Christ is risen! Alleluia! There are no words adequate to this great joy. So, instead, here is an image of the Risen Christ meeting the women who came to anoint his dead body, and the nuns of Jouques singing the introit to the Day Mass of Easter, Resurrexi. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to describe this chant as being like a ping-pong sitting on a fountain of water, serene not shouty, as the deepest joy always is. A blessed Easter to you all!
Holy Saturday: we are used to this being a time of silence and stillness, when earth awaits the resurrection and we do nothing because God is doing everything. We are used to its being a day without the sacraments, but this year we plumb the depths of emptiness and loss more deeply than ever. Even our churches are closed. There is no busy preparation of altar and font, no careful placing of flowers and candles, no last-minute rehearsal of music and ceremonies. We have only the weariness of death, the coldness of the tomb, and the long, dry psalms of the Divine Office, chanted recto tono, to sustain us. Tonight, when we might have expected a blaze of glory from the kindling of the new fire and the glad tones of the Exsultet, there will be only darkness, emptiness, silence. But if we think nothing is happening, if we think that God has somehow abandoned his people, that Easter is cancelled, so to say, we are very much mistaken.
Holy Saturday is the time when Christ descends into the underworld to preach salvation to those who died before his coming. He goes to seek and save the lost. Today is a day of mercy, a mercy beyond compare. Traditionally, artists have portrayed Christ leading Adam and Eve out of Sheol, followed by a whole band of prophets and patriarchs and a nameless throng of people now rising to new life. On such a day as this, I like to think of Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as to a friend, of the unknown persons who form a distant part of my own family, of all the generations that existed before Christ, whom he desires to be with him in his glory. This is the day when captives are freed, when new life and hope spring up in the darkness, when the resurrection begins with the harrowing of hell.
It may be fanciful and probably bad theology to say that tonight, when we gather in choir to pray the Great Vigil, the church across the way and all churches throughout the world will not really be empty. They will be filled with the spirits of the just, risen to newness of life and singing the praises of God. And it will be because Christ has experienced death for all mankind and thus brought to completion his work of redemption. Even now, he is acting, awakening the dead, bringing joy and gladness. An ancient writer expressed this better than I ever could. Christ says to those who sleep in death, as one day we trust he will say to us also: ‘Rise! I am the life of the dead.’
Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’
How often the poet and painter see what we do not! Or perhaps it is simply that recent generations have seen too much blood, too many horrors, to think of the crucifixion in anything but the most brutal terms. Of course it was brutal, but the modern film-maker’s lingering on torn flesh and gaping wounds misses something an older age understood instinctively: how to enter imaginatively into the drama of the cross not as spectacle but as participant. From the Dream of the Rood to the Harley lyrics, the poet’s vision of the duel between good and evil is intensely personal. The cross is no mere gibbet but speaks of its hour of glory when it bore creation’s lord; Christ questions us, demanding to know how he has erred that we should treat him so; and the dropping of that ‘lovely tear from lovely eye’ is like a lance to the heart of the onlooker. With Julian, most poetic and most homely of theologians, we see the blood falling from his pierced head as raindrops fall from cottage eaves after a shower and feel the wind that blows over Calvary and dries his flesh.
Our vision shifts and changes. We see the soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothing, driving home the nails; taunting him, or maybe offering him some kind of sedative on a hyssop stick; we hear the thieves crucified with him and that gracious promise to the one popular tradition names Dismas to be with him in paradise; we watch the tender scene where he entrusts his mother to John and John to his mother; and finally, there is that last great cry, when Jesus gives up his spirit and the veil of the temple is torn in two as heaven and earth groan with one voice: the Son of God has died. What escapes us is the significance of what we see. It is too vast. Two thousand years of theological endeavour have not yet exhausted the meaning of what happened on Calvary, but I think Nicholas Mynheer’s painting captures one important element.
The mothers of Jesus and Judas embrace. Both have lost a much-loved son; both know the grief of being outcasts. To take one’s own life is against the Law; to be crucified as a common criminal is beyond the pale. But there is more than that. These two women know that their sons are eternally linked, that the actions of the one led to the death of the other, but there is no room for accusations, no desire to perpetuate a hostility in which neither they nor their sons shared. They knew that Jesus and Judas were friends. They had probably fussed over them and the other disciples on their rare visits home, delighting in their companionship and banter. They knew the humanity of their sons, and were not afraid of their own. The cross stands as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation and we see in Mary and the mother of Judas that forgiveness and reconciliation at work. There is nothing but love between them, nothing but the desire to comfort, to lessen the agony each feels.
The cross now stands empty, having done its work. Jesus descends into the underworld to seek and save the dead. Among them, surely, is his friend, Judas.
