Monday in Holy Week: Love
—John Austin White (Canon Emeritus of St George’ Chapel, Windsor), 21 March 2016
Romans 11. 22
‘Note the kindness and the severity of God,’ (Romans 11. 22); words of St Paul in his letter to Roman Christians.
Of course, Holy Week has been celebrated in the Christian Church for many centuries. However, as you may well have noticed, the attempts we make, through our acts of worship, to restore exactly the historical course of the first ‘Holy Week’ are not much helped by the various Gospel accounts. In my view not surprisingly, there is for our purposes some confusion emerging from the writings of the Evangelists about what actually happened and many ‘silences’ which we would really love to have filled with the noise of information. But I think we cannot blame the Gospel writers, as if they were letting us down by not satisfying our needs. They had different priorities from ours and their overriding concern was to demonstrate the importance of the Passion of Christ to believers who had come to faith sometimes decades after the events had occurred and often far from the environment where they occurred.
These three days that follow Palm Sunday are, I think, a good example of our problem of recovering what happened in the first Holy Week. It would seem that Jesus spent these days in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple and talking seriously with his disciples. But after the daylight had gone it is an unresolved issue as to where Jesus then spent the evening and night of each day. However, I think the various indications in the Gospels tend to suggest that it was at Bethany, a village on the Mount of Olives, perhaps about two miles from Jerusalem itself. In that village lived the close friends of Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus, with his disciples, may have stayed with another friend, one Simon the Leper.
We live in a very prurient age when we claim rights of transparency over not only the public but also the private lives of our ‘celebrities’. The fact is that a number of the deeper and most significant parts of our human lives remain secret even from those we love the most, and in some ways even, in part, to our conscious selves. I think this ‘secrecy’ far from being unhealthy and ‘not good news’ for the media, whom we pay to pry (in that we buy the newspapers, invest in social media, and watch the television programmes),—this personal secrecy is essential for our selfhood. It is the deeply hidden treasure [see Matthew 13. 44] which we offer, usually only in small handfuls, and to our closest friends, as one of the intimacies of love; those friends whom we can trust neither to abuse the gift nor the giver; those friends who will ‘take us on trust’ knowing that there is always more in that secret treasury than they will ever gain. I once heard an old man say that throughout many years of a long marriage his wife had surprised him every day with some new insight into her character.
I would like to believe that we gather here this evening sharing a ‘Bethany-time’ together. As fellow Christians we all know that we are called to be friends, and trusting and trustworthy friends at that. We are here in the quiet intimacy of those who share with one another something of the often hidden, secret, treasure of our spiritual religious selves. I willingly confess that if anyone tries to dig into my soul to find what is there, or perhaps what is not, I become aggressively defensive and, that in part, because my ‘secret’ spiritual self seems more like a germinating plant than a static hoard and so does not benefit from brought up and examined. Like a hyacinth bulb kept in a dark cupboard you have to wait some time for the leaf tip to appear! But then, I am pretty opposed to any confrontational religious presentation (particularly made on the doorstep) that seems to be a reflection of the Spanish Inquisition, more especially that which comes with a smile ‘like the silver plate on a coffin’ [said by Irish lawyer John Philpot Curran of Sir Robert Peel] (as my Grandmother would have said) with the promise that ‘it is all done in love’.
Love is my theme for this Holy Week. I know that there is an old and weary ‘vicar’ joke that says ‘when you cannot think of anything to preach you can always preach on love!’ But that reason, I promise you, is not why I came to this topic, for to be truthful, it is a topic I might prefer to avoid, and who could blame me! I had through the letter-box recently, as perhaps you did, an advertising card from an estate agent that had on its front a large read heart and the single word Windsor! I am not unaware of modern day ‘icons’, from smiley faces to red hearts, and therefore I knew that this advertisement card suggested that I should or presumed that I did ‘love Windsor!’ But with the word which people use, often hesitatingly even today, at the beginning of a romantic relationship—‘I love you’, or is used by those who have religious faith of their relationship with the Divine—‘You shall love the Lord your God’, being otherwise used so liberally about everything from cosmetics to motor-cars and beyond, who would not be cautious to raise it as a Holy Week subject.
But I have no desire to criticise how people use the word ‘love’ today. Language has always changed and will continue to change. In fact my aim is simply to look at one aspect of love which I have named ‘Severe Love’. It appears to me from my own life experience, and what I hear of the experiences of friends, colleagues and neighbours, that love causes as much anxiety and personal suffering as it brings joy and fulfilment. Moreover, because ‘love’ under-writes the whole of the Passion story it seemed to me to be fitting to explore this ‘severe love’ in Holy Week. Christians in my life-time have, I think, too readily skipped from Palm Sunday to Easter Day because they have wanted to promote Christianity as a cheerful, hopeful even ‘certain’ faith that removes fear, anxiety, a troubled mind, and the need to take real risks. I think those of us who in any way have taken part in this re-packaging have done a great disservice to our Faith and to the genuine humanity of our neighbours. There can be no resurrection hope that does not emerge from the real knowledge of grief, injustice, fear, pain, loss and a sense of emptiness which are all part our universal human lot, as any half hour news bulletin on television will prove.
