THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT (PASSION SUNDAY) – Judica me
Introit: (Ps. 43) Judge me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people: O deliver me from the deceitful and wicked man; for thou art the God of my strength. Ps. O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me: and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling. Judge me, O God … (Glory be … being omitted during Passiontide)
Collect: We beseech thee, almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people: that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: And it came to pass, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God himself will see to a lamb for a burnt offering. So they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place JHVH-jireh [the Lord will see]: as it is said to this day: In the mount of the Lord he shall be seen. And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22.1-18)
Gradual: (Ps. 143) Deliver me, O Lord, from mine enemies: teach me to do the thing that pleaseth thee. (Ps. 18) It is thou, Lord, that deliverest me from my cruel enemies: and settest me up above mine adversaries: thou shalt rid me from the wicked man.
Epistle: Brethren: Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance, in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Hebrews 9.11-15)
Tract: (Ps. 129) Many a time have they fought against me from my youth up. V. May Israel now say: yea, many a time have they vexed me from my youth up. V. But they have not prevailed against me: the plowers plowed upon my back. V. And made long furrows: but the righteous Lord hath hewn the snares of the ungodly in pieces.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto the multitudes of the Jews: Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God. Then answered the Jews, and said unto him: Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? Jesus answered: I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you: If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. Then said the Jews unto him: Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? Jesus answered: If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me, of whom ye say, that he is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him: Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. (St John 8.46-59)
“If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me.”
This Fifth Sunday ushers in a distinct season within Lent, known as Passiontide. The traditional Gospel for the day focusses our attention on who Jesus is—“Before Abraham was, I AM,” while the Epistle stresses what He has done for us—“by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” In order to enter into the “holy place” (i.e., the Holy of Holies), our High Priest had to pass within the veil, and thus be hidden from view.
“Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple,” we read in the Gospel. In the Roman Rite it is customary to veil all crosses and images in the church during these last two weeks preceding Easter. But in the mediaeval church the custom was even more dramatic. As you may recall, in much of Northern Europe all crosses and images were veiled in unbleached linen (the ‘Lenten array’) all during Lent. In England, on Passion Sunday (if not done on the Monday after Lent I) a huge veil was drawn across the entire chancel at the words “Jesus hid himself,” entirely hiding the sanctuary from view until the end of the Passion reading on Good Friday, when “the veil of the temple was rent.” As Jesus hid Himself from His adversaries in the Gospel, as He hid His divinity during this time of His Passion, so now His image is hid from our view until the celebration of His resurrection. Just as the high priest hid himself when he passed behind the veil into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the sacrificial blood on Yom Kippur, so Our Lord is hid behind a veil until His holy sacrifice of atonement is completed. The intention of this veiling of images is to make our meditation on the Passion more focussed and intense, and to create a sense of longing. It is a tradition that can be a fruitful activity for the “domestic church,” as well, and families are encouraged to veil crosses and religious imagery in their homes. This can help us more fully to participate in the liturgical season. It is also a meaningful tradition to pass down to children, and can make this time of year more significant for them. We often decorate our homes for Easter, so why not prepare for that great Feast of Feasts by using Lenten or Passiontide veils?
Through all these external preparations, Passiontide calls us to an internal preparation. The veils are often also known as “shrouds.” The term shroud adds another dimension to this exercise: Christ died for our sins; and we, through the Paschal Mystery, are called to die to ourselves that we might rise to newness of life in Him. Passiontide invites us to draw closer to God; to enter into the Holy of Holies through Our Lord’s Passion, that we might be cleansed of sin, and made at-one with God (which is the original meaning of the word “atonement”).
When we read this strange Gospel for Passion Sunday, it probably strikes us that there is a lot of name-calling going on. In fact, it rather sounds like a school playground. The leadership of the Jews have had an ongoing dispute with Jesus. Jesus is trying to assert who He is, and their response is to call Him names: “Samaritan!” “He has a devil!” And Jesus responds, “If I say that I haven’t seen my Father, I’d be a liar just like you!” Then it really degenerates into a schoolyard brawl when they pick up rocks to throw at Him, so that Jesus has to hide Himself. Amid all this name-calling, it is difficult to discern what it is that the lectionary wants to communicate to us on this Passion Sunday. What is the Church trying to teach us about Jesus, and about ourselves?
There is a great deal here having to do with names: name-calling, of course, but even more importantly, THE Name—השם (HaShem, “the Name,” the word devout Jews use for God). Jesus says, “Before Abraham ever came to be, I AM.” I AM—JHVH—this is the Name of God. Our Lord is revealing to them, in no uncertain terms, who He really is. I am God. So no wonder they began to pick up stones: to assume the Name of God is blasphemy, the penalty for which is death by stoning. In this Gospel, then, the readers are left with two choices: either Jesus is Who He says He is, or He is a blasphemer and a megalomaniac.
But Our Lord says something else here that should convict us all: “You say that he is your God: yet ye have not known him.” We must remember that the Jewish leadership who conspired to have Jesus executed were religious people. They went to the Temple for all the prescribed feasts, they were faithful members of their local synagogues, they followed all the rules. Yet, Jesus says, they did not know God. Religion often devolves into religiosity. All people are religious. Even those who think they are not religious, who do not believe in God or reject “organized” religion, are still religious. For some science is a religion; for some it is technology; for some art; for some sports. The question is not whether or not we are religious, but rather, “Whom does our religion serve?” Whom do we call God? Who is God for us?
