We have just heard the Passion according to John. And how many ‘Passions’ there are in the world, going on in the world, how much suffering! Think of the Passion Syrians have been living for 4 years now. According to the Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, there are now three million refugees outside Syria, and 9 million displaced within it. A Dutch Jesuit was killed there the other day, Fr Franz and, on Tuesday of this week, a bomb killed 55 children in a school in Damascus. Then there is the succession of other disasters and conflicts the media hold before our eyes for a time. This year we’re remembering the beginning of the 1st World War; remembering, not celebrating. But there are so many other Passions! So many nearer home. How often we hear the siren of an ambulance! How often getting to know people means getting to know sad or difficult stories! How often, behind the most apparently successful lives, there are secret sufferings, hidden tragedies! Nurses, doctors, counsellors, psychologists, priests, any of us who are simply friends – we know these things. “To be human is to suffer.” Each of us feels the truth of that. And how many different layers and patterns and complications there are to it!
And in the midst of all these Passions comes the one we have just heard. A third of the way through every year, this Passion comes before us, Palm Sunday, Good Friday. Each of the 4 evangelists recounts it. Every Sunday, every Mass, this Passion comes before us. Every crucifix reminds us of it. Every sign of the Cross. This Passion is here. It’s written in history: he ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ It’s engraved in art and architecture. It comes out in language. It’s part of the memory of humanity, outside the borders of Christianity. And, strange to say, we do celebrate it. We bless with the sign of the Cross. In a familiar hymn, we call it ‘wondrous’. And soon in this liturgy we will kiss it.
There’s something different, then, about this Passion. Ours often come from the accidents of Nature or are the outcome or payback of our own – evil – passions: ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ But the Passion of Jesus is different. For one thing, it fulfils ancient prophecy, like Isaiah’s. So it has been in the mind of God from all eternity. It’s the way things are to be put right. Again, it’s the Passion of an innocent, of someone more thoroughly innocent even than a child. It’s the Passion of someone ‘burdened with the sins of all of us’, ‘tempted in every way that we are’. ‘Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.’ It’s the Passion of the Son of man, someone appointed by God to represent us, to act on our behalf, to carry us, to be us, and freely accepting to do that. It’s the Passion of Israel’s Messiah. This is the Shepherd-King laying his life down for his people. It’s the sacrifice of the true high priest, ‘offering up of prayer and entreaty’, offering himself, a sacrifice of atonement that works. It is the eternal love of the Son of God for his Father translated into human suffering and dying, love lived out to the end – the greatest conceivable love in the greatest conceivable suffering. A love that brings the forgiveness of sins, reconciles us with God and one another, leads to the outpouring of the Spirit, a community of grace, the hope of heaven, the resurrection of the dead. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ ‘It is accomplished’ – Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of John. A wonder and not a wonder. No wonder, given such love, that when he bowed his head, he ‘gave up the spirit’, not just his breath, but the Holy Spirit of God. No wonder that when the soldier pierced his side, blood and water came out, signs of forgiveness and life. No wonder that on the Sunday after the women will find the tomb in the garden empty.
And so we call this Friday good. So in a moment we will be stretching out our hearts in prayer for the whole world – because that is the range and power of this Passion. And so we’ll kiss the Cross – with a kiss that comes from the heart.
Salvador Dali’s painting is well-known, ‘The Christ of John of the Cross’. It is in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. Some years ago it was voted Scotland’s favourite painting. Christ is suspended over a landscape and a lake and a boat. It captures the scope, the world-wide embrace of Christ’s Passion. Because here’s the point: this Passion does embrace all the others. It can redeem even suffering and turn it to good. Jesus, someone has said, didn’t come to take suffering away – not immediately anyway – he came to fill it with himself, with meaning. He redeems our suffering by making it his. He changes it from inside, not from outside. He changes it by changing us, by opening a way through, the way of faith, hope and love. He changes it by making it a way to something better. It’s easy to say that, of course. But how else explain the resilience, the courage, the hope the Cross can bring? How else explain how many, whatever their Cross, can stand united beneath it like the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple? And so, here in the midst of the Passion of Syria are the Resurrections the Archbishop can see. I quote. ‘The mutual assistance and solidarity expressed spontaneously by poor families opening their doors to refugees – new initiatives for dialogue between enemies – a resurgence of faith, even under the threat of bombs the faithful come to Mass and spend much time in prayer and Eucharistic adoration – an abundance of priestly vocations – centres of psychological support for children and youngsters traumatised by violence – a new strategy for living.’
Yes, so many Passions in the world, but among them this one: the greatest conceivable love in the greatest conceivable suffering. It’s here. Let’s open all the Passions of the world, and our own, to his. By his wounds we are healed.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen