Christ the King

Nov 20, 2016

The Feast of the Reign of Christ. Christ the King: this is the final moment of the Christian year: everything, the birth and the death and the resurrection, the ministry of healing and teaching and the outpouring to the Spirit; the birth of the church; everything leads up to this day. Crown him with many crowns! we sing. Jesus reigning over all creation. Redeem the time; our own lives redeemed. This is the end toward which the year and our whole life as Christians moves.

It is an end we badly need. The news has been full this week of footage from Aleppo. The whole East section of the city is nothing but rubble, and yesterday the last hospital in the city was bombed. Where now to care for the wounded?

The city is being destroyed by rebels and the leaders of the nations. Is it Russia or Syria who is bombing? No one seems to know. The city is being destroyed and the people are scattered. How many million refugees now from Syria alone?

Jeremiah knew about this time.

“Woe to the shepherds,” he cries as Babylon looms on Israel’s horizon. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord” (Jer 23:1). Jeremiah was talking about the siege of Jerusalem and its eventual destruction. The great city of David was, like Aleppo, reduced to rubble, and the temple, the place of God’s presence among the nations, the beacon of God’s presence among the nations, was burned, and the people were carried away from their homes into a long exile.

A voice is heard in Ramah, Jeremiah says;

Weeping and loud lamentation.

Rachel weeping for her children

And she will not be comforted,

For they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.

There is a fracturing that runs deep in the history of the world, nation rising against nation and people divided against themselves; children lost and the noblest works of human hands—Solomon’s great temple in 587 BC; ancient Palmyra just a year or so ago—destroyed. In our own time Aleppo, and in our own place, here in Toronto, in our own diocese, the fracturing of the Anglican church.

Jeremiah finds the problem in the failure of the shepherds, because their task is precisely to shepherd: to keep the people close to their God. But in Jeremiah’s time the shepherds are running scared, and they turn to the pagan nations around them, trusting in the power of the secular state rather than in the power of the unseen God. Behind the destruction and the scattering there is a failure to walk with God, and the failure is often quite concrete. The leaders are politicians rather than people of prayer.

And this too, like the fracturing that haunts the world, is a temptation that runs deep. The two are connected. If we are beleaguered and threatened, if our churches are bleeding people, let us turn, we say, to the nation around us. Let us seek our strength in its wisdom; let us follow the mind of a majority that does not know God, and find in their ways our salvation.

Woe to the shepherds, Jeremiah says, who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.

This way lies only disintegration. It is not here that we will find our help.

Our help, as the psalmist knows, is in God, the Lord of heaven and earth. It is not in the world that does not know God. We are here in the midst of the world for the sake of the world, to stand in its midst as a beacon, a people lit and shining and healed by prayer.

We are the people who proclaim Christ’s reign. Yet we act as if Christ’s reign is not true, as if it were not the culmination of everything we do in the worship of the church, the end toward which all our worship leads.

When we ask, “Where is God in this,” in this fracturing that haunts our world and our church, it is a good idea to remember that we choose often to act as if there were no God.

This day, this Feast of Christ the King, stands here at the culmination of the Christian year to call us back. Remember that it is God who is our shepherd. Remember that we are first of all people of prayer. We are the people who turn to God first of all, and last.

Christ the King is our wake-up call, and it is one we badly need.

But it is also—because after all this is God we are talking about, God who is not only judge but also always shepherd—this day is also our sign of hope.

For Christ rises over the world as King on this day, and his throne has the shape of the cross. Luke sees the hope this day offers, and he offers it to us with characteristic grace.

And when they came to the place called the Skull they crucified him there with two criminals—two wrongdoers, the Greek says—one on his right hand and one on his left (Luke 23:33).

This, the inscription read over his head, This is the King of the Jews.

To the bystanders, to the leaders of the people and the Roman soldiers, it is a joke. Here is the King of the Jews, dying between two criminals on a cross. Some king.

But for Jesus, this is the whole point.

