A Holy Week Sermon for Trinity College

I was asked by the Dean of Divinity to take a turn preaching at our weekly Community Eucharist in Trinity College on Tuesday in Holy Week (March 27, 2018). The readings appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary were Isaiah 49:1–7, Psalm 71:1–14, 1 Corinthians 1:18–31, and John 12:20–36. Unbeknownst to me, the liturgical planners had decided to omit the passage from 1 Corinthians, which was quite important for my homily! Lacking the ability of St. Augustine to improvise an address in the face of unexpected readings (e.g. Enarrationes in psalmos 138[139].1), I simply read the text I had prepared, no doubt to the confusion of many.

A passing reference in the homily to “taking our own lives” as our culture’s advice of last resort in the face of suffering became unexpectedly relevant a few days later, when an article in the Globe and Mail documented an elderly couple’s decision to seek physician-assisted death together—with the blessing of their Anglican priest, who, despite the clear rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (which forbids the use of the burial service for those who die “by their own wilful act while in a sound state of mind”), assured them that they could have their funeral at St. James Cathedral. Needless to say, I am, like Toronto’s diocesan bishop, Colin Johnson, very much opposed to what we now euphemistically call “physician-assisted dying,” and it is especially painful to me to know that this couple ended their lives on the very evening when the following homily was preached. I pray for them and for all who are similarly tempted, and also for myself, that I may “enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).

* * *

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’” (John 12:20–23).

“The hour has come.” “Now is my soul troubled.” “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Now. Now. Now. In the Gospel according to John, for the three years of his public ministry, with Jesus it has always been “not yet.” At the wedding at Cana: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). When his brothers urge him to show himself to the world: “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here” (John 7:6). At Jerusalem for the festival of Tabernacles: “Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). And lastly in the temple itself: “He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20). But now it has come. The sharp sword so long hidden in the shadow of the Lord’s hand is at last to be drawn. The polished arrow so long hidden away in the Lord’s quiver is at last fitted to the bowstring, ready to split the air.

Our Lord announces that the hour has come when Philip and Andrew present what seems to them the somewhat irregular petition of some Greeks who wish to see him. These are not Jews, but those Gentiles known as “God-fearers” (Acts 13:16, 26). Their arrival and their attraction to Jesus show that the hour has indeed come when the commission given darkly to Isaiah will be openly fulfilled: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations,”—that is, to the Gentiles—“that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).

Yet the Lord does not receive these petitioners. He does not welcome them into the swelling band of disciples eagerly awaiting the restoration of Israel. He instead speaks of dying grains of wheat, of hating one’s life so that one may keep it. “I will indeed draw all people to myself,” he says, but only “when I am lifted up from the earth,” and not before. “Kings shall see and stand up,” as Isaiah foretold; “princes, and they shall prostrate themselves.” But whom shall they see? Before whom shall they stand, and to whom shall they prostrate themselves? Not to one who is attractive, not to one who is beloved, not to one who is victorious. But “to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers.”

This hour that has come, this “now,” is indeed an awful, a terrible simultaneity, in which the glory of God—“Father, glorify your name”—is revealed in rejection, in shame, in suffering, in death. And this, Paul has told us, is “the wisdom of God.” It is not an aberration; it is not an obstacle to be overcome. It is everlasting. This is brought out profoundly in a favourite book of mine, Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, about the great twelfth-century theologian. Late in the story, Abelard and his companion Thibault come upon a rabbit screaming as it is strangled in a snare. They free it, but it dies in Abelard’s hands:

“Thibault,” [Abelard] said, “do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me I earned it. But what did this one do?”

Thibault nodded.

“I know,” he said. “Only—I think God is in it too.”

Abelard looked up sharply.

“In it? Do you mean that it makes Him suffer, the way it does us?”

Again Thibault nodded.

“Then why doesn’t he stop it?”

“I don’t know,” said Thibault. “Unless—unless it’s like the Prodigal Son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,” he stroked the limp body, “is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.” . . .

“Thibault, do you mean Calvary?”

Thibault shook his head. “That was only a piece of it—the piece we saw—in time. Like that.” He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw.” . . .

“Then Thibault,” Abelard said slowly, “you think that all this,” he looked down at the quiet little body in his arms, “all the pain of the world, was Christ’s cross?”

