A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

Where are we in Holy Week?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is Palm Sunday and we embark upon this year’s remembrance of that first Holy Week nearly two thousand years ago. Starting with the special service of Palms this morning, a week of especially focussed worship lies ahead. Before the Good Friday and Easter Day services we will have services each evening, with the last two being the Tenebrae on Wednesday and the service of Maundy Thursday.

During the solemnly beautiful Tenebrae service, the coming of the shadows, we will experience the progressive darkening of the cathedral as candles and lights are extinguished through a liturgy of Bible readings, poetic prayers and a variety of Kyries by the choir who will sing out of sight of the congregation giving an ethereal aspect to the service. The service will finish with the Dean carrying the last remaining candle down the aisle to the western door which will then be slammed shut. At that moment it will seem the very gates of Heaven have been closed. As a sign of the enclosing shadows and the distance from Heaven, there will be no Eucharistic feast.

But we will have one on Maundy Thursday, indeed this service will recreate the last meal the incarnate Jesus Christ had with his disciples. That meal in the Upper Room, where he started by washing their feet, which we will commemorate this Thursday also, became a transformed Passover Meal. No longer was the paschal meal to be done in celebration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt, but now it was to be in remembrance of Jesus and the deliverance he gave through his resurrection. We, in the western churches call it Maundy Thursday after the Latin mandare [to command], reminding us of Jesus’ command in John 13:34:

A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

But, in the eastern orthodox churches it is called Holy Thursday; while in the Maronite and Syriac churches it is called the Thursday of Mysteries. Perhaps this last is the most apt name, for the events of that Thursday were truly a mystery to those present then and remain mysterious for us in so many ways, even though we know what was to come to pass.

Thursday’s service will end with a vigil followed by the stripping of the altar. Finally we will all variously depart from the Cathedral without any form or order. This will reflect the chaos that unfolded after the Last Supper leading to the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane following the betrayal by Judas.

This will bring us to the service of Good Friday when we will have a large cross draped in red erected at the Nave altar to which we will all be invited to pray before in sombre appreciation of the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us. A silent Eucharist will then be offered; for it will be a time when, as individuals not a group, we truly commune with the body and blood of Christ.

Holy Saturday is a day of no liturgy, being rather a time to reflect silently and without ceremony upon what it must have been like for Jesus’ followers that day after his death on the cross. The darkness will have reached its peak as the God of all Creation would have seemed so distant.

Then, with services starting at 6am on Easter Day, the darkness of the Cathedral yields to a spreading  light from the newly lit Paschal Candle until finally light has been fully restored and we will acclaim:

The Light of Christ

And we joyously will celebrate that the gates of Heaven have been opened as we shout:

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

What a wonderful end it will be to the awesome week that lies ahead. We have travelled this Holy Week journey many times, haven’t we? I am sure it is the same for you as for me that the week’s services are very profound and emotional – various elements always give me goose bumps. I am certain this year Holy Week will be no different in that regard, however may I invite us to pause and reflect at another level on the profundity that awaits us?

Last Sunday evensong, Wendy Morecroft used the theme of the anthem sung by the choir – “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and weaved it into the Lenten series preached by Dean Frank Nelson about theosis – journeying into God. Wendy said:

Let us sit with the darkness so that we may experience the joy of Christ’s resurrection, imagining that we were there.

“Let us sit with the darkness”- Hearing her words has given me pause to think about the journey of Holy Week and what we hold in remembrance as we process through its annual commemoration. The problem is that, unlike the disciples, we know how the story ended. And that is something of a problem for the Holy Week journey for it may distance us from the awful darkness that they went through; and then there was the darkness that Jesus himself endured in the lead up to the crucifixion. Might it not be possible for us to appreciate more fully the Kristos Anesti moment of next Sunday if we have truly sought to be in that darkness- to sit, as Wendy said, in that darkness where  Christ had found himself in that first Holy Week?

In our gospel reading tonight from John [12:20-32], this verse stood out for me:

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’

We have heard the verse many times, and also its sequel:

No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.

That sequel verse may lead us to fail to appreciate the enormity of Christ’s statement that his soul was troubled.