It is on the cross that he is with us. It is the criminals, the wrong-doers, those who have wandered far from God; it is the wrongdoers he cares about. It is precisely when we are at the place of the skull that God is with us.

And when by our turning away from him we bring on ourselves our own destruction, then he is with us to save.

This is what God’s power looks like. It looks like faithfulness, the faithfulness that endures, the love that pours itself out – even to death – for the people who are dying. God is the shepherd who does not destroy and scatter, but gives his very life to save.

Do you not fear God? The second criminal says. We are paying the just penalty for what we have done, but his man has done nothing wrong.

This man has done nothing wrong, and he is standing with us, he is suffering with us, in the place of the cost of the wrong we have done. In the place of our scattering. In the place of our dying. He is suffering with us to save.

This is the love that gives itself, not just to be there with us in the place of disintegration, but to restore. To bring us back. It is not solidarity we are talking about, but salvation. It is Christ the King with whom we have to do.

Jesus, remember me, the wrongdoer says, when you come into your kingdom.

And Jesus, dying there beside him, says, Today. Today you will be with me in Paradise.

For today is the day the kingdom dawns. This is the day of Christ’s reign, this day when he dies between two thieves on a cross. This is the place of his reign, here between the thieves at the place of the Skull.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high.

Luke knows that Christ is king. And he knows that his throne is a cross, because this is where God is with us. To the world it is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.

Christ the king. The sun and the moon rise under his lifted arms, his arms lifted on the cross. He holds the whole world in his hands, and the serpent is crushed under his crucified feet: Christ the image of the unseen God, first-born of creation, first-born from the dead (Col 1:15, 18). Here is the power, all the saving power of God. Here in Christ crucified, dying between two thieves on the cross.

So in this time, so in all times of scattering and division, Aleppo’s destruction and the fracturing of the Anglican church, he calls us to turn to him. We come at the end of the Christian year to the Christ: Jesus Christ, rising over time and all things on the cross. Christ with us in our failure and in our great need, Christ holding the sun and the moon in his arms. This day he asks us to be with him.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Let this be the prayer of our hearts, at the first moment of every day and at the last. Let this be our hope and our guide. Just this: Jesus. Christ our King. Let us turn to him.

Art: Crucifixion of Christ, by Bartolomeo Passerotti.

Holy Cross Day

Italy 2013 1187

Holy Cross.

We are so used to hearing these words together that I’m not sure we hear what a strange pair they make. The cross: Rome’s most terrible sentence of death. Ugly, slow, agonizing; a public humiliation. And now we call it holy? It’s an extraordinary claim: that in Christ even the cross is made better. That this world’s worst may be made better…in the death of Jesus the Christ. Do we get it? I am not sure.

This week I saw a sign as I was walking down the Danforth.

“Make your day better: Buy a graphic tee!”

It struck me this week–because it speaks to the deep-seated longing that we mark on Holy Cross day. Make your day better…make your life better…make your world better. Surely that is what we all want. Such an outpouring of compassion there has been, and of anguish, over the past couple weeks, since the picture of the little boy dying on the other side of the world hit everyone in the heart. Make this day better. Let there be peace. We long for the better day.

It is the other part of that sign on the Danforth that is the problem. Because it is not going to happen that way. No amount of graphic tees, no amount of buying them, can make this the good day, the good world for which we long. And there is, it seems to me, a terrible kind of blindness in the way our real pain for the suffering of the Syrians coexists in our daily life with this other thing, this turn to ourselves (make YOUR day better); this desire to seek a better day in the things that we can have. It is not here that happiness is found: not while a boy lies dead on the Turkish shore; not now and not ever. Because the tee bought for me and my better day ignores the pain that is out there—and so it does not speak of love; there is in it no sign of our love for the suffering people, and it cannot make our day, or anyone’s, better.

