The Shape of Holy Week: a journey to Easter
by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p.
The best laid plans, as they say. When I started thinking about this talk, I chose as a title - and it was me that did it, I can’t blame anyone else – “the Shape of Holy Week”. What I was planning to do was to provide a kind of sketch of what happens in Holy Week, what we do in Church which is different during these days that are about to begin, and, in that context, provide a few, inevitably very inadequate thoughts that might, if you find any of them at all helpful, be the starting point for reflection between now and Easter on the great mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection at the heart of our faith. I’m still hoping to try to do that.
But, the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that there is something rather odd about talking about the shape of Holy Week at all. Because talking of anything having a shape suggests something neat, tidy, orderly, whereas in fact, I want to suggest, this week, and what it commemorates year by year, pulls everything out of shape, and makes, in quite a profound sense, a mess of our orderly lives. It makes us – or I think it should make us - question our familiar certainties, leading us to see the familiar with new eyes, leaving us, sometimes, frankly perplexed, not quite certain how we should react, reminding us that we’re not in charge of history, and thank goodness, because if we were we would doubtless have done things very differently, more comprehensibly. If Holy Week has a shape, then, it’s quite a strange one, the shape of a week like no other.
Everything about Holy Week has this unsettling kind of quality, once we start to think about it. The very movable date of Easter itself, for instance: it would be so much more rational, wouldn’t it, so much neater and tidier, if it was the same time every year, whereas the annual interruption of our agendas by a feast whose timing is dictated by something as far beyond our control as the phases of the moon – that speaks of something bigger than we can either understand or master breaking in upon our lives, disrupting our careful forward planning.
The timetable, too, of our Passiontide liturgies, turning our regular routines inside out so that we are in Church on a Friday afternoon when we might normally be at work or picking up children from school; late on a Saturday evening, or – in the case of the Cambridge university chaplaincy - eye-wateringly early on a Sunday morning when we might normally be, and sometimes if we’re honest, would rather be in bed. All of this, if we have the opportunity to participate fully in the week’s liturgy, can play havoc with our internal body clock, so that we can be almost literally unsure if we’re coming or going, so disoriented, what with the lack of sleep and the eating at strange times, that we’re confused about whether it is day or night.
And that, I think, as we’ll see a little later, is entirely fitting. And then there is the way that the familiar shapes inside our churches shift, when, towards the end of Lent, cloths are thrown over holy images, forming eerie huddles of purple where we are used to seeing pictures and statues. There can be something particularly disturbing about that, too. At the very time of the year when, perhaps, we are making most effort to follow Christ more closely, he recedes from our view, literally. Our brothers and sisters the saints disappear too, reminding us, perhaps, that, when we cannot see the Lord clearly, it is also difficult to see ourselves as we are meant to be. All of that, too, is part of the confusion, the shape-less-ness if I can put it like that, of Holy Week.
It’s appropriate, I think, that Holy Week, for all the complexity and added solemnity of our Church rituals at this time of the year has this kind of untameable, uncomfortable, not quite manageable character, because the central events that we commemorate this week have just that quality too. The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus both pull things out of shape. The death of a loved one always does that, of course; that’s why there’s something so touching, because so very recognisable, about the disciples going fishing in the days after the first Good Friday, desperately trying to bring some kind of familiar order out of the chaos of their bereavement. And the Resurrection is like a kind of explosion of the energy of the love of God after which nothing will ever look the same again, which is perhaps why, for all their luminous beauty, the descriptions of the Risen Christ and his disciples meeting with him are such an odd mixture of the familiar and the strange – barbecues on beaches and walking through walls: nothing like this has ever happened before, and it’s almost impossible to express, even in divinely inspired human words.
And so, alongside the image of the shape of Holy Week, I’m going to suggest that we think in terms of a journey: a journey through the landscape of Holy Week, a strange, sometimes disturbing pathway through difficult terrain but one that leads ultimately to our true homeland.