Early this morning, as on every Maundy Thursday, I went into the kitchen and baked some unleavened bread. It will accompany our meals between now and Easter morning. It is the bread of affliction, the bread of suffering, a reminder of the reality of sin and redemption — something we taste, chew over, absorb into ourselves. Today it has a wonderful freshness and zest about it and will accompany our recalling of the Last Supper with joy and gladness. Tomorrow, when we fast the great fast of Good Friday, it will be stale, crumbly, eaten without relish. By Holy Saturday it will be rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death. It is a small way of making the huge events of the paschal Triduum approachable, knitted to the substance of our lives in a direct, uncomplicated way.
This morning, however, as I kneaded the dough, I was thinking about the interaction of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper. Jesus washed the feet of his friend, as he washed the feet of the other disciples. We are so used to seeing the villainy of Judas that we forget or do not register the fact that Jesus loved him and washed his feet gladly, even though, according to John, he had a premonition that it was Judas who would betray him. There is, however, a dramatic pause. It is not until Jesus shares bread with him that the die is cast.
Scholars have long argued whether Judas received what we know as the Eucharist, with most deciding that he didn’t. A lot depends on the kind of festal meal we think Jesus was celebrating with his disciples (John, for example, does not call it a passover meal) and the sequence of rituals within that meal. As I pulled and thumped the dough I asked myself whether the problem is not whether Judas actually shared in the Eucharist but our unwillingness to accept that Jesus could be so vulnerable, so open to abuse, as to offer his very self to his betrayer. Put like that, I think we know the answer. He offers himself to us and to all, sinful though we are, every time the Mass is offered. It is how we live with the tension of being simultaneously sinful yet forgiven. We like the idea of God’s mercy extending to us, but to others? Not always so much!
Tonight, for most of us, there will be no Eucharist, no sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We shall experience loss and emptiness as never before. But rather than concentrating on our loss, our own sense of deprivation, perhaps we could move our focus elsewhere, to the Agony in the Garden and the suffering of Jesus as he struggled to come to terms with what lay ahead of him. The idea of Jesus needing help may seem odd to some, but I think it provides a point of contact. Jesus needed his friends. He wanted Peter, James and John to watch with him. He needed Judas, too, as his friend. He wanted him by his side, but Judas had gone outside into the darkness. Pray God we never follow.
Today we recall the parting of friends. Judas betrays Jesus and sets in motion the events we shall be re-living over the next few days. Put like that, everything is low-key, seemingly inevitable. We miss the drama, the anguish, the tortured love that goes on loving. For what we often forget is that Jesus loved Judas, and Judas loved Jesus. No matter that each was deeply disappointed in the other; no matter that there was a parting of ways; love did not, and could not, turn to hatred.
Judas seems to have wanted Jesus to restore Israel’s political independence. His messianic hope was apparently focused on this world only. I say ‘seems’ and ‘apparently’ because we do not know. For centuries he has been demonised as the arch-betrayer, the clever man with astute financial skills, who sent Jesus to his death and was rewarded with what he desired most, a few more coins for his purse. What did Jesus want from Judas? Would it be too simplistic to say, he wanted his friendship, his company, that he enjoyed being with him and hoped that Judas would understand his mission as he himself had come to understand it? When Judas stepped out into the night, didn’t he long for him to turn back? Didn’t consciousness of their being on separate paths wound him? And when Judas began to see the consequences of his action, didn’t he feel a similar pain? When friends fall out, there is sadness on both sides.
Jesus did not approve of Judas’s betrayal, he condemned it, but he did not condemn Judas himself. To me that ‘Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!’ is a cry of pain, of sympathy even, for the suffering Judas will experience as a result of his actions. I think we sometimes forget that, as Christians, we cannot endorse that which we believe to be wrong but that does not mean we love the perpetrator any the less. Society often gets itself into a bind. On the one hand it believes that someone is responsible for every perceived wrong and should be made to pay for it; on the other, that there should be universal tolerance of anything and everything. That can be particularly hard for those of us trying to live a Christian life, but I think we can take heart from the interaction between Jesus and Judas. Jesus condemns the sin in no uncertain terms, but not the sinner. The public utterance and the private feeling may strike the casual reader as being at odds with one another. In reality, they are all of a piece. God’s love never comes to an end. In the Dialogues, Catherine of Siena hears from the Lord that he has mercy for Judas, too. He died for him, as he died for you and me. Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus died for Judas. The question I ask myself, therefore, is: if Judas is not forgiven, are we?