Jesus offers us another way. Jesus offers us a different sign, to wear like a t-shirt over the heart. Jesus offers us the cross. It is the sign that is true, for it does not ignore the pain that is out there, even as it announces the better day.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: this is where the cross begins. It begins in the place where the people reject God. It begins with the grumbling we do against the difficult purpose of God. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God’s people say. “For there is no food and no water—certainly no graphic tees—and we detest this miserable food.”

I have always found that line funny: there’s no food here–and it tastes terrible!

It is a ridiculous complaint: God has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them safely through the Red Sea; God has given them manna from heaven and water out of the rock. And they look back to the fleshpots of Egypt, the fish, the melons, the onions and garlic”and now there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” they say, in Numbers 11.

Freedom…or garlic? Which would you choose?

It is ridiculous—and it is human. The rejection of God’s purpose never does make sense. For no matter how difficult God’s way is (and often it is indeed difficult, leading us into a wilderness on our way to worship our God), God is with us always. Our God is the one who can part the Red Sea, a priest said to me in Cuba, in the days of Castro. Our failure, to trust, to follow, to leave behind the old life that binds us, is ridiculous—and worse; it is poisonous, in the face of God’s faithfulness.

“Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many died.” And the people said, “We have sinned against the Lord” (Num 21:6-7, paraphrased).

But it is human.

The newspaper cries pity for the Syrian child, and beside it the sign says “Make your day better: buy a graphic tee.”

And the serpent creeps into the garden, into the wilderness, calling our hearts away from God’s purpose, calling our hearts away from God’s love, turning us in on ourselves. This is sin. And it poisons our lives.

In the wilderness the people die. Is there then any hope?

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:13). If our inability to follow in God’s way poisons our world; if the cry of the sweatshops and the starving and the fleeing and the lost—a whole culture desperately seeking happiness in a t-shirt—if the cry of the lost still rises from earth to heaven, that is not the final word. For God hears the cry of his people, then and now and always. Precisely in the place where we are lost; precisely in this death we mete out to ourselves and to each other, this wages of sin, God comes to meet us. The Son of Man is lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, God’s love meeting our agony, this harm that we do.

For there is nothing more cruel than a cross. The cross stands over our world as an indictment, sign and sum of all the evil that we do. Here is the suffering of the Syrians; here is the suffering of the Jews; here is the pain of all the crucified people since the world began and also the will of the world to crucify and to ignore: here it is, written on this wood.

And it is here that God meets us. On the cross God’s Son raised up, the body of Jesus, the beauty of Jesus now covering this wood: covering our sin with his love, covering our pain with hope.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul? The hymn sings.

What wondrous love is this,

that  caused the Lord of bliss

to bear the dreadful curse for my soul. (Common Praise 400)

On his back bearing the harm that we do, covering our pain with his love.

Holy Cross! Can there be any name stranger and more wonderful? For the instrument of sin has become the instrument of God’s love, and death is swallowed up in victory.

Holy Cross. It is a contradiction in terms. And it is the sound of hope. For it is so true. It does not ignore the pain there is in this world of ours, the harm that we still do. It is to that pain that it speaks. For there, precisely there, the face of Christ rises too, suffering with us, suffering for us, radiant with grace. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? Sorrow and love together, in the face of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is beautiful. For the harm that we do is not the last word, and there is a greenness that leaps at the heart of things.

There is such joy in the cross. Pray that we may wear it always as a sign over our hearts; pray that it may be written on our lives. Lift high the cross. May we find in it this world’s better day.

From Easter to Ascension: Now I come to you

Easter 7: Now I come to You

The trumpets sound, the angels sing:

We come this week to the last Sunday of Easter, and on it we are crowned with joy.

This is the day the Lord has made, when Christ the Lamb of God becomes the Lamb upon the throne.

Now the great action that began on Easter day comes to its completion, and Jesus who rose against all expectation from the tomb rises again, into the heavenly glory of God.

It is, this week, the Ascension of the Lord.