That first Holy Week through which Jesus proceeded to the cross was no ordinary week. Just as we read in the Book of Revelation about the final battle of Armageddon, the Apocalypse, so might we consider that that week was a kind of personal battle of Armageddon for Jesus where the forces of the world were arrayed against Heaven. In that battle there stood Jesus whose incarnate self was the flash point of this apocalyptic battle. I use the word apocalyptic quite deliberately – for while apocalypse has come to mean a devastating battle of ferocious destruction, its true meaning is ‘revelation’ . So in the person of Jesus, God made human, the warring of the world against heaven, became revealed; and in that revelation so too did the victory of the Resurrection.  

Just for a moment, let’s reflect on the man Jesus, that part of him that was like us – could be happy, could be angry, could be sad, distressed even. The culmination of Jesus’ ministry, covering not just Holy Week, but the days and weeks preceding it, revealed all of those very human parts – his anger in the Temple, his distress at the death of Lazarus and his happiness suggested by the social occasions in which he participated. His own words on the cross tell us the depths to which he could sink:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Those were very nearly the last words the incarnate Jesus said. So if we consider the words from tonight’s reading – “Now my soul is troubled” – we may surmise that both statements hint at the tumult in Jesus’ mind through those last days – not just when he was on the cross.

His tumult would not solely have been the internal despair he was feeling at the suffering he was about to undergo but the anguish he would have felt about the way those about him were reacting to events. He could see just how much those around him, both friend and foe, were misinterpreting those events – misunderstanding him and his mission.

The crowds that we remember on Palm Sunday had rejoiced at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. We know that such a bizarre entry was prophesied in Isaiah. But those who turned up that day to wave palm fronds and lay cloaks down before him, would not have been feeling the need to fulfil prophecy. They would simply have come out to praise due to the amazing things they had heard about Jesus – his fame had well and truly gone before him. Miracles were notable elements of that fame, most significantly the report that in the previous few weeks a man named Lazarus had been brought back from the dead. So while in the bigger picture, prophesy was being fulfilled by the crowds presence that day; individually they had come to catch sight of a miracle worker and a potential leader to save them from oppression. I wonder just how Jesus would have reacted as he passed through the crowd? He may have waved back at them, I am more inclined to think that he didn’t respond for he would full well have known how they had missed the real point of his ministry as they shouted their hosannas; and he wouldn’t want to have led them on. This must have troubled him.

The next day, when he returned to Bethany to stay with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, we would have encountered their unalloyed joy at seeing the person who had freed them from grief. Yet he would know that within days a much greater grief would sweep over them. This must have troubled him.

On the Tuesday, when tradition has it that Judas consummated the deal with the religious leaders, Jesus would have been aware and known that he had to keep his counsel in order for prophecy to be fulfilled. In so doing, he would see opening up a deep fracture within this tight knit band of brothers who had been through so much together and whose friendship would have been a joy to him. He would know all that was about to end in suspicion, denial and odium. This must have troubled him.

That same spirit of darkness would infect the last meal they would have together. The Last Supper became for them and for us a time of great teaching – the example of the washing of the feet, the role of the bread and wine as symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Yet the disciples would not have come to that meal thinking it was going to be a theological seminar – they were expecting a traditional Passover Meal that would always have been a time of celebration and of the close bonds of family and friendship. Of course, their expectation would not be fulfilled; and they would have to deal with the radical transformation that Jesus would do to the elements of the meal. That would not have troubled Jesus; but the looming despair that he knew would strike this faithful band of friends – this must have troubled him.

“Now my soul is troubled”, Jesus had said. In the wilderness after his baptism, the ways of the world had tempted him and he had withstood. Now here Jesus was in the wilderness of Holy Week, that apocalyptic space where the world was at war with heaven. So as we embark upon our remembrance of that first Holy Week, will we seek to walk with the troubled Jesus so that next Sunday – Easter Day – we can soar from the depths of the shadows to the glorious light of the risen Christ?

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the choir had sung last week at Evensong. Next Sunday may the words of the last line of that song come to mind:

Were you there when they rolled away the stone?

And, if so, may the wonder and the mystery of the Apocalypse of Holy Week and the Resurrection cause us to tremble with great and profound joy.