Is it religious illiteracy alone that makes many people refer to this week as ‘Easter Week’? In a sense, those who do are right even though their usage is contrary to Christian tradition. We have an annual remembrance of the events leading up to the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we know that precisely because of his passion, death and resurrection, everything has changed — for ever. We are indeed an Easter people, living in the light of the resurrection, even today, when the streets leading into Jerusalem, which yesterday resounded to hosannas, are filled with dusty, trampled greenery and Jesus himself has disappeared from sight.
I think that temporary absence of Jesus from public view is an important element of Holy Week but we need to hold onto our Easter faith. On Maundy Thursday we shall see Jesus and his disciples again, and after that, he will be centre-stage, so to say. But for now, he is hidden. We do not see him or hear him. As the apostle says, ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ (2 Corinthians 5.7) These few days of apparent absence are the time when we must each make a decisive choice. It is easy to follow a conquering hero, to be one of the crowd applauding a triumphant entry, but to be a follower of someone who makes no great éclat, who is at odds with the establishment, whom we don’t even see, that is much harder. No wonder many give up at this point.
But for us, today, tired as we are, leaderless as we think we are, we must choose Jesus.
Those with good memories will have noticed that this image has been used before on iBenedictines. There is something about the donkey’s mild eye and switching ears that, for me, captures the strangeness of this moment. Jesus enters Jerusalem to the hosannas of those who will soon be shouting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ He does so on the the back of a beast of burden, yet is he who carries our sins, he who bears the heaviest load of all. He does so gladly, just as Giotto’s donkey seems to rejoice that he carries our Saviour.
Today, wherever we are, we are one with those on the road into Jerusalem. We, too, are cutting down green boughs and spreading our cloaks before Jesus, even if only metaphorically. We sing our hosannas, knowing that we also could change to hostile cries and jeers in an instant. We do that every time we fail to recognize Christ in others, every time we set ourselves up to be judge, jury and executioner over the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, anyone to whom we are antagonistic or hostile, for whatever reason. But we also know that if we allow Jesus into our hearts, we won’t do that. The choice before us is therefore stark. Will we make a way for him into our hearts or not? Will we let him trample down everything that is inconsistent with his lordship? Will we be his Jerusalem?
Once again we have reached Holy Saturday, that day out of time, when in silence and stillness earth awaits the Resurrection. Our churches are empty of colur and warmth; no sacraments are celebrated; we know only the bleakness of the tomb and what it is to be without Christ. But God is working powerfully. The ancient tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ went down among the dead and preached to those who had had no opportunity of hearing the gospel while alive, reminds us that this is a day of mercy, a day when we do nothing because God does everything.
Monastic life is always lived in what I call ‘Holy Saturday mode’ — that is to say, by the mercy of God, suspended between heaven and hell, his grace leading us ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery. We do not see the way ahead clearly; we trust to his guidance. But we know that tonight, with the kindling of the new fire, his glory will blaze across heaven and earth; death will be destroyed for ever; and Christ will be revealed as our Saviour and Redeemer.
Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.
At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.
Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?
sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.
The Sacred Triduum begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the monastery we anticipate the Triduum with a day of special silence and prayer. At noon we have a solemn meal that recalls (but does not replicate) the kind of meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples while our reading of the Last Discourse as the final act of the day ensures we do not lose our focus as Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday. The liturgical celebration we begin tonight does not end until Easter morning. It is all one, as you can see from the fact that no dismissal is uttered from the end of Mass tonight until the end of the Easter Vigil. This is the high-point of the Christian year, and it is not a merely historical commemoration, a kind of play-acting that we engage in. By means of the liturgy we enter into the events we recall: we are one with what we are celebrating. What does that mean for us today on Maundy Thursday?
First and foremost, I think it means that we are each bound to scrutinize our own fidelity or lack of it to the commandment to love one another. Unless we are unusually complacent, I daresay most of us feel a little shame-faced when we consider how often we have missed opportunities to serve or done so in a way that was distinctly unloving and ungracious. Some of us may even have made consciousness of our own rectitude — in our own eyes at least — a source of boasting. How many, for example, have noisily turned their backs on the Church, saying they can have no part in her because of the terrible scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up? Then we read of Père Fournier going into the blazing heart of Notre Dame to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and know we are on firm ground again. That is what we expect of our priests! And tonight we recall the giving of that great treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. We give thanks and try to express our love and devotion in those precious hours at the Altar of Repose where we bring all the world’s sin and sorrow and our own pain and confusion.
Maundy Thursday is intense in its movement from Judas’s betrayal to the Agony in the Garden. It is intense in both its joy and its sorrow. We cannot live all our lives with such intensity but tonight we can and must. It is our entry into Christ’s Passion.