And on this week we read Jesus’ great high-priestly prayer, from the Gospel of John. It is the prayer Jesus prays with and for his disciples immediately before his arrest and crucifixion. Judas has gone out into the night to betray him; Jesus knows exactly what is coming. In this moment he says to the Father, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son so that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).

“Glorify your son.” Is that what is happening, in this shameful betrayal, in the travesty of a trial that follows; above all in the cross?

Here is all that is worst about the world; now it unfolds on Jesus’ body: friendship corrupted, truth turned on its head, and the God-given power of the government used to crush and to humiliate, used to deny the power of God.

Here is the wood of the cross, this sin of the world, on which hung the world’s saviour.

And Jesus says, “Glorify your son, so that the Son may glorify you.”

In John’s Gospel it is the cross, always, that is the moment of Jesus’ exaltation. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But for this I came to this hour…And I,” when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:27. 32).

His dying is the moment of his “lifting up”; in the cross strangely comprehended the whole glory of God.

“Now I come to you,” Jesus says on the night before he is crucified (John 17:13). “I am no longer in the world. They are in the world, and I come to you.”

It is in the moment of his humiliation for our sake that we see him truly as Lord: rising now to the throne of God, revealed in unity with our Father who is in heaven. It is in the face of Jesus the crucified Christ that we see at last rising like a sun over the world the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.

This is who God is: this one who takes the lost and lonely world on his own back and suffers its lostness, and lifts us up once again and forever into the presence of God.

And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.

The Ascension is part and parcel of the great act of grace that began on the cross. That we should be lifted up: that is the end and purpose of Christ’s dying. In this man lifted up on the cross our humanity too lifted up, out of the sin that haunts us, out of the evil that binds us to purposes that lead only to tears; out of our God-abandonment, out of this long dying. That we should find ourselves once more in God’s presence; that we should be found.

I have called you by name, you are mine, God says to his people in Isaiah. “Keep them in your name, which you have given me,” Jesus prays on the night before his death (John 17:10). Jesus accomplishes on the cross the purpose of God: that we should be his. Holy Father, keep them in your name. Jesus goes to the cross so that we may be lifted once more into the holiness of God.

For God so loved the world. This is the love of God, that shines like glory from the face of the Christ. In the very human dying of Christ this world, our human life lifted up, so that we may again in this human life be holy.

“Sanctify them,” Jesus prays to the Father as he goes to the cross. “For them I sanctify myself.”

So that we may again be holy, lifted into the truth of God: that is the purpose that is played out in the trial where there is no human truth. That we may be holy: lifted again into truth, lifted again into righteousness, lifted again into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.

And it shines from the face of Jesus the Christ.

It is nothing less than the change of the ages, this earth made new, lifted up into heaven. It is this that we celebrate this week as Easter comes to its completion in Ascension.

On the cross it begins, in the Son there lifted up. On Easter we see it: life springing its bonds, now the green blade rising from the buried grain. And on this day, this last Sunday of Easter, it is accomplished in the Ascension of the Christ.

For Christ is risen, and the cross is a throne, and we are lifted up: out of our death, out of our sin, out of all fear and failure and sighing, into the presence of God. Kaine ktisis! New creation! Paul says—in his excitement leaping over all rules of syntax.

It is this we celebrate this Sunday, and each time we walk in procession into our church. Into the church, up to the altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.

In my church the children like to reach out and touch our priest’s hand as he walks by in his flowing robes, following the choir and the Gospel and the bronze cross lifted high. Their faces are shining…this is for them the highlight of the day. And they are right. In this procession our priest is leading us up to the throne of God. This is humanity on its way out of the world into Christ, lifted in the prayer of the Christ, lifted in the cross of Christ, in the body and the blood, lifted out of our ‘own’ life into the life that belongs to God.

It is the new creation that Ascension declares. It is the new creation that begins, each time we come to the Eucharist. Each of us walking in Christ again into the garden, the church becoming the garden of God.

Now I come to you: we feast here with the angels

As with ceaseless voice they cry,

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia! Lord Most High.


