Sing Christ Risen! Homilies for Holy Week and the Triduum

This series of Homilies were delivered by Fr Stuart Soley, Parish Priest, in Saint Mark the Evangelist Church, Fitzroy during Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum 25 March—1 April, 2018

The Journey Begins

The Sunday of the Passion—Palm Sunday
25 March 2018

This is the week of the church’s year that is described as holy …. it engages our spirit, heart and mind with the whole gamut of our existence.

Joy, fulfilment, connection, reconnection, desire and hope, sadness, sorrow, betrayal, confusion, self-doubt and abandonment. These are but some of the matters of human life which are touched. It is full-on, intense, heavy duty, as they say. Even in my mentioning of all these emotions can quickly overwhelm us … for we can only stay in one of these for a short time until we are quickly diverted to something else or we scamper away. In other words we can be dunked in the deep waters of death by the attendant noise and seeming mayhem going on … but this is life and this week helps us to sort through the morass.

Think of the noise of the world we live in … there is noise all around us in the varieties of busyness, activity, social, commercial and political intrigue … cacophonies of opinion, advocacy and straight-out bribery and corruption. Loyalties are questioned and besmirched.

The dynamics of the passion of the Lord are acted out in countless examples each day. We have a breed of politician that deliberately sow discord and division—on racial, economic or religious grounds. They need us to buy-in to their intent … and whenever we do … we feed that dynamic. (see Jacqueline Maley’s opinion piece in the Age, ‘Dutton desperate for critics’, 24 March, 2018) The whipping up of the passions and fears of the crowd could be translated to our day. Not only in politics and business do we see this. We also see it in social and mainstream media where ‘scandal’ is the lubricant for division and all that strikes against unity and harmony— not only in human society but also within our mind, hearts and in our closest relationships.

Don’t get me wrong … I think there are times we need to engage with this noise. Oscar Romero was one such person, onetime Archbishop of El Salvador who was slain whilst saying Mass in 1980 by an angry junta, and whose feast day it was yesterday. He not only saw the corruption and violence inflicted on his people but called it out. There is nothing that power likes less than its artifice and hypocrisy being named. Romero asserted clearly that God was not on the side of the perpetrators and manipulators of systems but all whose lives are besmirched by the abuse of power. He said:

For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and the everyone who tramples it offends God….They suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between humans and God’s image. (A Lent Sourcebook: Book Two, p.179)

G.K. Chesterton highlights the folly of the conceit of the powerful in his poem Donkey. The last two lines round on those who are convinced the donkey is ludicrous. But it is they are ludicrous because they think conventionally about power and un-attuned to the reversals of God’s kingdom:

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet. (quoted in Janet Morley, The Heart’s Time, London SPCK, 2011, p.113-5)

Jesus was a threat because he showed the locus—the place where God was to be found. God is not to be found in magical formulae and obligation. God is not to be found in recrimination and acts of favour and repayment. Rather, God is in the free gift of life itself … in each person. This radically free disposition which is, at the same time, extremely fragile and in need of careful and attentive nurture.

This week we find out where God is … not in the production of noise but in being alongside those who are the victims of that noise and disruptiveness. This week is holy because it brings into the circle and loving attention of the divine all that displaces us from the free gift of life itself …

Wherever in our experience that place of dislocation where we are thrust into isolation, loneliness and doubt … there is God in Christ alongside us. Inside us. With us.

The week has begun … let us walk it together … and find our true selves in the loving attentiveness of God in Christ who brings all of us into that circle of love, bringing hope out of despair and life out of death.

Intimacy and Wholeness

Maundy Thursday
29 March 2018

The recurring words at the beginning of this liturgy were ‘This is the night’.

So much is contained herein this liturgy … this night. all that is good and wholesome and deepening … in Eucharist and service and intimacy. And all that is most disturbing to most of us … the impending sense of doom captured so evocatively by Peter Abelard, the author of the first hymn.

‘This is the night’ evokes the sense of arrival. The destination point. And in this place there is much to celebrate and in which to find rejoicing. This holy meal which unites heaven and earth brings together the most simple and basic of the gifts of creation—human beings, bread and wine—and each become full of the Christ who fills everything. (Colossians) All time collapses into this action … both through the presence of Christ who was present at the beginning of creation … but also the end of time when all collapses into total fulfilment with God.