The last week of Jesus’ earthly life sees him constantly on the move, and his disciples with him – from the exhilarating entry into Jerusalem that we will be commemorating tomorrow, to the crowding into the upper room to eat the Passover, the procession to the Mount of Olives, the trailing behind the prisoner bundled murkily from here to there in the middle of the night, the grotesque forced march to Calvary. And behind and beyond all this bustle and agitation, another, stranger, deeper journey: Our Lord’s journey through the suffering of the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection, a journey that Luke the Evangelist calls his Exodus, as Jesus goes out on his way from death to deathless life as the People of God are brought by God through the Red Sea to the Promised Land.
It is therefore very appropriate, that the Church’s liturgy at this time of year is also especially full of movement: think of the Palm Sunday procession, the following the blessed sacrament to the altar of repose on Maundy Thursday, the walking in line to venerate the cross on Good Friday, maybe the stations of the cross or in some places an ecumenical walk of witness.
What I propose to do now is to set off in imagination on this journey through Holy Week, making a few stops en route to contemplate the scenery. But, having spoken about shapelessness, things not being neat and tidy, it won’t perhaps surprise you to hear that I’m not going to start at the very beginning – even if it a very good place to start – or even begin at the end and work backwards. I’m going to start instead somewhere near the middle, with Holy Thursday, then dare to try to say a little about Good Friday and Easter, before ending up where we shall begin liturgically tomorrow, with Palm Sunday. I hope the reasons for this itinerary will become clearer as we go along.
Why is this night different from all others? That question is not from the Catholic liturgy, of course, but, as many of you will recognise, from the Jewish liturgy for Passover. And Passover, of course, coincides almost exactly with Easter: the last supper is a Passover meal. Jesus gathers with his disciples to call to mind, in a sense to relive, as observant Jews do to this day, the night when God led his people from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea, into the Promised Land. One of the most important ways into thinking about Holy Week is as our Christian Passover, when we are led into the promised land of the Resurrection, and that’s a thought we’ll come back to more than once this morning.
So this is a question that is asked around the table in Jewish homes around the world about this time: this year, in fact, on our Holy Saturday, March 31st. But it’s a helpful question for us to ask, too, as we come to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday. Why is this night, why is this Mass different from all others? Isn’t every Mass the Mass of the Lord’s Supper? After all, at every Mass the priest repeats Jesus’ words over the bread and wine in the Upper Room on that night in Passover time, in obedience to the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me”. That is true, of course, but there are, nevertheless some differences.
The first of them seems, at first sight just a very minor departure from what we hear every time we come to Mass. On Holy Thursday, three little words are added to the Eucharistic prayer. We are told not just that it was “on the night he was betrayed” but – “on the night he was betrayed – that is, tonight” “that Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it. An apparently tiny addition, but those three little words are immensely important, if we think about them, for two reasons.
These words “that is, tonight”, tell us, first of all, that this supper at which Jesus gave this command really took place at a definite point in time in the past, a point that can be dated: as the creed tells us, Jesus is to suffer the next day “under Pontius Pilate”, at a particular moment in the history of the Roman Empire, in a particular province of that empire, on a particular evening in April nearly 2000 years ago. We are here on Holy Thursday to celebrate at least the approximate anniversary of the last supper. This is about something real, then, something flesh and blood, something that actually happened. Jesus, in his life and death gives us, as the first letter of St Peter puts it, “an example that we should follow in his steps.” But, of course, we can draw examples from many places, find role models in fictional characters as well as real ones, seek inspiration in the great mythologies of the world for how to live and die. And some of those mythologies have surprising echoes, surprising points of contact with the Gospel story. In particular, the idea of a God dying and rising to life, and in his rising renewing all of creation is present in many religious traditions. The three little words “that is, tonight” stress that, Christianity, with the Passion of Jesus at its heart and centre, is the true story to which all the other stories humanity has told itself in an effort to bestow meaning on both the joys and sorrows of life points.