‘Note then the kindness and the severity of God,’ [Romans 11. 22] St Paul writes to the Christians in Rome. In this statement I think Paul has summed up an abiding and unresolved conflict for Christian believers. The two faces of the God of Love, that parent-creator of humankind. I say ‘unresolved’, because not only I have heard time and time again as a loving response to the suffering of a child, a young adult, or perhaps a parent in a prolonged decline, ‘How could a loving God allow this?’ And I have also often thought the same myself. That some of us still continue to believe that God loves us and with a ‘severe love’ that includes incomprehensible human suffering, a suffering not only in others but sometimes in ourselves too, is I think a significant act of faith.
I do not suppose it too fanciful to think of Jesus at Bethany, on those nights leading up to what he knew would be for him a confrontation with authority that could lead anywhere and would probably end in violence, being faced with this ‘unresolved problem.’ I have to admit that St John’s Gospel pictures Jesus as knowing exactly what was to happen to him, from Cross to Resurrection. For the writer of John’s Gospel there is no agony in the Garden only a long prayer affirming Jesus’ personal assurance and asking for the well-being of the disciples. But, as I recall one small boy once saying, (small children and elderly ladies, I have discovered, are the best theologians) ‘If Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him and that he would rise again, what’s the big deal?’ I think John, in what is probably the latest of the Gospels, had a particular reason for portraying Jesus as having ‘all knowledge’, being much motivated in presenting this portrait by the needs of his audience of second generation Christians strongly influenced by Greek pagan thinking.
If ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me.’ [Mark 15. 34, Matthew 27. 46], preserved in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke ‘Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani’, are genuine words of Jesus from the Cross, then I think we might reasonably presume that Jesus knew the experience of trying to love God despite the evidence and not because of it. It seems to me that sometimes in matters of faith we try too hard to make ourselves accept a picture of God that is an eternal smile on the face of a coffin plate! What I mean by this is that we feel that it should at all times be easy to love a God who is ever warm in embrace, forgiving to a fault, unchangingly attractive and so to engage in a form of loving relationship with God unlike any other loving relationship we have ever known!
I recall being at a clergy retreat (usually a mixed blessing) where the priest conductor told the story of a young clergyman who said to his bishop that he was finding his faith stretched to the limit by the pressures of life with a young family and the professional demands of his vocation. The Bishop said in response something like this; ‘When on a cold winter morning you come back home from a freezing church building where alone you have just said Morning Prayer alone and you find your wife in the kitchen completely distraught from the fact that one child has come out with chicken-pox, the washing machine has vomited its contents all over the floor, and the other child is flatly refusing to go to school, you should turn on your heels, go back to the Church, look at our blessed Lord on the Cross and say, ‘So you’ve put me here and what are you going to do about it!’
That is the language of severe love. Love often demands of us, as we know only too well, moments when we have to have the courage and the honesty to be confrontational. It may well be with a lover, a partner, a child, a family member, a parent or a good friend. The alternative is to lose faith with them and in them. When we are on the receiving end of such a response ourselves we need to remember the importance of expressing this deep need.
Because the love of God and neighbour is the heart of our Christian religious understanding, then faith, as I see it, is often about confrontation with our God and Father. It has to be, if the love is in anyway real on our part, and if the One we love is in any serious way real for us. In our faith we may sometimes act like frustrated adolescents shouting ‘I hate you’ when what we mean is ‘I love you and I think in this matter you are so wrong that it is tearing me apart.’
I have a suspicion that in those ‘secret’ unrecorded evenings Jesus was able, amongst his closest friends’, to share some of his anxieties of faith, to be reassured by their love, and so encouraged to live through the days ahead. I confess that that is what I need the most in my Bethany moments, the realisation that I can take ‘me-as-I-am’, with the ongoing struggle for faith that I have, to a community of friends who will not seek to resolve the insoluble but be prepared to share the journey with me.
A church, locally or nationally, that seems to be obsessed with encouraging only the ‘assured and like-minded’ is I think some distance from the original purpose of the community of the disciples of Christ....but perhaps that is my own need, overwhelming the demands made of any church to have fee-paying members in the pews and to fill the assessment tick-box with those who have been ‘saved!’
‘Note then the kindness and the severity of God.’
In nomine Domini Deus et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.