But ‘this is the night’ that is also the place of departure into the nether regions of the human soul, human society and the creation itself. ‘This is the night’ when human vulnerability is shown in its starkest form … not just in the threat and betrayal so strikingly sketched for us hymnically. But also in the celebration of human community and connectedness at meal time, such as in the kindness shown and love outpoured by the woman who spills the oil over Jesus feet and in the Lord washing the feet of disciples. This too can scare us. Here … ‘this is the night’ where expectations and behaviour is subverted not to disaster but to bringing it all together.

I will highlight one striking element of the last supper. A Church of England priest, the evocatively named, Andy Angel, writes captivatingly about the sensuality and intimacy in the scene in this upper room. (Andy Angel, Intimate Jesus: The Sexuality of God Incarnate, London: SPCK, 2017, p.61f) The scene was common in first century Palestine influenced heavily by the customs of Rome. The disciples reclined around a central table with the Master who holds the place of honour at the feast.

Their feet would have been pointing away from the table so easy for Jesus to wash them from there. But that should, according to custom, been done by a slave not the host. Jesus subverts order only to resume the place of honour and host.

This subversion and conflating of roles indicates to us … not only the demeanour of service of other as an expression of love for neighbour … but also that at every level Christian life and community reorders things and draws polar opposites into a new unity.

It is an expression of love to be sure … and that is all around that table in the sharing of food and bowls and talk. This intimacy that Jesus shares with the disciples indicates a depth of knowing that communicates to their deepest humanity.

He reclines against the breast of the disciple whom he loved. The Greek words used in this context are the same as those used to describe the love between the Father and the Son. Our life in Christ and our life as a Christian and a Christian community is to reflect the depth and intimacy of the love of the Trinity.

All that we are being called to be as a Christian is to search deeper for our sense of self … to live in the honest and directness … in the intimacy that Jesus living and doing invites us. This is the night … not a ‘one off’ … rather one which becomes one with the events of tomorrow and the Easter morn … one night / day in which all is held together in stark contrast to the bifurcations and divisions that go on at every other level of our existence.

We see that life and death are not opposites. They do not cancel one another out; neither do goodness and badness. A radical, almost nonsensical “okayness” characterizes the mature believer, which is why they are often called “holy fools.” These wise ones do not have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore. What is, is gradually okay (which does not mean you do not work for justice and truth, but this must be accompanied by a primal yes!). What is, is still the greatest of teachers. At the bottom of all reality is always a deep abiding goodness, or what Merton called “the hidden wholeness.”

(Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia,” Ramparts Magazine (March 1963), 66. Also see In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, ed. Lynn R. Szabo (New Directions: 2005).) (Richard Rohr, ‘Meditation: Growing into Belonging’, Thursday 29 March 2018, 5.01 pm)

This wholeness is what marks this night. ‘This is the night’ on which the unfolding of this mystery begins and permeates all that happens in the Friday that is Good and in the morn of Easter that brings the day without end.

The Lord be with you.

Disarming Fear, Naming Life

Good Friday
30 March 2018

Sometime back, I found one of those memes on Facebook.

For those who don’t know what a meme is … worry not … I only learnt what it was about two years ago! It is a picture with a short pithy adage or witticism written on it.

One of these was a quote of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.’

Fear infuses the Passion of the Lord as good as any drug, be they licit or illicit.

Fear that power was seeping away from the religious leadership of Jesus’ day. Fear of those in power. Fear in the crowd that order was being disrupted. Fear in the disciples of being implicated with their teacher who has fallen on the wrong side of established authority. Fear of being caught up in the bloodlust of the crowds. And maybe fear of many other things we cannot begin to imagine.

Think of what each of these speaks to our own nature. What makes you or I stand on the sidelines of contention and difficulty? What makes us live in a way that settles for a half life? What makes us keep silent when all around us we see injustice and corruption? Whatever your answer to those … fear is a key part.

