MOMENTS OF PASSION

FAITH IN FOCUS: MOMENTS OF PASSION

Strangely enough, the events of that first Holy Week, when Jesus was led through suffering to a brutal execution on the cross, are a cause for rejoicing. For we glory in Christ’s death and resurrection since they have set us free and saved us from ultimate oblivion and meaningless.

What God accepted willingly, he accepted for me. But the passion and death of Jesus are not magic. We don’t simply look back at history, recall the awful events and then say all’s well with the world. The Calvary event is not some sort of magic moment with golden dust that has floated down to today. It’s an invitation to join in with the daily passion we see on our streets. It’s all about now and how we react to our own and other people’s distress.

As our TV screens show horrific images of people who are famished, war-torn or denied human rights, what do we do? Do we join the crowd with their “hosannas” or do we offer to lift the burden of the cross? When given the chance to sell out on our principles do we take the hard road or go for the 30 pieces of silver? Are we good at proffering a kiss in public but a knife in the back? Who’s being crucified on our streets this week and how are we responding?

The passion is not magic. It does not offer instant salvation. It has to be shared to have its effect. We can sing all the hymns in Christendom, carry all the palms we can get our hands on, even ride in procession on a donkey. But it’s pure idolatry if we don’t pledge to unite ourselves to the passion of Christ in a real way. We need to make up in our own bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Christ’s suffering was not imperfect, but it calls out to us to be imitated, to find completion in our own embrace.

The way we accept suffering and the way we react to the suffering of others is the key to the passion. We can embrace the cross as something which can enrich us, or we can run in fear from pain. We can rush to the aid of our neighbour, or show a crucifying indifference to the suffering of others.

Our choice will either diminish or ennoble us.

 

BROKEN

FAITH IN FOCUS: BROKEN

People face brokenness on all sorts of levels. They feel devastated when their marriage breaks up. Children sense insecurity when they end up in a broken home. Death and separation, sickness and pain all make people realise that the wholeness they once experienced has been lost. For others it’s about their children rejecting what they believe about God. Yet others feel broken when they are sacked, when their love life collapses or when something they long enjoyed is denied to them. It can be hard to face the future and we end up wondering why it is happening to us.

Today’s gospel confronts these situations and tells us in Jesus’s words that unless we are prepared to let go of some things we will never experience the true and deep joy of what life is all about. “Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”

All of us are broken in one way or another. Sometimes this brokenness is part of our basic personality and sometimes it’s the result of external circumstances. Pretending that we are not broken does us no good, and it’s the way we deal with our brokenness that produces something positive or just leaves us defective.

Brokenness can actually make us whole because it is an important ingredient in maturity. Realising our limitations enables us to rely not simply on our own strengths but on the power of God. Many people who go through traumatic experiences find they are now closer to God than they were previously.

St Paul speaks about being at his strongest when he recognises his weakness. This is because brokenness empowers; it is a process of surrender of mind and heart to God. It forces us to admit that any goodness or potential we might possess is really God’s. And, perhaps more importantly, it allows us to identify with the rest of our fellow human beings. It lets us realise our lowliness in the face of God and it teaches us about our dependence, for we know that our greatest triumphs are really small when compared with what God can do.

The paradox is that in Jesus God allowed himself to be broken. By letting his Father use him on Calvary Christ was able to bring life to the world. We too, as grains of wheat, have to be prepared not to live out a pretence but to be broken so that our brokenness can germinate into a rich harvest for others. For our brokenness connects us to Christ.

And Christ is God.

 

FACE TO FACE WITH THE SERPENT

FAITH IN FOCUS: FACE TO FACE WITH THE SERPENT

When they were wandering in the desert, the Israelites began to get fed up. They lost faith in God’s promise of a land of milk and honey, and when Moses went off they began cursing God for being so slow to help them. They were afflicted with a plague of snakes that packed a deadly bite.

When Moses found out about it he had a bronze serpent made and anyone who had been bitten had to look at the serpent lifted up on high. If they did this they were saved.

What Moses was doing was making them look at a symbol of their own sin. When theysaw the bronze snake they remembered and acknowledged their sinfulness. Of course, it’s not a pleasant thing to look at one’s own sinfulness. We find it hard to do for more than a moment or so. That’s because we are reminded of the hurt that our sin causes, and of the gap between the way we act and the way we like to think of ourselves as being.

It’s hard to face the serpent within us. Yet the simple truth is that all God demands of us is that we look deep into our own hearts and recognise our need for change. This is the message of our six-week season of Lent. And we have to be prepared to shed light in the darkest corners of our lives if we are to allow God to take what is rotten and breathe fresh life into it.

If it all depended on us, then we would be lost indeed. Yet the paradox of Christianity is that when we confess our guilt we are saved not by our own efforts but by the grace of God. What sets us right in God’s sight is Jesus’s death on Calvary, not our penitential practices.

And it doesn’t take a genius to notice that when Christ is lifted up on the cross, like the bronze serpent was in the desert, we are reminded of our sin. Christ died so that those who are baptised in him might themselves die to sin and rise to a new form of life. By following his example we can end the long reign of sin in our lives and once again be made whole.

 

 

CLEARING THE DECKS

FAITH IN FOCUS: CLEARING THE DECKS

Christian writers tend to see the episode when Jesus overturned the Temple traders’ tables as a sign of the human side of Jesus. He was genuinely angry and lashed out at those who were abusing the real purpose of the Temple.

One such writer, Origen, points out that each one of us has to allow our own tables to be overturned if we are to worship God in spirit and in truth. And Lent is the time for clearing the decks of those obstacles that prevent us from serving God to the best of our ability.

If we’re honest then we’ll admit that there are many things that get in the way of our spiritual life. We know how we’d like to be, but we never seem to get round to it. It’s not that we’re headline sinners. It’s just that we tend to drift. Perhaps we need to allow Jesus to overturn the tables of our lives and to chase out what is getting in the way.

Origen points out that the cattle in the Temple represent attachment to earthly things, since they require constant husbandry and need looking after at all times. The sheep symbolise the senseless way in which we act, wandering without rhyme or reason. The doves conjure up images of empty and unstable thoughts, or flightiness, while the coins of the moneychangers portray all that we strive for but which brings us no good.

Jesus says that for true worship to happen in the Temple all these things need to be cleared out. And the same is true of our lives.

Lent gives us the chance to reset our sense of values, to ask ourselves whether all the effort we put into getting and having, into consuming and spending, into keeping up appearances is really doing us any good. And St Paul hints that if we go with the flow then we are probably missing the boat. For what God asks of us seems foolish to those who do not believe. 

Whereas, in fact, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.