Today marks the start of Passiontide. The time when we begin the last stages of our journey, with Jesus, towards the foot of the cross. Perhaps now, more than at any other time we see Jesus as the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. We also see him as a man of extraordinary strength and courage as he struggles to face what lies ahead.
Fear is a very powerful enemy and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives us a picture of Jesus praying, crying, begging to be saved from death. Probably most of us can recognize a little of that fear of something which is about to happen to us.
Jesus sees the danger lying ahead but continues his work of teaching and healing. He doesn’t look for suffering but he faces it in the full knowledge of what it will involve. He knows he will suffer in his body all that human cruelty can do and crucifixion is about as cruel as it gets.
He knows he will suffer in mind all the misery, hurt and humiliation we can inflict on each other. Indeed he already knows what it’s like to be laughed at, rejected and hated.
We don’t know if he foresees suffering, in his spirit, the despair of feeling abandoned by God at the moments of his greatest need but I think he has gone through such moments of doubt and darkness and is afraid it’ll happen again.
So when we suffer in body, mind, or spirit we find, in Jesus, a God who has intimate knowledge of our pain and grief.
We see that, like us, Jesus knows about the inevitability of suffering, that it’s part of what it is to be human and that it can be very frightening. It’s possible that over the years we’ve become used to the idea that God enters into the pain and suffering of this world. But has that idea become a reality for us?
This year is there anything new we can learn about facing and coping with suffering from walking alongside Jesus on this road to the cross? These are the thoughts that have come to me as I’ve reflected on this Passiontide.
Jesus has lived with the knowledge of what is to come for a long time so we find in him a God who knows that sometimes it takes enormous courage and determination to live, day by day, with a weight on our hearts and a cross on our shoulder.
Jesus knows the times of temptation and despair when it all just seems too much and we long for a way out.
He knows what it takes to draw on our last ounce of strength just to get through another day.
The people who seek Jesus do so because they want something from him. They want teaching, healing or blessing. Some want him to be their king, to liberate Israel from Roman occupation. It seems to me that very few people have a thought for him and his needs.
So Jesus knows that the courage and determination to keep going often go unrecognised by others. He knows the secret struggles we sometimes face. What it’s like when people have unrealistic expectations of us and what it’s like to have constant demands made of us. I see Jesus as living these days at the absolute limit of what he can cope with and lonely in the knowledge that no-one understands what he is doing.
Jesus makes his choice and faces the cross.
We, too, must make some choices about how we live this Passiontide.
We can choose to walk with Jesus part of the way. We can come here on Palm Sunday and sing Hosanna, on Easter Day and sing Alleluia. We don’t have to come on Good Friday and say “Crucify him” and hear “Why have you forsaken me?”.
But that’s not how the story goes
We’d be missing the mystery at the heart of our faith, that God’s love does not fail, even on the cross, even towards those who choose to crucify him.
The other choice is to walk alongside Jesus for the whole journey We can accompany him day by day during Holy Week. We can enter into his story, knowing that somehow it’s our story too.
“Whoever serves me must follow me” says Jesus “and where I am, there will my servant be also”.
So if we are to enter into the full joy of resurrection then we will also have to enter into the full agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha.
We also need to find, within that experience some way of relating to the world around us especially at this time of war.
I think for me this year Passiontide is about recognising and confronting the consequences of our actions and taking some responsibility for the damage caused.
Just as we cannot get to Easter Day except through Good Friday, in our own lives we can’t evade the consequences of our words and actions. If we have hurt someone, or been hurt, we can’t always pretend nothing’s happened and everything’s all right.
Friendships can be restored but often only through a painful process of recognising the hurt caused, asking for, offering and accepting forgiveness and then a gradual re-building of trust.
As a nation we couldn’t get from failing to find diplomatic solutions in Iraq to change of regime and rebuilding without going through the horrors of war. When we gave up on diplomacy and peace-making we knew that war was inevitable and we cannot now avoid it. We cannot ignore the images we see of maimed men, women and children, of injured soldiers and dead, mutilated bodies of all nationalities. We cannot be saved from this hour – it’s happening because of choices we made.
As part of the community of nations we cannot establish true justice and righteousness until we have fully faced up to the savage injustices and the suffering caused by the neglect or oppression of the many by the greed and callousness of the few.
But confronting the problems and the issues doesn’t in itself provide the answers.
When Jesus commits himself to the road that leads to the cross he commits himself to identifying fully with the pain and suffering of this world. “It is for this reason I’ve come to this hour. Father glorify your name”.
That’s when God’s voice is heard saying “I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again”.
When we have the courage to confront the reality of suffering in this world and in our own lives, whatever its cause, we may not find the answers but we will find ourselves face to face with God and hear him say. “I know what you’re going through. That is why I came. In your life I will glorify my name.”
God’s glory is in the living, suffering and dying of Jesus but that’s not the end of the story. God’s glory is in the raising of Jesus to new life, the final triumph of love over death.
But before that new life can be born and bear fruit, the old life, like the grain of wheat, has to die. So it is with us. We can cling on to our old lives, afraid of what might happen if we say yes to God’s invitation to new life. Or we can begin again to let our old lives go as we renew our acceptance and commitment to the new eternal life found in the risen Christ.
This Passiontide let’s enter fully into the mystery of the suffering of Jesus so that we can also enter fully in the joy of his resurrection.