Ascension Icon, Pskov Caves

The Trumpets Sound: Hymn 404 Common Praise Hymnal 1998

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: Hymn 48 Common Praise

St. Mark the Evangelist

St Mark Evangelist

Feast Day April 25

He was not an apostle. He did not sign the Gospel that the church has always attributed to him. We know almost nothing for certain about him. He may have been the John Mark of Acts 12:12, 25 (and Acts 13 and 15), and so a member of Peter’s church in Jerusalem and a companion of Paul in ministry. He may have been the Mark whom Paul himself names in the letter to Philemon, first among his fellow-workers; he may have been the Mark whom 1 Peter names as his beloved fellow-worker (“my son”) in Rome. (And these may, or may not, all be the same Mark!) We do not know his face.

Yet his symbol is the great winged lion that sings day and night beside the throne of God (Rev 4:6-9) and he has left us not just the earliest Gospel but the whole Gospel tradition. (He also, tradition says, founded the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, where his head still rests—his body having been stolen by the Venetians, this piratical act inspiring by the humour in God’s grace the lasting beauty of San Marco).

Mark was the first to write a Gospel. He was, Papias says, the interpreter of Peter, writing down what he heard him say about Jesus’ words and deeds, turning Peter’s words into the narrative we call a Gospel (

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1)

Good news: euangelion in Greek; god-spell in Old English; gospel.

We are so used to this thing we call “Gospel” that we do not recognize how surprising it is. Mark gives us something quite new. He turned proclamation (Hear the good news!) into narrative; he turned narrative (This is the life of Jesus) into proclamation (This is the Christ!). He blew open the boundaries of the ancient bios, biography, so that it spoke suddenly to the long purpose of God. He claimed for this narrative continuity with the history of Israel and the hope of the world.

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the son of God; as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold I send my messenger before your face,…the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!” (Mark 1:1-2)

Mark was doing something new, and Matthew and Luke followed him. The whole Gospel tradition starts here, and we owe to this unknown man the story in its revolutionary voice that stands at the centre of our faith.

What is it that Mark does? Mark’s Gospel tells a mystery. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14): What John’s Gospel states unfolds in Mark on the narrative plane. From the beginning of the Gospel, the power of God in Jesus—and also the humanity of the Christ. Mark gives us the God-man. Isaiah’s voice goes before, announcing the coming of the Lord. This is the time of repentance that marks the great Day of the Lord. Judgement is near, and restoration: now God’s reign arrives.

Note that it is a “coming,” for Mark. He does not place Jesus first in the manger; he places Jesus in the Jordan River, rising up out of the water like the Israelites out of the Red Sea to declare God’s deliverance. Salvation erupts into Galilee in Jesus, in water and the Holy Spirit; this is the coming of the Lord.

There is no sweetness of the baby in Mark, no shepherds or angel-song. There is John the Baptist in camel hair crying in the wilderness and the way that will be made straight. There are the heavens torn open. And there is also, immediately, Satan in the desert. Jesus is driven right from his baptism into confrontation with Satan. From the beginning in Mark’s vision it is the last battle and the apocalypse.

Jesus’ first healing in Mark is an exorcism. No sooner does he come into Galilee and start teaching in the synagogues than “immediately”—everything happens immediately in Mark, for the Lord is coming—a man with an unclean spirit challenges him. “Have you come to destroy us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are, the holy one of God.” “Be silent,” Jesus says (literally, “be bound”) and come out of him. Later he will say to the authorities who accuse him that “the strong man”—Satan—has been bound. Jesus casts out demons to show that the victory over evil is being and has already been won (3:20-29).

Nor is it just Jesus’ power over the power of evil that Mark stresses. It is also his bounty, his sovereignty, his grace. Jesus feeds 5,000 people and then 4,000 with nothing but a few loaves of bread; he touches the leper and heals the sick…and the word about him goes out everywhere…he walks on water; he calms the storm; he gives blind Bartimaeus his sight. “Who is this,” the disciples say, “that even the winds and the sea obey him?” “And they feared with a great fear” (Mark 4:41). Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is awe-ful. There is in him the power and the danger and the grace of God.

