Christ has to do with community, with society, with nations, indeed with the whole inhabited earth: ‘by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world’. The Passion of Christ was real yesterday; it is real today, and will be so tomorrow. The redemption of God is past, present and future. And we may properly allow ourselves to be passionate about that.