It seems to me that there is always some sort of scandal in this Holy Week that permeates every discussion and dominates news and commentary. This year it is the scandal in the cricket world. Lots of righteous anger has been expressed. There has been the ritualised humiliation and, to quote Jim Maxwell, one of the ABC’s cricket commentators, a public execution—by which he means a news conference. You may have seen one of these last night. Some commentary has been righteous in its indignation and even declarations of the cricketer’s behaviour being ‘unAustralian’—that amorphous insult hurled around at times like these. Ross Gittins, the veteran journalist, nailed it in the Age on Wednesday:

Such behaviour is un-Australian? We do, or condone, many things that used to be thought of as un-Australian …. We’ve become less God-fearing, more individualistic, more materialistic and more selfcentred. We’ve become less community minded, less committed to ‘solidarity— where the strong go easy so as to help the poor do better—and less sympathetic to the battling of the battlers (except when we kid ourselves we are the battlers). Ross Gittins, ‘The land of the unfair go’, The Age, 28 March, 2018, p. 18.)

Gittins argues persuasively with these and other examples that we have become less civilised and so the outrage needs to be tempered by a thorough discussion of the real moral issues of our time, not the substitution of a sporting scandal.

At a personal level, one of the most basic fears any one of us has is the fear of failure. We do everything we can to avoid it … and if we do to mask it. And what of the Jesus we see today? The one named by Christians as Messiah and Lord, Saviour of all is a failure. Yet this is the one we celebrate today. Francis, the Bishop of Rome, said on his visit to New York in 2015 some words to give us heart and enable us to see this day, this death on the cross, as more life giving than may immediately present itself to us.

‘If at time our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus … and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.’ (St Patrick’s Cathedral, sept. 24, 2015, quoted in David Knight, The Mystery of the Cross: Praying the Stations with Pope Francis, New London, CT: Twenty Third Publications, 2017, p.26)

Here is a quote from David Knight’s series of meditations on the Stations of the Cross in which he addresses these dilemmas and these words in particular:

So far as anyone could see, Jesus died a failure. When they took his body down from the cross, nothing had changed in Israel. ‘The poor were still poor, the oppressed were still oppressed, and there was no peace on earth.

And few believed in him. He failed to convert Jerusalem, Capernaum, even the people of his own home town. When he died, only a handful of his followers were with him. Jesus even cried out from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

When Jesus died, nothing the people expected of him as Messiah was accom- plished. Yet, we know the life of Jesus was the most successful ever lived.

So how do I judge my life? The lives of others? What is the secret of success?’ (David Knight, op.cit.)

For us to look for the tips or secrets of life and perceived successes and failures is to get into the spiritual equivalent of ball tampering. What the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us, I think, is that God is with us in our so-called failures because that is where God in Christ. God is not in the baying crowds and selfserving and self-righteous, but rather, in those who are its victims.

God accompanies us into the most difficult places you or I ever find ourselves in—where we are left alone, bereft, abandoned or uncertain of the worth of anything we have ever done or if anything is worthwhile.

Theologians speak of the cross as being the prime expression of love. Why love? Because this love goes to the utter reaches of human life and existence where it is tested like success never can. This love counts no cost, makes no justification or reparation. Here fear has no place because it is replaced by love. As the letter of John puts it:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)

This perfection in love is really quite simple.

It is about being honest about what is real … in its rawest forms apart from the easily accepted delightful manifestations. The Cornish poet, Charles Causley’s poem ‘I am the Great Sun’ is a meditation on his experience of witnessing a 1632 crucifix in Normandy. It captures the rawness of human life and the ways we avoid life.

I am the Great Sun
From a Normandy crucifix of 1632

I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain but you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay.
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
I am your lover whom you will betray.
I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
I am your life, but if you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.
(Printed in The Tablet, 31 March, 2018, p.11)

Good Friday affords us to view our life and name it … own it, if you like, … and we can do so because God has inhabited every part of our potential for goodness as well as the points of our avoidances, denials, delusions and failures. When we reverence the cross shortly see it as the basis that opens everything up. The place from which we can renew our life within the vector of a real, honest, open-ended and renewing life—life eternal— opened for us by Christ himself.

Easter Songlines

Holy Saturday—31 March 2018
Easter Sunday—1 April 2018

The first major text we hear in the Easter Vigil is a song; the Exsultet.

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!
Sing all creation around God’s throne!

This ancient song of the church invokes the praise of all the creation … among the first words uttered following the sobering and sad truths of Good Friday. And the reason ….

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

The one who was there at the beginning of creation and in whom all things hold together is risen …. God’s riposte …. an exclamation mark … you might say to the machinations and betrayals of so many of which we sang and prayed with heavy hearts on Friday.

I have begun reading the latest Quarterly Essay, a stimulating and forthright contribution to resolving the impasse over how we should approach Australian history, by Mark McKenna, professor of history at the University of Sydney. (Quarterly Essay 69, 2018, Mark McKenna, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future, Melbourne: Blackink Books, 2018)

He writes about our country's failure to yet

‘anchor our vision of popular sovereignty in the continent’s indigenous antiquity. This is the source of a more mature and independent Australia—the grounding of our sovereignty on our own soil, in the songlines and histories of an ancient island continent’. Mark McKenna, ‘Whitefella Dreaming’ an edited extract of the essay, The Age, Saturday 17 March, 2018, p.28-9)

I am captivated by the image of songlines … which are important for our aboriginal sisters and brothers and there is much we can share which McKenna creatively asserts.

But it is what I want to call the songlines of our faith which are so important for we Christians. The songlines of our faith are contained not only in hymnody but also the psalms and the texts of the liturgy. Another layer of the songlines is the deep resonances of music in its varied forms. The deepest parts of our being … as people and as Christians or searchers or ponderers … wherever you think you fit … are touched and animated by the cadences of song. None more so than when we use the instrument God gave us—our voices to speak— so we soar or we delve into the depths and rhythms of those musical vibrations within us. But it is never all about us … as tempted as many are to think so … it is also about our becoming attuned to the creation itself which shouts in joy as God creates and then redeems it through his Christ.\

Let me tell you a personal story. When I went on sabbatical last year I took no prayer books … although I took rather too many theolgoical, history, biography and reflective tomes. What I did take in my kit bag … you might say … was one small book of core prayers of the Christian faith compiled by former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, Frank Griswold, a gift of my friend Canon James Shannon after one of my visits to their home in Philadelphia a few years back. But this little book became indispensable when my father died during Easter Time last May. I also took a CD (who uses these now?) of the music of Holy Week and Easter sung by the choir of the Brompton Oratory in London. They are within spitting distance of being as good as our choir … and maybe one day they might hope to be so! (I say this with tongue in cheek … play- fully) I played that disk in the car so many times. In particular I played what I call the songs of resurrection … among which were Vidi aquam, Sicut cervus, by Palestrina, amongst others. I tell you this story because it was these songlines which nourished me at a depth that rest, reflection, reading and talking could not.

What was missing though, was another ingredient, which is what we do here: to marrying those songlines with ritual movement. For the human person must move … not just in consciousness but in physical form too. Following this homily we will go to the place of Christian birth … the font … where flows the living waters of Christ’s life. In that mixture of symbols of life and death inherent which is the gift of water … we need to change places from the place of hearing the word to gather around the font of life to recommit ourselves to God’s kingdom.

We will get wet too … as we are sprinkled with that living water … because all our senses must be employed and we ‘feel’ on our skin that something has changed and been renewed. As we move there … another songline of the Christian community is engaged .. As we call on the saints … some we know and others by reputation who have sought to make sense of it all just as we seek to do. We cannot do it alone so we sing along with the saints to support us in our best efforts.

Now, I have been speaking very wide-ranging-ly about some of the songlines of the Christian tradition … many other songs give voice to that which is authentic and true and good. These connect us across time and place just us the antiquity of text and the newer of text do ..

This holy liturgy takes place under the soft light of the paschal moon … as it bathes the earth in the light that reminds of the time of year that we celebrate the rising of the true Light of the world … Jesus the Christ.

It is the first full moon after the equinox the days when day and night are of equal length.

Maybe this songline reminds us that we only accomplish a balanced life near that time … and more importantly when we live in the soft light of the Resurrected One.

Did you see that article about the cycles of time in today’s Age? Amongst many cycles of the years there is another cycle … the one we can witness in the date of Easter … this year on April 1st, next year on April 21st and in 2020 on April 12th. It said that this cycle of consecutive years and dates of Easter will not recur for another 5.7 million years.

My heart enlarged and I felt a tingle in my spine because we are part of a wondrous creation, so intricate and larger than any drama, scandal, worry or sense of harmony might narrow our vision.

We are in the presence of the Risen One who spans those eons. The Exsultet … one of our ancient songlines of resurrected life .. Enlarges our vision still further as it comes to the end:

May Christ, the Morning Star
who knows no setting,
find it ever burning…
he who gives his light to all creation,
and who lives and reigns
for ever and ever.

Fr Stuart Soley