Passiontide for Beginners

The Angel Guardian of Bro Duncan PBGV's Memorial Orchard
The Angel Guardian of Bro Duncan PBGV’s Memorial Orchard

Yesterday, as I mooched around in the sunshine of Bro Duncan PBGV’s Memorial Orchard, I thought about the extraordinary series of readings the Church puts before us in Passiontide. Sunday’s gospel of the resurrection of Lazarus is followed today by the story of Susanna and the elders and the gospel of the woman taken in adultery, tomorrow we’ll be out in the desert with the Israelites and caught in the labyrinthine coils of Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees; so it goes on. We feel the menace, the approach of death, but before we reach Calvary we have to plumb the depths of human sin and suffering.

They say that Lazarus was a sad man to the end of his days. His resurrection was a sign of that which was to come, but it was a resurrection to a limited, earthly life not an eternal, heavenly one. What of Susanna or the woman taken in adultery? It is a great thing to be exonerated after a false accusation or to meet with forgiveness and compassion when one has been shamed and reviled, but does one ever really forget, is one ever really free thereafter, or is there always a lurking suspicion that it could all happen again? Lazarus knew he had to die again; Susanna and the nameless woman of the gospel were aware that what had happened once could happen again. Jesus, facing the Pharisees, knew that ultimately he must pay the price of fidelity to his Father.

This week of Passiontide is an important introduction to the events of Holy Week when our attention is wholly focused on Jesus Christ. It gives us a brief space to reflect on our part in the unfolding drama. We are simultaneously victim and victimiser. We sin, and we inflict suffering on others. We are forgiven, and we set others free. It can be helpful to change our stance, so to say, as we think about this week’s Mass readings: one minute we are Lazarus, the next Martha and Mary or the crowd who come to sympathize; we are Susanna, the two elders, or the young Daniel; the woman taken in adultery or those standing with stones in our hands, convinced of the rightness of our judgement and ready to execute sentence. But, wherever we are this week, the Lord is there, too, quietly showing us how far his love and mercy exceeds our own and how ready he is to redeem our sin and suffering. It is a lesson we have to learn again and again, for where the things of God are concerned, we are all of us beginners all our lives.

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6 thoughts on “Passiontide for Beginners”

  1. I often wonder whether Lazarus really wanted to come back from the dead … many years ago I was visiting one of the Oxtord college chapels with my family and we were all struck by a statue by Epstein depicting Lazarus returning from the grave. He was looking back, over his shoulder rather than forward to greet Our Lord, back into his tomb and his expression was one of regret rather than joy at seeing his friend Jesus. It was (and still is) deeply troubling. It struck me then than death is not a punishment but merely the natural conclusion to our earthly lives…. thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this with you.

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