“God’s cross,” said Thibault. “And it goes on.”

[Helen Waddell, Peter Abelard: A Novel (1933; repr. London: The Reprint Society, 1950), 269–70]

Today, in the middle of Holy Week, we are approaching the climax and centre of the liturgical year. The liturgical year does not just memorialize for us the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It also models to us the path of conversion that our own souls must follow. In Advent, Christ knocked at the doors of our souls, seeking an entrance to cleanse their inmost longings. At Christmas and Epiphany we were dazzled by the glory, the beauty of his appearing, loving him and yearning to draw close to his perfection. But that beauty, that perfection, cannot be grasped and held as something outside ourselves.

I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy—the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. I wonder, though, how many of you have read Dante’s earlier work the Vita Nuova (the “New Life”), which tells of his ecstatic love for a beautiful and gracious Florentine girl named Beatrice. Whenever he passed her in the street, and particularly whenever she greeted him, Dante felt himself transformed into a new man, filled with virtue, good will, and forgiveness of his enemies. But he has a troubling dream in which a personification of Love itself appears to him and says, in cryptic Latin, “I am like the centre of a circle to which all parts of the circumference bear an equal relation. But with you it is not so.” That is to say, “It is not enough for you to stay on the edge of the circle, receiving love and virtue at second hand through Beatrice. You must move to the centre, and be filled with love yourself.” [See Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (London: Faber and Faber, 1943), 23–25.]

The journey to the centre is arduous—a journey that Dante depicted as nothing less than a trek through hell itself. That is what we have been about in Lent: moving from the circumference to the centre, through the purgation of our disordered loves.

And now we have arrived almost at the very centre, the point of simultaneity, where suffering and glory meet and are revealed as a unity. Our Lord in the Gospel speaks of it as moment of decision: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say?” This moment is for the Gospel according to John what the other evangelists depict as the agony in Gethsemane. Lent has, or ought to have, disclosed to us the true cost of following Christ—“where I am, there will my servant be also.” In our own souls, the question is insisted upon: What should I say?

The choice is between light and darkness. “The light is with you for a little longer. . . . While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” When those words were first spoken in Jerusalem, there was indeed only “a little longer” for the light to shine in the world, before darkness covered the whole earth at the crucifixion. But for our souls, that “a little longer” is as long as our hearts have not been numbed to Christ’s calling. “Exhort one another every day,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “as long as it is called ‘today’, so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). “Now is the acceptable time,” says St. Paul; “see, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

In this “today” of “a little longer,” we must choose between the light in which the wisdom of God is revealed, and the darkness apart from that wisdom in which we cannot see where we are going, and where there is no real destination—a darkness in which we have chosen to love our own life, and so to lose it; to remain a single grain, and so to bear no fruit. The circles and ditches of Dante’s Inferno are populated by those who have cast their choice, perhaps carelessly at first but soon with ever fiercer conviction, for the darkness of the self and its disordered loves. [See Williams, Figure of Beatrice, 117–19, 123–24.] I suspect that we daily pass such people on the sidewalk and jostle them on the subway.

But what of the light? What of this wisdom of God that Christ has become for us? In the collect today, we appealed to the God who has “made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.” To my merely worldly wisdom, I confess that this is nothing but folly. I cannot explain it; I cannot justify it. I cannot withstand in human argument those who point to human suffering as a meaningless absurdity to be avoided by all available means, if possible through technological advance, but in the last resort even by taking our own lives. And yet from the ground of my being I confess Christ crucified to be none other than the power of God, trusting that through this power, through this wisdom, I am being saved—that by the recapitulation of the way of his cross in me—in whatever form of transfigured suffering that may take—Christ is leading me, carrying me, up the steep slopes of Mount Purgatory to the source of true life in his Father, in whose presence no one may boast of any merely personal possession—that by believing in the light, entrusting myself wholly to the light, I, with all of you, am being transformed into a true child of that light.

In a few minutes, we will gather at this altar to receive in our hands and take into our very bodies the sacrament that proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes. It is a moment in which our choice is renewed and affirmed. It is also a moment of supreme thanksgiving—not that Christ has suffered in our place, leaving us free to live our own lives undisturbed; but that in his passion Christ has revealed to us the very life of God himself, in which the cross is present from top to bottom, and has empowered us to hate our life in this world, and so to keep it for eternal life in him.