We can think, then, of Mass on Holy Thursday as a kind of anniversary of the Last Supper, but it’s also important to see that it is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper. No Mass is that. Rather, the Last Supper was the first Mass. And at every subsequent Mass Christ is as present as he was on that occasion in the Upper Room. Because “on the night he was betrayed, that is tonight”: we’re dealing here with a past event, but not one that stays decently dead and buried, as we might say, in the past, because the real historical figure at its heart does not stay dead and buried. That, after all, is the point of our being here at all today, preparing for our journey through Holy Week, a week which would have no purpose at all if it didn’t end with Easter and resurrection. Jesus, the real Jesus who really took bread and really broke it and made it into this body and told us to do this in remembrance of him is alive, still with us as he promised, as present as he was with the twelve in the Upper Room. Although he is a historical figure, then, as historical a figure as Henry VIII or Julius Caesar, he is also our contemporary, as close to us as we are to each other. And that, in fact, is what his command to “do this is memory of me” means. Jesus is not saying, do this and as you do it think about the past, as we might think about the suffering and heroism of war when we watch public figures laying wreaths at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Rather, do this and come into my living presence, do this and recall that I am with you until the end of time. But because the one who gives this command, and makes this promise, did live a real human life, journeying from birth to death as we all must, it’s possible to concentrate on different aspects of that life at different Masses. And this accounts for the other distinctive features of the Holy Thursday Eucharist, the reason why this Mass is “different from all other Masses”.
The first, and perhaps most striking difference, of course, is that, whilst at every Mass we recall explicitly one thing that happened at the Last Supper, the words of Jesus over the bread and the cup, only on Holy Thursday do we allude to another prominent feature of that memorable meal: Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. It is this, of course, that gives the day its traditional English name of “Maundy” or Commandment Thursday, from the Latin mandatum Jesus gives his disciples, gives us, therefore, a new commandment, to act towards each other with the love he has just demonstrated. Love one another as I have loved you. To love as Jesus loves is, of course, a daunting prospect: greater love has no one than this, he will go on to tell the disciples, than that a man lay down his life for his friends. And, the following afternoon, of course, he will practice what he is preaching here, as has the white robed army of martyrs who shed their blood for Christ throughout history. Daunting indeed. But God does not ask the impossible of his friends, and the incident of the washing of feet, whilst it certainly provides us with a challenge, is I think also supposed to be consoling. In the first place, the very fact that Jesus here commands us to love is intriguing: and countercultural.
For many of our contemporaries, and perhaps sometimes for us, too, the assumption is that love is something that either happens to us, if we are beautiful, successful, attractive, or it does not, if we are graceless, hopeless, losers. If love is construed as above all a matter of feeling, of sentiment, of course, that might be a reasonable way of thinking. You can’t tell me to find someone appealing who repels me, you can’t tell anyone else to have warm feelings towards me if they want to run a mile when they see me coming. But, then you cannot tell people how to feel at all – not even God can do that. And it is not what Jesus is doing here. He is telling his disciples, telling us, not how to feel, but how to act, how to perform basic acts of service one for another, however we feel – and, again, practising what he preaches. If I, your Lord and master have washed your feet…We can all do this. And we can do it in the most humdrum circumstances and the simplest of ways. Some years ago, a student at Fisher House, frustrated by the mess made by her friends in the common kitchen printed out from the internet an old master painting of the foot-washing at the last supper, and pinned it up above the sink with a large arrow pointing to the festering pile of washing up, with the caption: “if He did THAT for you, you can do THIS for him”. And so we all can.
And that shouldn’t be a stick to beat ourselves with, but a source of comfort. We do not all have to do great things, but, in the well-known words of St Therese of Lisieux, we are all called to do little things with great love.
But perhaps that doesn’t seem especially comforting, precisely because we are unsure if we are capable of love at all. We can do the little things, all right: we can do the washing up, cook the dinner, perform our professional tasks competently enough, but what if we do it all, not with love, but with resentment and lack of enthusiasm? Surely that doesn’t count as following in the Lord’s footsteps? Here, I think, is the second way in which the sight of Jesus bending to wash the disciples’ feet, which we recall liturgically every Maundy Thursday, is truly consoling, because, in fact, Jesus bending to wash the disciples’ feet is, in an important sense, not a little thing at all.
The Old Testament contains rubrics for worship in the Jerusalem temple, directing that no one should approach the most sacred places there with dirty feet, and nor should anyone come into the presence of the King of Israel with feet unwashed. Rabbis writing around the time of Jesus speak of foot washing as so intimate an act that it should only be performed by a wife for her husband. There is something almost literally incredible then, in the humility and intimacy of Jesus, our King and our God stooping to wash the feet of his disciples, and we can be sure that he wants just this kind of humble and intimate contact with us, too. Such a King, such a God is not out to set traps for us, not out to try to show up our puny efforts to love as inadequate, not good enough. Rather, he himself will give us the grace, the strength, with which to love. We love because he first loved us, not in the sense of grimly fulfilling a duty, or paying a debt, but because his love empowers us to love in return. That is the only way, the only spirit, in which to keep the new commandment.
The last way in which this Mass, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, is different from all other Masses happens at the end when, after all have received Holy Communion, we follow the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, and, if we can, stay a while there in prayer. The symbolism here is rich and obvious: we sing as we go, as Jesus and his friends sang on the way to the Garden; we watch beside the tabernacle as Peter, James and John accompanied the Lord in his agony: and, yes, we too may find ourselves drifting off to sleep as we do so, and if that happens we shouldn’t worry: the Lord still knows that the spirit is willing even when the flesh is weak. But there’s one another aspect to all of this that we might easily miss. We have been thinking about how the Last Supper is a Passover meal, and we’ll be thinking a little more about that later. But one of the important ways in which this Passover night is different concerns precisely this moment of going out. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, it was forbidden to leave the city on the night of the Passover: the city limits symbolising God’s protecting care for his chosen people, and the Kedron
Brook, beyond which lay Gethsemane, marking that boundary. Jesus, therefore, in going to the Garden, and taking his disciples there with him, is issuing a very profound challenge to us which we can reflect on as we too “go out” from the altar in church to the altar of repose in the church hall or wherever it is set up in our parish. We are moving with Jesus beyond the boundary of the safe, the familiar, pledging ourselves to bring his love, his light, his power into the lives of those we meet who might never come to church to seek him out, because they do not know how to name their need for love, and light and power as a need for Christ. And that, if we are short of things to pray for during the Maundy Thursday Watch might, perhaps, give us some inspiration.
If we ask a variant of the question we began with when thinking about Holy Thursday, that question from the Passover ritual again, “why is this day different from all other days”, one answer is, of course, that uniquely in the Church’s year, it is a day without Mass. If we have the opportunity, it is possible to spend a goodly proportion of Good Friday in Church, attending Stations of the Cross, perhaps in the morning or evening; in many places – though not, sadly, as far as I’m aware, in Cambridge – participating in ecumenical acts of witness alongside Christians from other traditions in the course of the day, being, above all, at the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion in the afternoon. But – no Mass. Holy Communion, yes: the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion ends with our receiving the body of the Lord given for us on Calvary, but communion is given on this day from what was consecrated the night before at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
And, at first sight, this seems rather odd. After all, as I was suggesting a few minutes ago, the Mass is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper, rather, the Last Supper was the First Mass, and what both that Mass and every subsequent celebration of the Eucharist until the end of time makes present is, precisely Jesus’ great gift of himself to us which reaches its climax on the Cross. What better day, surely, on which to celebrate Mass then, than on the day when we particularly commemorate his dying? Why is there no Mass on Good Friday, of all days? Various answers have been given to this question in the course of the Church’s history, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even when they are different. The simplest, and the one I find most helpful goes something like this. In the first place, every Mass is a joyful celebration of Christ’s gift of himself. Though, of course there is reason on Good Friday to feel profoundly grateful for that gift, there is inevitably also a kind of mourning that is appropriate to the day, and that is marked by the absence of that great act of rejoicing that is the Mass. Nevertheless, God knows how weak we are, so he does not deprive us of himself in Holy Communion, least of all today when we are most aware, perhaps, of our need of him, most aware of our own sin and the sin of the world. So, if the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion is not a Mass, what is it? What do we do in Church on Good Friday afternoon? First, of course, we listen to, and participate in, the dramatic retelling of the story of the Passion. Secondly, we pray for the world, as Christ prayed on the Cross, and thirdly, we walk to that Cross. When we approach the Cross to venerate it on Good Friday, no one can tell us how we should react: it’s OK if gratitude, for the Lord being with us as we bear our own crosses predominates, OK if it’s penitence for the times we’ve behaved more like the disciples who forsook him and fled than like Our Lady standing with her dying Son; OK if it’s intercession for anyone we know, or anyone who has been brought to our attention who is walking the Way of the Cross today; o.k. if it’s just bafflement in the face of suffering – why do things have to be like this - so difficult, so confused and confusing, so painful? Perhaps in a way that’s best of all, because it echoes one of his own words on the Cross, spoken in all our names – ‘My God, my God, why…?’; but it’s o.k. too, if we’re too tired, or distracted, to have any clear thoughts beyond the fact that we’re hungry from keeping the fast and our knees hurt from all the genuflections we have been doing during the prayers of the faithful: we can still make an offering of that – love so amazing, so Divine demands my soul, my life, my all: and my all definitely includes aching limbs and rumbling stomach.
So then we receive communion and go home.
And so the Vigil. There is so much to say here that this will be very selective but, in a way, I think that’s appropriate. We can never hope to do more than scratch the surface of what the Resurrection means, and the Liturgy of Easter provides us with enough material for reflection on this mystery for many lifetimes. So, just a few very brief thoughts about why this night, the night of the Lord’s Passover, above all, is different from all other nights. We begin, of course, with the lighting of the new fire, and with that profoundly beautiful, profoundly simple acclamation the priest makes over the Paschal candle: Christ is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, all time belongs to him. All time, and all places. As we gather around the Paschal fire in Cambridge, or St Ives, at Fisher House or Blackfriars or OLEM (Our Lady and the English Martyrs) or St Lawrence’s, we can take a moment to be conscious of our communion with friends and family scattered throughout the world; with Christians celebrating the Lord’s Passover from death to life under the shadow of persecution, with those crushed by poverty whose hunger will not end with the close of the Lenten fast, with those in the affluent places of the world whose commitment to Christ crucified and risen proclaims the victory of life over the sterile tyranny of wealth and prestige. And we take all those places with us, all those people with us, as we follow the Paschal candle, lit from the new fire, into the Church.
There were no witnesses to the moment of the Lord’s Resurrection: Easter faith begins with an empty tomb and the risen Christ greeting his friends, but the timing and the manner of his passing from death to life is hidden from us. Why God arranged it thus we cannot know: perhaps because he willed that his children should relate to him freely in love, drawn on by a Christ going ahead of them, never quite within their grasp, rather than by being coerced by a knock-down display of divine power; perhaps simply because, as the poet T S Eliot says, humankind cannot bear very much reality. But in any case, there is something rather appropriate about the next phase of the Easter vigil in the light of this- in the light, or perhaps more accurately, in the half-light of this. Because, having lit the paschal fire, having proclaimed the light of Christ, we go into the Church, illuminated only by the pinpricks of light from the candles we hold as we listen, first of all to an ancient hymn of praise to the Easter Candle from which they have been lit, and then to a retelling of the story of our need for the salvation of Christ in up to seven readings from the Old Testament law and prophets. So, there’s a kind of ambiguity, yes, to go back to the word I started from, a kind of shapelessness here. We have proclaimed the light of Christ; we have lit the Paschal candle. It sort of feels as though Easter has started, that Christ has risen. And yet, the Church is still, basically, in darkness. The statues and images are still swathed in their Lenten purple. We are still talking about the world as it was before the coming of the Lord. The first alleluia has not yet been sung. It sort of feels as though Passiontide is still going on, as though Christ has not yet risen.
But I think there is something immensely spiritually significant and potentially fruitful about this ambiguity, this shapelessness. It does mirror the ambiguity surrounding the moment of resurrection, but it also mirrors something terribly important about our own lives. When we think of our own experiences, it is perhaps rather rarely the case that joy and sorrow, suffering and gladness are unmixed. We are at a happy family gathering, perhaps, and we remember our loved ones gone before us who are not there to share in our celebrations and the tears come. We are supporting - or being supported by - a dear friend in a time of crisis, and the sense of companionship makes us rejoice, deeply rejoice, sometimes, even in the midst of our shared pain. In our own lives too, it is not always obvious when Passiontide ends and Easter begins. And the Easter Eve waiting in darkness, not even being sure that we are still waiting, the sense of not being sure if it is night or day, all of this, I think, can reassure us that this is all right, that it is all within the providence of Christ. It is not that the dawn will not come, come definitively in our own lives, as the Resurrection surely happened, even if the moment of its happening eluded human eyes. It is just that, in the darkness, we cannot always be certain where we are, how far the night has advanced. But, of course, the darkness does give way to the dawn. After the great Exultet, the hymn of Easter praise, reassuring us again and again that this is the night, the night different from all other nights, the night of the Lord’s Passover, and after the Old Testament readings, bells are rung, startling us if we have become sleepy with waiting; the church is flooded with light; the purple drapery is pulled away; in Dominican churches we shed our black cloaks and appear in the brightness of our cleanest, shiniest white habits. And we sing, for the first time since Holy Thursday, Gloria in excelsis Deo, Glory to God in the highest. We might have been unaware of the precise moment of Christ’s rising: but he has risen. The Easter Mass has begun, and he is with us, as he is at every Mass.
If we ask again as we did when thinking about Holy Thursday, though, how is this Mass different from other Masses, the most obvious answer brings us right to the heart of why this night is different, how Easter is our Christian Passover. From the earliest times, the First Mass of Easter has been the time, above all others, for baptism. In some of the various parishes and communities where we will celebrate the Easter Vigil next weekend there will be baptisms, but everywhere there will be the opportunity for all of us to renew the promises of our own baptism, and everywhere the font, where baptisms will be performed throughout the year will be blessed. The symbolism and theology of all of this would be another talk – or series of talks - even to begin to do it justice. But for now, just one thing, perhaps, to notice: When the youngest child in a Jewish family asks that question at the Passover table: ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ the questioning ushers in the retelling of the story of the Exodus. But, as many of you will know, what is most striking about that narration is that it is in the first person. The Passover audience does not learn that their ancient ancestors followed Moses through the Red Sea: rather, it is said “we were slaves in Egypt, we were brought forth by the power of God, we have gained the Promised Land.”. In the telling of the Passover story, past and present collide. And so it is for us, because Jesus’ Passover from death to life is our Passover, too. In baptism, as a little girl in a first holy communion class once told me – with impeccable sacramental theology – we become “part of Jesus”, members, that is, limbs and organs of his body the Church. And, as St Paul tells us, when we are baptised, we are baptised into the death and resurrection of that body. Jesus brings us with him, through the waters of death to the new life of resurrection, as Moses led the people of Israel with him through the waters of the Red Sea. That has wonderful implications for the future, of course: it is on the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead that our hope of heaven is based – as again St Paul points out, if Christ is not raised from the dead, our faith is vain. But it also has wonderful and consoling implications for the present. It means that our sufferings, here and now, are the sufferings of no one less than Christ himself, part of the sacrifice that redeemed the world.
After all this, it has to be said, our experience of Easter Day Mass can sometimes be something of an anti-climax, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to admit it. We are creatures of flesh and blood, who get tired, have limited concentration spans, can only take so much of the intensity that living the liturgy of Holy Week can bring. But it’s nothing to worry about: this, after all, is why the Church in her wisdom gives us the Easter Octave, or to give it its lovely Eastern Orthodox name, “Bright Week”. We don’t have to cram all our thinking and praying about the Resurrection into an hour or so of frazzled distraction on Easter Sunday, because, liturgically, it goes on being Easter day for the whole of the next week. If we are able to get to Church during the Easter Octave it can be a wonderful opportunity to ponder in a slightly calmer, more relaxed way some of the implications of what we have just lived through in Holy Week, listening to the different gospel accounts of the Resurrection, letting it all sink in, insofar as it ever can.
So, finally, to end at the beginning: When we think about the Palm Sunday procession that we are looking forward to celebrating tomorrow, we often contrast it with the Way of the Cross, and very understandably. It is certainly good to reflect on the difference between these two journeys of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, not least as part of an examination of conscience– if it seems incredible that the same crowd could acclaim Christ as King and then just a few days later bay for his blood , can we be quite sure that our own fidelity exceeds that of the crowd, or do we have a sneaking suspicion that, when the chips are down, we are sometimes equally fickle, equally capable of deserting the Lord when it is more convenient to do so?
But there’s more to be said about the relationship between the two processions. They have more in common than meets the eye at first sight. Gregory the Great, writing in the fourth century, and considering the question why Our Lord rebuked the women of Jerusalem for the tears with which they greeted him on the way to Calvary concludes that this is because weeping is inappropriate behaviour on a victory procession. And this is a victory procession, precisely because it does not look like one, in the eyes of the world, nor, perhaps, if we are honest, in our own eyes: the way of the Cross, and what lies at its terrible end is a victory: the victory of suffering love over naked power, the victory of Christ the King over the Prince of this World whom he defeats not by superior firepower but by changing decisively the rules of engagement. The Christian tradition has always loved to describe the events of the first Holy Week using military imagery, and particularly the imagery of military parade and triumph. One of the oldest Passiontide hymns speaks of the royal banners going forward in procession to the Cross; the original Latin has the same rhythm, scholars tell us, as the marching songs of Roman legionaries, including, presumably those detailed to keep the peace in occupied Jerusalem, and deal with political prisoners during the potential flashpoint season of Passover – quite a thought if we do sing this hymn on Palm Sunday or Good Friday: we are almost literally singing from the same hymn-sheet, perhaps, as the foot-soldiers in the Imperial army accompanying the Lord on his last earthly journey. One of the oldest poems in the English language, The Dream of the Rood, pictures Jesus as a young Anglo-Saxon nobleman stripping himself for single-handed combat before doing battle on the Cross, while his comrades in arms, the disciples, look on: an early and very beautiful example of what we would today call the inculturation of the gospel story. But we are not, of course, intended to take any of this language literally. Rather, by using the vocabulary of warfare to describe the Lord’s meeting hatred and violence with forgiveness and vulnerability on the Cross, describing it, indeed, in terms of a battle in which he is victorious, the great poets of our faith suggest that we re-examine the assumption that might is inevitably right, that the bully will always win. Ultimately that assumption is a discourse of a despair, whereas the triumphal procession of Christ to Calvary is the source of all our hope. These pictures of Christ the warrior tell us that Good Friday is as much a victory as Easter Day, because it is part of the same victory, the victory that we will be celebrating throughout Eastertide yes, but, before that, throughout the coming week: the victory of the almighty life-giving love of God over every deathly thing we can throw at it.
In England, in the Middle Ages, the veneration of the Cross in which we still participate in our Good Friday liturgy was repeated again at Mass on Easter Sunday morning. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches’ Good Friday liturgy to this day, when the burial of the Lord is commemorated alleluias are sung repeatedly around his tomb - that word of praise we in the Western Church forego for the whole of Lent and Passiontide. Were our ancestors, are our Orthodox brothers and sisters, confused about the confusing shape of Holy Week? I don’t think so. I think, on the contrary, they were, they are, very right. What looks like a clash and a contradiction points to the one truth that we have been circling around again and again in our explorations this morning. The answer to the ancient Passover question: why is this night different from all other nights is that this night, the night of human sin into which Judas goes out from the supper table to betray his friend, the night of the sufferings in our own lives and in the world around us in which Jesus walks his path to Calvary, this very night is the night, in the words of the Exultet, “of which it is written, the night shall be as bright as day. Dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness”.