The effective passion
In S. John 12: 27 – 28 Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.” In fact, Jesus referred several times in the Gospel according to St. John to His “hour”, which up to this point had not yet come. One can imagine the general of an army approaching a decisive battle which could win or lose the entire war. Some planned signal or, it may be, some confluence of special circumstances is necessary to provide the trigger for action. Until then it’s a waiting game. Or rather, it’s a time in which everything that is done has the nature of preparation. The victorious strike cannot yet be initiated. As the waiting and the preparation proceeds, so do the conflicting emotions of frustration and expectancy. There is a watching for the necessary signals and no signals are seen.
Perhaps because I was surrounded by thoughts of the Second World War in the first five years of my life, the emotions of war speak powerfully to me. There is no doubt in my mind that all the significant decisions I have come to in the course of my life have been prefaced with periods of anguish and conflict, having been given certain intimations of the right way forward but not necessarily being entirely sure before the hour of decision is practically upon me. I have learnt to distrust the person who says, “I never at any time had the shadow of a doubt.” After all, it is better to doubt, and thus to have one’s given certainties tested. I will even go so far as to say that only those who have doubted know what it is to make a true commitment. But the hour approaches when we are called to fling aside the doubts and rest upon the One who is faithful beyond compare or imagining.
I think of a man like Adolf Hitler who might talk for several hours and hold the crowds in attention and adulation. No matter how many things were wrong in his war plan, he had no doubt that he was too strong to fail and his followers had seemingly inexhaustible reserves of implicit trust. Perhaps neither he nor they could afford to doubt the basics of their beliefs. Once they started to doubt, all would crumble.
Compare this with the men of faith in the Bible. For nearly all of them the record is clear that they contended with their own doubt. God calls them, but either immediately or later they are struck with an awareness of their own inadequacy. We think of Moses, or David, or Elijah. The story in this respect is the same for all of them. We think of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, who doubted that men such as they were could be called by a holy God. Jeremiah has been described as the most self-questioning of the prophets. But these were the men who received the greater revelation. In Jeremiah 31: 31-34 we have the pinnacle of Jeremiah’s prophesying, when he spoke of God providing a final remedy for the longstanding problem of the fickleness of His people, and we refer to that remedy as the New Covenant.
Through the ugly manoeuvring of religious leaders and the tactless misgovernment of a second-rate state official, Pontius Pilate, the world judged Jesus, and in so doing was itself judged by an uncorrupted truth. When we of Christ’s body are in bondage to the world’s judgements about what is true, we also are judged and found hopelessly deficient. So when Jesus approaches the hour of His confrontation He says “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out, and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” It was the prince of this world, we remember, that tempted Jesus in the wilderness with thoughts of earthly sufficiency and earthly glory. We do badly to hang on, as we often do, to the restricted and distorted ideas about what is true and blessed that the same now-deposed prince holds out to us. Lent and Passiontide remind us of that deeper dimension of truth and blessedness that we, called to be the younger brothers and sisters of our Lord, are often too eager to ignore. It is that deeper dimension of truth that we begin to be drawn to in understanding and sympathy, when Jesus, lifted up from the earth, draws us to Himself.
Now the Passion of Jesus would be no true or blessed thing at all if it did not accomplish what it was undertaken for. Hebrews 5: 5-10 tells us that the Son learned obedience through what He suffered, and being made perfect He became the source of salvation to all who obey Him. Jeremiah 31: 31-34 can rightly be taken to foretell this work of the Messiah. The covenant that God made with Israel at the Exodus, which Jeremiah sees to be irreversibly broken, was constructed with laws that were imposed upon a rebellious people. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant between God and His people, in which the laws would be written on the heart. In other words, the heart and the will would cease being resistant to the covenant’s demands, but compliant to them. The human heart must be changed so as to match and not resist the covenant obligations. Theologians of the Christian era have gone to great lengths to try to explain how the Passion of Christ was effective in its redemptive intent. The passage from Jeremiah is one of the Old Testament Scriptures which points to an objective change in the heart and will of man that the covenant-making God must bring about before the covenant can endure. St. Paul describes this change in terms of our dying with Christ and rising again with Him. The New Covenant through Christ makes over the human heart in the way that Jeremiah indicated. The blessed and effective Passion of Jesus is itself both the Feast to which we are invited and the Cup that those who are drawn to the lifted up Jesus are called to share. May you and I share such truth and blessedness, for the sake of the effectiveness of Christ’s Passion and death upon the Cross, in changing our own place and time, and for the sake of blessing with the truth every place and all time.