Yet at the same time, Jesus is utterly human. He gets hungry (11:12). He gets tired (4:38). He gets mad (9:19). His heart goes out to the rich young man. He holds the children in his arms. He has a sense of humour: when the unclean spirits who inhabit and torment the Gerasene demoniac tell Jesus that their name is “Legion” (which is of course the name for the basic unit of the [occupying] Roman army) Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs.* There are things Jesus does not know: “who touched me?” he asks, when healing power goes out of him in the press of the crowd (5:30). And to the people of his village he looks like just another small-town boy (Mark 6).

Jesus is earthy in Mark every bit as much as he is awe-ful, full of the power of God. Confronted by a man who is both deaf and dumb Jesus does not simply lay hands on him, as he has been asked. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears and spits and touches the man’s tongue. He groans as he says, “Ephphatha: be opened!” Jesus comes in the body to heal the body; if this is a battle between all the powers of heaven and hell, it is in and for the earth that it is fought.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us: Mark gives us salvation as incarnation, Jesus who is very God and very man.

So the cross stands at the heart of the story. Everything in Mark’s Gospel points toward the Passion, and the Passion draws together all that has gone before. Here in the body Jesus shares the life of the world even unto death; here in the body Jesus takes the world with him through death into life.

It is in the body that the battle is finally joined. This is the mystery of God’s love. To share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, and in this way to bring us bodily out of the power of evil into the life that belongs to God.

Mark tells a mystery in Jesus the God-man. And he leaves us there at the resurrection, in mystery—in what used to be called the fear of God—face to face with the news that is impossible and also true: humanly impossible, and in the one who is both Lord and crucified, humanly true.

And they fled away from the tomb, for fear and ecstasy gripped them, and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).

*My thanks to Canon Peter Walker for this insight.


Il Pordenone: Mark the Evanglist

Carpaccio: The Lion of Venice

William Blake: Baptism of Jesus

Good Friday

Good Friday

O King of grief! (a title strange yet true,

To thee of all Kings only due)

O King of wounds! How shall I grieve for Thee,

Who in all grief preventest me?

 George Herbert, sweetest of poets, of all poets comes closest to the bitter and sweet heart of this day.

For it is a day, in the first place, of such sadness. Jesus, whom we love, who fills our lives with gladness, now strung up upon a cruel cross. Jesus betrayed by those who call him friend; by his own people rejected…mocked even by the passers-by; left there to die.

He had no form or majesty…that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isa 53:2-3)

Jesus, the one righteous man, suffering the consequences of all that is not righteous in this world; Jesus, the one true man, suffering the consequences of all that is not true.

The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. This is grief: to see with utter clarity all that is wrong in the world and in our hearts, and to see written on Christ’s body its cost.

O King of grief!

John is already pointing to this day at the Gospel’s beginning, and Isaiah knew it long ago.

In the beginning, John said; in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him…and the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.

From the beginning of the Gospel there is a gap.

Between God’s love in Christ Jesus and our response falls the Shadow.

All we like sheep have gone astray: that is Isaiah in the 6th century BC, asking “Why?” Why Israel’s terrible exile? Why the loss of the promised land? Why this suffering of God’s people by the waters of Babylon? Isaiah’s answer in the chapters which we read today is nuanced and rich—prophetic—pointing to a mystery that begins in God’s love for Israel and encompasses this day also.

One thing is clear: we have gone astray. The exile of Israel to which the whole book of Isaiah speaks for warning or for consolation is a kind of historical unfolding of the repeated choice that the people of God make to walk not with God but apart.

We have all turned to our own way. 

What follows, for the people of God now and then; for each one of us, is a kind of disintegration. In him was life…and so what is left, when you turn away from him?

