True Courage: Wednesday of Holy Week 2016

Yesterday’s attack on Belgium’s main airport and a metro station left many dead and more injured. It was a cowardly, despicable act. The perpetrators (IS) have trotted out their usual ‘justifications’ but it is difficult for a Western Christian to understand. What kind of God demands a human sacrifice? What kind of religion sees the slaughter of innocent people as a holy act? The questions are all the harder because during Holy Week we are reminded that God in Christ reconciled the world to himself, but at the cost of his Son. We do not speak of the Crucifixion of Christ in terms of human sacrifice, nor do we see his being put to death as a meritorious act, intended to win God’s favour by those responsible; yet we know that it is through his death, his perfect obedience to the Father, we ourselves are forgiven. We know too that if we are to be his disciples, we must forgive as completely as he did. Wasn’t Christ’s prayer on the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’?

I think it helps to consider these things in the light of today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 50. 4–9 and Matthew 26. 14–25. In them we see true courage at work. There is the Suffering Servant who refuses to exact vengeance but waits patiently for the Lord to vindicate him. The beauty of the words may blind us to their horror: to have one’s back struck, one’s beard torn, to be insulted and spat at, as Jesus himself was to be during his Passion, are not small matters. They are an expression of malice, of malevolent zeal, and they wear down the one subjected to them as much through contempt as actual pain. Then there is the betrayal. There is no overt violence here but a cold, calculating act of perfidy. Judas dips his hand in the dish with Jesus and, in a show of bravado, asks if he is the betrayer. Jesus’ reply is an almost unwilling acknowledgement of how far Judas has fallen from grace. To be betrayed by a friend, someone loved and trusted, was surely not the least of Jesus’ sufferings; but he accepts the fact quietly, and where we might have railed and ranted, abandons himself to a process he knows will end in his own death. That was courage of a high order, and it contrasts starkly with the cowardly violence of the terrorist.

This morning many Christians are among those calling down curses on IS or wanting to kill everyone they believe to be responsible for what happened in Brussels. They forget that isn’t an option for Christians. There is no alternative to forgiveness. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to eliminate terrorism, or that we simply allow ourselves to be massacred, but it does mean the angry and vicious thoughts we are tempted to express must be dashed against the rock that is Christ. His prayer on the Cross must become our own. It must be prayed whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Anything less would make a mockery of the faith we profess and show ourselves to be cowards. It would give the terrorists the victory by confirming their narrative of a West that is profoundly Islamaphobic, etc, etc. I fear it might even mean that, as far as we are concerned, Christ died in vain. As we pray for the dead and wounded, let us pray also for the perpetrators and for ourselves. Forgiveness isn’t easy, but we must try. We cannot let hatred and cowardice triumph.

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Tuesday of Holy Week 2015

Today’s gospel, John 13.2–33, 36–38, gives the lie to the idea of Jesus’ serenely going to his Passion and Death, completely untroubled in mind or body. Instead we see him ‘troubled in spirit,’ blurting out his distress at what he knows will happen, and then a brief, sad exchange with the friend who will betray him. All this to the accompaniment of the disciples’ baffled incomprehension. They are still in Palm Sunday mood, looking forward to the Passover, expecting great things of Jesus. Simon Peter is full of cheerful courage, ready to make the most extravagant declarations of love and fidelity. We know how it will end, but we are destined to go on every step of the way, with nothing changed or lessened in intensity.

I think Tuesday in Holy Week has its own special dynamic. Many of us are putting the finishing touches to our liturgical and domestic preparations. By Wednesday we shall be so close to the Triduum that we shall mentally be inhabiting its space, but today there is still some distance. We are distant, too, from the joyful celebration of Palm Sunday. Then, like a stone falling into a still pool, comes the narrative of betrayal, sending out ripples of horror in all directions. Today acts as a kind of reality check on Holy Week. We can’t close our eyes to the pain and suffering caused by a complex web of relationships and an equally complex chain of events. The only thing we can do is try to embrace it as honestly as we can. Much of our life has similar moments, but today assures us that, wherever we go, whatever we experience, Jesus has been there before us. There is a wise saying of Julian of Norwich which expresses how grace transforms our failures, if we will but let God act:

Grace transforms our failings full of dread into abundant, endless comfort … our failings full of shame into a noble, glorious rising … our dying full of sorrow into holy, blissful life. …. Just as our contrariness here on earth brings us pain, shame and sorrow, so grace brings us surpassing comfort, glory, and bliss in heaven … And that shall be a property of blessed love, that we shall know in God, which we might never have known without first experiencing woe.

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