Today marks the beginning of Passiontide, the final two weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. These are days in which we are reminded that the God we worship is intimately acquainted with bodily suffering and death. Our focus as Christians now turns decisively towards the cross – not an empty one, for now at least, but one on which we can still see Jesus, suffering and dying.
On this particular Passion Sunday, our gospel reading invites us to consider that it was not only in his own person that Jesus knew the bewilderment and disgust that death strikes into human hearts. His friends Mary and Martha struggled to know what to think, what to pray for, when their brother Lazarus died. We know how they feel. So does Jesus: the story tells us, in the shortest verse in the Bible, that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb.
Even if our church calendar and our Sunday readings were not inviting these reflections, though, we would do well to remember today, I say again, that the God we worship is intimately acquainted with bodily suffering and death. We were not equipped, it seems, we are not equipped, for what is already happening around us. The same bewilderment and disgust that Jesus encountered in Martha and Mary is upon us, right here, right now. We are in a state of grief, with all the processes of denial, anger, bargaining and guilt that come with it. There is the concrete grief of losing thousands of lives, and with it the rage and horror of knowing that those numbers will continue to double every few days for some time yet. But there is also a grief that comes with the loss of jobs, of security, of money, of a way of life that may never return.
As Christians we are grieving too, as we find ourselves denied access to so many of the solid things that carry the weight and much of the meaning of our faith: the sacraments; the presence of a priest even in our dying moments; the beauty and peace of consecrated buildings. It’s some comfort, I hope, to read a newsletter, to make a spiritual communion, or to watch a worship presentation on a screen. But these are comforts that remind us of what we are missing even as they console us.
We do worship a God who is intimately acquainted with bodily suffering and death, and the bewilderment and fear, the disgust and horror that they provoke. Our God is not distant from these things, nor absent from the world in which they occur. In Christ, God did not and does not retreat into self-isolation when faced with the suffering and soil and sin of this broken world – rather the opposite. God in Christ walks towards us, not away, seeking the most intimate possible acquaintance with our human condition, suffering the worst that our hatred and fear can devise, returning to us again and again with forgiveness and an offer of new, eternal life.
Because it is also true, and never more important to remember, that God in Christ has conquered death. It is still two weeks until Easter but I don’t apologise for jumping ahead, not today, not this year. Christ’s victory over death, his triumphant resurrection to new life, stands at the heart of our faith. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, Jesus says to Martha in today’s gospel reading. This is our faith and our hope. Without it we may as well leave the church doors locked and not bother opening them again.
For the time being we have to find new ways to encourage one another in our faith and reach out to the world around us with that message of hope. We are doing that, and some of the things we are learning as we do it will help us to be a better church even when the current restrictions are lifted. But they are still poor substitutes for coming together to worship God and to receive the sacraments.
In our present grief, we carry the grief of those around us. We pray to a God who has born our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He weeps alongside us, but he also calls us to new life in him, on the far side of the grave.
May God bless you all,