Judas acts out this disintegration in the Gospels. This is what his betrayal is, the distillation of all the acts of turning away in Israel’s life and in each of our lives, now brought to a point in a moment. In John, Judas goes out into the night to betray Jesus; in Matthew after he has handed Jesus over, he kills himself. The two Gospels mean the same thing. What is left, when you turn away from the one in whom is life? And the life was the light of the world. Judas walks in the independence of his mind, thinking he knows how to choose what is good, for him at any rate, apart from and in contradistinction to the word of God in Christ Jesus; Judas walks in the independence of his mind into the dark.

And Judas does not stand alone. It is important to remember this, when we come to this day. We have all turned to our own way. We have all gone, we do all go, now as then, out into the night.

Good Friday brings very close the problem of sin, the abandonment of God; the choice that is independent of the Word.

O King of grief! Who loves and chooses a people who turn away, a people who reap therefore whirlwind and the night.

This is the sorrow of this day. Jesus suffers for love of us, and for the failure of our love. He comes, this Word made flesh, into the darkness; to a people turned away he offers with a startling innocence himself as light. Come back to me, he says, as God has said to his people time and again; let me take you home. The end is known in the beginning: he came to his own, and his own did not receive him. The cross of Christ is our turning away written on the flesh of God.

Who would know sin, George Herbert also says, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

A man so wrung with pains that all his hair,

His skin, his garments bloody be.

Sin is that press and vice which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

 God suffers our abandonment of God: see in his hands, his feet, his side, its cost.

O King of wounds!

O King of wounds, how shall I grieve for Thee,

Who in all grief preventest me? 

Christ goes before, even in all grief. Our wounds, and he suffers them; our sin his pain; our grief, the inconsolable desolation of the loss of God; this is his, today.

The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all: this too Isaiah knew.

Christ preventest us, goes before us in all grief. That is the ancient meaning of “prevent.”

But it has another meaning too, the meaning we all know. O King of wounds, who in all grief preventest me: here is the second part of what is happening on this day, the part that is joy. Here on this cross, precisely here where our sorrow is strongest, where the real cost of our sin, the betrayal and abandonment of the God we love, is too much to bear; here on this cross Christ comes to meet us again.

We have turned away; we have in fact done our worst; the love of God and the truth of God and the faithfulness of God nailed here before us in Jesus our Lord to the cross. And here before us our Lord Jesus reaches out. To us he reaches out on the cross, to this world into which and for which he came, light in our darkness. To the world that did not know him he reaches out still, and finally, and for all time.

God’s Word is finally revealed in these arms stretched out to draw the wandering world in. This too is what John saw:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

In the cross, the victory of God; a world reconciled. In all grief thou preventest me: Christ goes before us in the grief that is properly ours, and so prevents it. In the suffering of God-forsakenness; in the pain that hunts his cruel food through every vein, Christ is there for us, with us, before us.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

Crushed for our iniquities;

Upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

And by his bruises we are healed.

On the cross God’s love too made flesh; God’s love in Christ Jesus reaching out through and beyond our God-abandonment, to bring us in. By his bruises we are healed.

Here on the cross of Christ It is finished.

And so this day is also beautiful. It is the beginning of the dawn.

This too Isaiah knew, and John.

Out of his anguish he shall see light.

Out of his anguish we shall see light.

And the light shines in the darkness, now and always, and the darkness did not overcome it. This too is the meaning of the cross. So The Agony becomes on this day a song—Christ’s song of love; our song of wonder; the rainbow song. Joy seen through tears; promise of a world that can turn again to God, that can come home.

This is how George Herbert sings it:

Who knows not love, let him assay

And taste that juice which on the cross a pike

Did set again abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.


George Herbert, The Thanksgiving

George Herbert, The Agony

Isaiah 52:13-53:12


Cimabue, Crucifixion, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Palm Sunday or Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday

All glory, laud and honour to Thee, Redeemer King.

