Good morning to you all! I’ve just returned from a theology conference in York where the topic, in recognition of this being the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, or Authorized Version, was HOLY WRIT: Authority and Reception. As with all conferences of this type, there was a wide variation in papers and presentations, but the balance that was being struck, or at least being sought after, was one between viewing the bible as containing static information on one hand or timeless religious ideal on the other. People have recognized that the bible must play more of a role than simply containing information along the lines of an encyclopedia or history book, because then it neither withstands actual criticism OR provides much of anything to the contemporary world. On the other hand, if the bible is simply a text full of obvious religious truths—truths like: love your neighbor, give to the poor and, in general, be a good person—well, then who needs the more complicated begetting and begotting bits, not to mention that whole business with the cross!
Despite the wide variation in theological commitments and perspectives, one truth rang out during the conference: that there is a reciprocal relationship between us and the bible; we find ourselves constituted by it and criticized by it while at the same time standing over it and reading it. As one presenter said, “of course people can do what they want to with the bible, it is just a book,” but a book that operates in a very personal way. Tübingen Theologian Oswald Bayer explains:
“…when I read and hear Scripture, then I note that these stories talk about me; they tell my story” . . . “I appear in them long before I obey them. In this way the text precedes me and this text addresses me. . . [in this way] the hearer is placed into his proper relationship; the individual does not constitute himself, he is assigned a location: as a creature of God.”
Now, this creaturely location, this status that we have is no mere abstraction, because we recognize that even as the world begins its process of regeneration, even as the “circle of life” continues uninterrupted all around us, the passing of time marks us with a dawning realization and fear, even, that perhaps we are simply long-suffering members of this circle. Each spring of new life and new birth brings each of us one spring closer to our own end, and no abstract contemplation on the unity of nature or beauty of the cosmic circle or philosophy of infinite return will placate the dawning realization of our own finitude, our own creatureliness.
This is the story of our creatureliness, of finitude, of mortality into which God himself has entered. And in light of that, I want to encourage you to look at this Holy Week as the height of self-denial, because the temptation is always to jump past these events and arrive on Easter morning, but perhaps this is why each gospel writer slows down the narrative and takes such pains to chronicle these events. If we were listening to each Gospel being read out loud, there could be no mistaking the intended importance of these events.
In the events of Holy Week, beginning with our celebration today, we are invited to what philosophers would call a “life review,” but we would recognize as that which people have in near-death experiences when they say “I saw my life pass before my eyes.” In this week, however, we do not see OUR lives pass before our eyes through Jesus, but as those who followed and surrounded him. Like in the movies when time slows down and we observe things from every angle and in every detail, this week we are given an opportunity to rest before God as He teaches us about what it means to be created in his image, what it means that he had to come and suffer and die and what it means, finally, for all of us for whom the events of this week constitute the sole and persistent hope upon which we rest. However, this hope, like our lives, like the very palms we wave today that will be burned and turned into ashes for next Ash Wedensday, this hope is shaped, like a cross.
As Jesus himself said, lest a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die it cannot bear fruit, so this week narrates such a great fall. We have begun today with the exultant and exuberant crowd all crying Hosannah, Hossana in the Highest! This cry will sound decidedly different in both content and tone come Friday. But, in many ways, we have no choice but to walk this Via Dolorosa, this way of suffering, the way of the cross, because as we all walk towards the inexorable moment of our own end as we witness the cyclical death and rebirth of nature with growing horror that, perhaps, we are simply one such component of the “circle of life,” as our Hosannas and exultations become less exuberant and more and more qualified and tempered by the persistence of evil and death and suffering all around us. This is the trajectory of Holy Week that can be read as information or seen as a general principle, but it can also be entered into and received, something, really, to be suffered, to be endured.
One of the persistent biblical images is that of the community of faithful people being like gold or silver that is being refined by God, this Holy Week, I invite you to hear afresh the Passion of our Lord, to find yourself being refined, caught up with those for whom initial excitement turned to ambivalence, rejection, anger, resentment and as one for whom Jesus prayed with his dying breath, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And find ourselves, perhaps, exclaiming anew and afresh with the Roman Centurion, who we will meet this Friday, that, “Surely, this man was the son of God.”