“And man said, ‘Let us make God in our image, after our likeness.’” Throughout history, that is what has happened. People take their own notion of God, and make that into their god—a perversion of the Genesis account. But God is beyond our naming. Our God is completely Other, transcendent, above all, the unmoved Mover, the self-existent One, Who always was, and is, and evermore shall be—I AM. Who is our God? And what does that say about us? The individuals disputing with Jesus would say, “We are the sons of Abraham.” But Jesus replies, “Long before Abraham was even a twinkle in his father’s eye, I AM. And Abraham saw my day and rejoiced.” That is, Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of a great nation, and that his descendants would be God’s own people. Thus, in the third chapter of his letter to the Galatians, St Paul says, “As many of you who have been baptized into Christ, you have put on Christ.” We have been clothed in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye belong to Christ, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.27-29).” As baptized followers of Christ, we are the descendants of Abraham according to that promise, not according to the flesh. That is what last week’s Epistle was about. We are God’s own people, and have been given a spirit of adoption whereby we too can call Him ‘Abba,’ that is, ‘Father.’ But do we take this status for granted, like that crowd of Scribes and Pharisees in our Gospel?
We value worship in the beauty of holiness. But do we love merely the form and the beauty, without desiring the holiness? Do we allow God to change us? Holiness is the fruit of God’s sanctifying presence in our lives, which we experience through prayer. The one who does not pray cannot make progress in the Faith. We value tradition. But will we now fulfill our mission to reach out and share our Faith? The Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees thought that their tradition and their interpretation of the Torah was the answer to all Israel’s problems. Jesus offended them by His aberrant interpretations, and because He taught that even they needed to repent and change their ways. Human nature instinctively creates patterns of behaviour for comfort and protection, but our practice of the Christian Faith must lead each of us to examine our consciences and change the way we live. Trying to do better by merely human effort will always fall short. Our Faith is not about striving to obey rules, but about knowing God as He is revealed in His Son through the grace of the Holy Spirit. “You say that he is your God, yet ye have not known him.” Is it possible that we say prayers to God and sing about God, but do not actually know God—that the outward form does not match the inner reality?
Bishop Michael Hawkins writes:
Many people look on the cross of Jesus with only one eye open. Some of us consider Jesus’ suffering and death as the price paid for the sin of the world, but ignore the example of his service and self-sacrifice. Others of us are wide open to Jesus’ example of unjust and innocent suffering, and of service to others, but turn a blind eye to his sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. We are encouraged today and in the next two weeks to open both eyes wide, and to see in the death of Jesus both the sacrifice for sin and the example of life.
… But the cross is not only the means of life, it is the way of life. We cannot truly receive it as the sacrifice for sins, unless we embrace it also as the example of life. The disciples failed to see the necessity of Jesus’ cross and therefore of their own. Their mistaken hopes for themselves were based on a mistaken understanding of Jesus. For if the Christ must suffer and die, then so must the Christian. Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is the second eye open on the cross, and one which professing Christians so often close. (Sermon for Passion Sunday, 2002)
In a few days we will be celebrating the great mysteries of our redemption: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Pascha. We will be immersed in those mysteries as we participate in the Liturgies of those days. If we are one in Christ, if we are so intimately joined to Him, then, in Him, we enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday; we go to the cross on Good Friday. And we rise with Him on Easter Day. That is what our Liturgy is about. It is not a spectator sport. It is our active participation in the mystery of our salvation. In preparation for this Great and Holy Week, let us meditate on those words of Jesus: “I AM.” Think on them during the next two weeks. Who is Jesus? Who am I? And who is He calling me to be? Remember, each one of us is a member of Christ’s Mystical Body. He lives in us and we live through Him. But as St Paul warns Timothy: “It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him; if we suffer, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we believe not, yet he abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself (II Tim 2.11-13).”
Passion Sunday begins our preparation for Good Friday. But the real preparation must take place in our hearts. Jesus did not suffer and die so that life might go on as usual. Our Lord is going to Jerusalem to die for our sins, so that the world will never be the same again. Are we ready to go with Him? Are we seeking Him with all our hearts? Are we willing to be changed by Him so that we might also rise with Him? “Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” Perhaps Jesus has hid Himself from us for a little while, in order that we might re-orient ourselves and learn again what it is truly to know God. “Ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart (Jer. 29.13).” Let us seek Him earnestly, that we may know Him as He is, and that others may see Him in our lives.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.”
“And Abraham called the name of that place ‘the-Lord-will-see’:
as it is said to this day: In the mount of the Lord He shall be seen.”
Collect: Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son our Saviour Jesus Christ: so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him; and that through the grave, and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection; for his merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer Over the People: Look with compassion, we beseech thee, O Lord, upon this thy people: that they, rightly observing this holy season, may learn to know thee more fully, and to serve thee with a more perfect will; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the Lord bless us and keep us.