Palm Sunday: it begins with a shout and children dancing. It ends in the shadow of the cross. This Sunday of the palms stands between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and joins them in the grace of God: our failure, our falling away—the turn inward, away from God and the garden into the confines of our own desires, away from the power of God into the power of the self; this shrunken world of our self-assertion that we have created for ourselves ever since Adam—Ash Wednesday on this day meets in Christ the life that gives itself to God. It is the beginning of God’s triumph, the procession of grace that begins and ends at the throne of the lamb. On this day triumph and honour and glory and power are seen truly, the palm branch, sign of the king, forever intertwined with the cross.

The palms are important: for there is real glory here. The people who shout Hosanna as Jesus comes into the city of Jerusalem are right. This is the coming of the King. This is the victory procession of the Lord. Now the words of the prophet Zechariah are fulfilled:

            Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!            

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

            Humble and riding on a donkey.

The people see in Jesus God’s power to save, the power known first in the Exodus, God’s enduring love for his people.

            Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”…

            The Lord is my strength and my might;

                        He has become my salvation….

            Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. (Psalm 118: 2, 14, 26).


They greet in Jesus the strength of God to save. This is what they mean when they lay their palm branches before him. The palm is the sign of the king, the victory of God.

It is just that they (and we) do not know, cannot see, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, what that victory means. The people’s glad shouts will turn to derision; their “Hosannas” to “Crucify.” The palms they strew along the way point straight to the cross. This is Palm Sunday’s difficult point. “Hosanna” and “crucify him” are, in our human lives, inevitably intertwined. It is because we cannot sing to God our heart’s song of praise without also, even at times in the very next breath, denying him, refusing his will and seeking our own; refusing his sovereignty and seeking our own, throwing his love back in his face…it is because on our lips and in our lives Hosanna and Crucify Him are intermingled that Jesus rides into his city to save.

The people are right: it is glory we see in Jesus this Sunday; glory that the palms declare. But it is not the glory we have made. It is glory of human being as it is meant to be: the life given over without reserve to God, the heart that loves him truly…madly, deeply…and, most of all, the feet that walk in the way that is His, steadfastly. The glory of God in Jesus the Christ does not look like glory as we imagine it. It looks like humility, and obedience. And just in this way, it is saving.

Ride on, ride on in majesty. In lowly pomp, ride on to die.

We sing this hymn too, on Palm Sunday. It sings the mystery. This is majesty, this road to the cross. This self-giving, the utter obedience of the son to the father for love of the world, is both truth and beauty, the glory and the power of God. The palm branch stands forever as the true sign of victory, precisely because it is wedded to Christ’s cross.

For all of us who sing hosanna on this day, the world is changed. Glory can no longer mean power over, the victorious self. It can mean only the opposite: the obedience that is saving, the love that is self-giving, God at the centre of all things and all being, this death of the solipsistic self. This is blessing and honour and glory and power, victory that is inseparable from dying.

In Rome in one small chapel there are three great Caravaggios. They are all about Matthew, and the encounter with the Christ. In the first Jesus calls Matthew—who sits solidly at his counting table, a successful self-made man—reaching out to him with fingers curved like the hand of God in the Sistine Chapel, startling him out of his old life; making him anew. In the last Matthew is about to die by order of the king whose morals he has rebuked. Matthew is an old man and he has been thrown to the ground. To all appearances the victory is not his; power belongs to the young man who stands over him, his sword-arm defining a circle of violence that hems Matthew in. Matthew however reaches upward, his fingers pointing now to heaven as Jesus pointed long ago to him, pointing outside the circle, beyond the people’s violence.

File:The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew-Caravaggio (c. 1599-1600).jpg

And there a palm branch descends. Hosanna! the painting says. This is the time of the victory of our God. In this one who is despised, who has no form or majesty that we should look at him; in this one who is dying for his faithfulness to Christ is all the glory of God.

Lift high the palms this Sunday. And feel in them the weight of the cross, pointing outside the circle, beyond our power and our violence, beyond our self-regard, into the reign of God.

Art: Giotto, Entry into Jerusalem. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Caravaggio, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome