Turning into Passiontide. Is this the ‘home run’ of Lent? It may be tempting to think of Passion Sunday as light at the end of the tunnel, at least in regard to Lenten discipline, or to feelings of guilt for having in some way fallen short of the mark, as if Lent were an endurance test qualifying us all for – what?
This is the moment when it is tempting to ask what all this giving up of things is about, whether it is simply an extended self improvement exercise, or whether it presages some kind of renewal, which we all desperately need but find it hard to name.
I rarely blog about the Sunday readings, and never the upcoming one. In fact, I rarely look at the upcoming one before Thursday of that week. The preacher needs a fallow period, however short. Without a Sabbath rest between one Sunday sermon and the next, ideas either meld into each other, at the risk of repetition, or ‘crash’ due to overload.
But this coming Sunday is different. The reading (John 12: 20-33) glimpsed this Monday morning, draws us into itself, vortex-like, through its own compelling force. There is no question of waiting until Thursday to begin to contemplate it more deeply. It is already too familiar, too much with me.
Christ speaks of the glory that is to be revealed in his being ‘lifted up’ on the Cross. He speaks of all people being drawn to him in that moment. The victim’s ‘glory’ is revealed, paradoxically, as he suffers at the hands of the vicious, the vindictive and the cruel. It is profoundly disturbing, shaming to the reader, and yet compelling. The terrible paradox obliges our attention, so that not attending to it becomes a conscious and deliberate act of will, a resistance to that greater driving force.
How can such degradation sit easily with the idea of ‘glory’ and what can such an implausible revelation of glory, through torture and death, have to do with us and with the whole concept of ‘redemption’? Redemption from what? we ask ourselves. Should we try to domesticate these terms, in order to better understand them perhaps? Or should we do the opposite, categorize them as ‘mystery’ and then move on, untouched, uncomprehending.
This coming Sunday, the gospel coincides with another kind of glory, all too apparent in our world, the glory and competing drive for power between nations. I try to make sense of the glory spoken of in the gospel in the context of the latest parade of nuclear ballistic missiles in Pyongyang and of the rhetoric of Trump, which seems to change from one day to the next. Military strength, volatile exchanges between enemies and among their supporters create their own vortex of fear, their own compelling force.
Viewed against the backdrop of world events, the contrast is such that it makes the glory of Christ seem irrelevant. What can the glory that is ostensibly displayed in abject failure and humiliation possibly have to do with the events of today, or with our difficult and fear driven lives?
But ‘irrelevance’ is perhaps where the whole discussion about redemption and glory needs to begin. After all, for many people the Christian story, and the Church itself, are indeed ‘irrelevant’ – until we sense some unnameable force at work in the story and in the Church when it lives as it should, as the Body of Christ. In the life of the Church there abides a force which overwhelms evil.
Perhaps all this is a little too abstract. It seems to bear no relation to our lives. Perhaps it is indeed ‘irrelevant’. But to whom shall we turn in our fear and despair? In reflecting on this question, it seems we are left with no choice but to return to the ravaged figure dragging the instrument of his own execution through crowded streets, the enduring and ultimate image of failure and disgrace.
Salvation is another word which it is difficult to make sense of, especially in the context of the glory which is the weakness and failure depicted in Christ’s Passion. For certain powerful leaders, salvation is only really effected in the finality of ultimate victory achieved through sheer force. On an international stage, this means enough military strength for whoever wants the ultimate glory to have the last word, even if ultimate glory spells ultimate destruction for the rest of us.
Readers of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker will have a sense of how the world might yet feel 2,500 years after this ‘glory’ has been won by one or other nuclear superpower. What seems to endure though, in Hoban’s post-language futuristic novel, is ‘the little shining man’, his being pulled apart, and the ‘rememberment’ of him. St. John’s gospel is also a kind of ‘rememberment’. It is a ‘rememberment’ of Christ’s being ‘lifted up’. But it is also a ‘rememberment’ of the present. He is lifted up to the place of ultimate disgrace and failure in order to meet all of us, as nations and as persons, in that same place now.
We might still wonder if all of this is still relevant in regard to our collective and private fears concerning the outcome of world events. But the relevance lies in the mysterious glory of the suffering of God’s Son, in the way it meets our suffering, catches it, drops down into it, raises us up through it and by which we see the light of Easter.