Passion Sunday 2018
I wonder if you recognise this quotation:
“They know and do not know what it is to act or suffer. They know and do not know that action is suffering, and suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer nor the patient act. But both are fixed in an eternal action, an eternal patience to which all must consent that it may be willed and which all must suffer that they may will it, that the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action, and the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still be forever still.”
The beady-eared among you may recognise it from T.S. Eliot’s 1969 play about the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, a superb production of which our Drama Group put on last November.
I’ll read it again:
“They know and do not know…the wheel may turn and be forever still”.
“the wheel may turn and be forever still”- this contradiction – this paradox is the key, and gives us some insight into the events of Passiontide which will soon open up before us as we once again make the ascent to the Cross this Lent.
Every year we keep Lent, begun on Ash Wednesday, and perhaps abandon something we enjoy, or take on something edifying, and perhaps be more charitable than usual. This is what one does in Lent, as the wheel turns irrevocably towards Holy Week and Calvary, and for sure, to the resurrection beyond. The circle of Lent is a circle within a circle – the annual circle of seasons, meteorological and liturgical. And the church year bears us forward on that ever rolling stream that is the great circle of life, from womb to tomb, from font to grave.
It was the nihilistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who asked whether, if someone told you that your life was one of eternal recurrence, a constant wheel of time rotating such that, as you died, you would be born again to relive your life over and over again, like a sort of lifelong Groundhog Day – he asked, would you treat the person that told you that as your Saviour, or as the Devil incarnate?
Although the youthful Nietzsche wanted to be a priest for a while, his bleak question is not the only way in which to think of cycles of time, and the recurrence of events in our lives is by no means a curse, indeed it can so easily be a gift. As each year bears us forward into unknown short-term futures, the comfort of seasonal regularity helps us, and reminds us that even as things change, they also rotate around a fixed point. And at the very centre of the fixed point, actually, nothing moves, nothing changes. So, as Eliot puts it, the wheel may turn, but be, forever still.
When we revisit the stories of Jesus preparing to turn his face towards Jerusalem, to enter the City in triumph on a donkey and soon be derided by the crowd, betrayed, arrested and handed over to be raised up on the cross, we find that once again, the hour has come, as Jesus put it in talking to those inquisitive, celebrity-seeking Greeks, who asked to see him. Did you notice, by the way, that they ask Philip and Philip asks Andrew – they are Jesus’ minders, who then go and tell Jesus! Direct access to Jesus was not possible for them, there and then.
But in any event, the hour has come, and it is the hour which Jesus likens to a grain of wheat which dies before sprouting forth. Here is a specific moment – the hour of reckoning if you like - which is associated with an eternal recurrence – the seed which dies, sprouts, reproduce and goes through the life cycle again. In this specific event we see eternal recurrence, represented by the dying grain, which needs must die and be buried in order for new life to come forth. It is a metaphor for the death and resurrection of Jesus, of course – but it also reminds us of our seasonal recurrences from year to year, lifetime to lifetime, century to century. And yet, up and down, round and round, goes the buried grain, while at the still centre is the singular event of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is an event that is located in time, but also transcends time such that it is ongoing even now.
Let’s think musically for a bit:
On Sunday night we had our good friend Nigel playing Bach’s ‘Cello Suites after evensong. Originally thought of as mere technical studies, now they are recognised as some of the most profound music ever written. Each suite is a collection of dance movements, happy, sad, fast, slow, sombre, frivolous: a jigsaw of human emotion. But it struck me as I watched as well as listened, that the visual impact is of the ‘Cello – the only instrument for which this is the case - pointing to heaven with its foot firmly on the ground, and with the bow sliding across the strings, the horizontal intersecting with the vertical – making every phrase of notes trace the sign of the cross.
We are ‘cellos too: as we stand with our feet on the firm earth, we gaze heavenward, and God, in the passionate incarnation of Christ, moves across us, connecting the heavenly and the earthly, turning us into instruments on which God plays his melodies of mercy and love.
The Cross is that – the intersection of the human and the divine – the horizontal and vertical interplay, our journey from earth to heaven – from womb to tomb – traversed and harmonised and liberated by the bow of God drawn across our lives. In Genesis after the flood, God sets a bow in the sky, and promised never to bring destruction again. In Christ he sets a bow across each of our lives, our hearts, our souls. And in that bowing the destructiveness of sin is repaired.
And again, here is something which moves but which remains still. Not so much a wheel that turns while remaining still, but, like the music of the ‘cello, something which operates in its own time zone. The bow moves across the ‘cello, making the sign of the cross, but it does not ‘go’ anywhere. Nothing ‘happens’ in music, just some bodily motions and some noises, one after the other. But no musician or listener would say that that is all, any more than life is just a series of heartbeats and nothing more. ‘Music’ happens, and whatever that means, it means something in its own terms.
Back to Jesus and the recurring Passiontide Journey to the Cross, and the offer of eternal life he makes to those who abandon or hate their temporal earthbound lives. There is a point in time when Jesus said this, but he carries on saying it to us, and will always do so. As the wheel of time turns, this promise of eternal life remains still, the immoveable centre of hope. Christ died once for all on the Cross, but he dies anew every day, in that we remember his death in every eucharist and remind ourselves of the end of the story in the very act of telling it. Christ has died – Christ is risen - Christ will come again.
The still point at the centre of the wheel is the place where Time meets the timeless, and that still point is to be found in the eucharist, at that point where we affirm that Christ can be both crucified and risen at the same time. The wheel may turn but it is also forever still as we re-member Christ in bread and wine and take his body into our bodies.
As we remember Stephen Hawking who has died this week after a remarkable life in so many ways, his ‘Brief History of Time’ helps us remember, by the irony of its title, that time is both brief and eternal simultaneously. Something can happen at a point in time, but also go on happening. Redemption, or salvation is such a something.
This idea lies at the heart of Eliot’s play about Becket, in which he shows us how Becket traces what seems to be an inevitable course towards an inevitable end – his murder – and how he accepts this, while also struggling with emotions to resist it and run away. Jesus did the same:
“‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’”
Here is a still point – a pivotal moment, at which we sense Jesus has a choice, but yet there is an inevitability to what must follow. It is a paradox – one of the great paradoxes of the passion – that Christ willingly submits himself to the will of God, a submission that he struggles with, not only at this point, but in the Garden of Gethsemane a few days later. Simultaneously though, not only do we know the end of the story, as has every intervening generation, but Jesus himself knows that there is a certain inevitability in the choice he will and must make. He must make it, so he will. He will make it, so he must.
The poet Coleridge said that when we encounter fiction, we must ‘suspend our disbelief’. But this is not fiction, and we do not suspend our disbelief when we encounter the story of the Passion – quite the opposite: we form our belief. And we suspend everything else from it.
So as we circle annually around the paradox at the heart of Passiontide, we are pivoting on the constant, unmoving centre of the wheel, which is the sacrificial, obedient, submissive act of love, for us, for God and by God. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it:
“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Suffering, says T.S Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral, suffering is action and action, suffering. Becket is the one-off, 12th century, human, somewhat imperfect example, who shows up the perfect, eternal, once for all, ongoing, unique example of a man who is God, being human and divine at the same time. This is the Christ, whom we follow and adore, the divine human who is both alive and dead; the one who has gone before us, but is with us still; the one who, in being lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to himself.
To him be all honour, praise and glory, yesterday, today and forever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 18/03/18