For a bishop, the timing could hardly have been worse! Holy Week is the most meaningful period of the year for Christian believers, as we mark the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, between his ‘Triumphal Entry’ into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’, and his crucifixion on Good Friday – followed by the silence and stillness of Holy Saturday before the glorious celebration of our Saviour’s resurrection on Easter Day.
I was due to mark much of this journey, on the Way of the Cross, at Sheffield Cathedral and it’s deeply frustrating to me that I can’t be there – for example tonight (Monday 11thj) for the ‘Chrism Eucharist’ when lay and clergy leaders will gather in large numbers to renew their commitment to the ministries to which God has called them. This service is one of the highlights of the year and I will be gutted to miss it – especially because it did not happen at all in 2020, and took place only in a very limited way last year.
I am hoping to resume duties by the end of the week, but that will obviously depend on recording some negative lateral flow tests first!
But being a ‘patient’ is actually very appropriate in Holy Week. The word ‘patient’ comes from the Latin word for suffering. So the last fortnight of Lent is known as ‘Passion-tide’, because this is when we recall the sufferings of Jesus. Passion, in this sense, does not mean extravagant enthusiasm or burning love, but ‘being passive’. In Holy Week, the focus shifts from Jesus’ teaching and his miracles onto the things that were done to him. ‘Passive’ verbs dominate: Jesus was betrayed by Judas, deserted by his disciples, denied by Peter, arrested, beaten and crucified by the Romans, mocked by the religious leaders and eventually buried by Joseph of Arimathea. At a time when I am able to ‘do’ much less than I want to be doing, perhaps I will find new insight into what it meant for Jesus to be done to.
The pandemic has been, and continues to be, the source of much suffering and sorrow in the UK and around the world for over two years; and it has been agonising in the past six weeks to see the extent of suffering for the people of Ukraine, following the Russian invasion. Whole cities have been reduced to rubble, lives and livelihoods lost, families torn apart, people forced to flee in terror. Closer to home, the steeply rising costs of gas and oil have already inflicted great hardship on many in and around our city, causing families to make impossible choices between heating and eating, food and fuel. Church-based foodbanks are reporting significantly increased usage, on top of already high levels and the prospect of rampant inflation is likely to make things still worse. Everywhere we look at present we are reminded how precarious and precious life is, and how little control we truly have in the things that really matter.
We are all much more passive than we like to think.
But of course the story of Jesus doesn’t end with his burial. All four Gospels are adamant that when the women went, early on the Sunday morning, they found his burial chamber empty and his body gone.
Within hours, the Risen Lord had begun to appear to his followers, transforming their sadness and fear into joyful hope. But the New Testament seldom says, ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. Instead it says ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’. The point is that when Jesus was dead, he was really dead and could no longer do anything for himself. So here is the last and most wonderful passive verb of Holy Week: Jesus was ‘raised from death on the third day’. The power to revive the Lord came from outside himself: God raised him.
One of the lessons a patient often has to learn is to accept the help of others. Most of us prefer to fend for ourselves and we prize our autonomy. Suffering can remind us how much we need one another, and depend on one another. I am confident, for example, that this pioneer City of Sanctuary will extend a warm welcome to refugees from the Ukraine; and I hope that the more prosperous in our region will look out for those struggling most in the coming months.
For Christians, it is the resurrection of Jesus which gives us hope even in the face of great suffering and motivates us to persevere in doing good even in the face of great challenges. To borrow words from the Apostle Paul, ‘Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain’. (1 Corinthians 15.57-58)
May God bless you with hope and joy this Easter!