A reflection for Passiontide

From two of the Passion Sunday readings: Ezekiel 37: 1–14, John 11: 1–45

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 29th March 2020 at 11.30 AM

At first glance, the site of Auschwitz Birkenau and the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria della Concezione appear to have very little in common. One, a parched locus of one of the most blasphemous crimes against humanity, that all-too-familiar epitome of Nazi evil, the place where the birds do not sing. The other, a 17th century Basilica off the via Veneto, near S Maria Maggiore in Rome, commissioned by the Barberini pope Urban VIII, and described by that most unlikely of Church fans Le Marquis de Sade as the most striking thing he had ever seen. The crypt of this church contains an ossuary with literally thousands of skeletons – the remains of Capuchin friars which have been stored within, or even used to decorate the crypt in a morbid baroque fashion. No one who has ever visited Auschwitz will forget the photographs of thousands of bodies taken soon after the allies had liberated the camp, the piles of hair, the ever present discovery of yet more bones as the earth is turned over. The inscription in that Roman crypt chapel, covered from floor to ceiling in bones reads “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”

Can these bones live?

This question sits at the heart of the Old Testament reading for this year’s Passion Sunday from the prophet Ezekiel, as the Prophet finds himself in a valley full of dry bones, with neither flesh nor breath. We can see it as both a literal question and a symbolic/representative question (a kind of shorthand) which has wracked philosophers and theologians ever since. As our minds turn more intensely towards the coming Passion and Death of Jesus, we are encouraged to engage with it once again. Shall these bones, and all that they represent, live? Shall it all be redeemed? Can the fragility represented by, embodied in dusty bones, really reveal the triumph of a God of love?

Whilst the sheer volume of the sights at Auschwitz or even in the crypt of S Maria dell Concezione shock us to the core, all of us who have ever been bereaved know that the pain of a single death of someone whom we love is just as profound, overwhelming, destabilising. Jesus himself is not immune from such an emotive response, as that shortest verse in the whole bible tells us that after the death of Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” Hugh of St Victor, who lived in the twelfth century, wrote that Jesus’ suffering, his passion for the world, was not just passionem in carne (suffering in the flesh) but also compassionem in mente (co-suffering in the mind), compassione in miseria aliena (co-suffering with another’s misery), compassionate for us in his heart and mind. Passion and compassion are richly at work together here in our Gospel reading.

The central point of this Gospel might surprise us at the beginning of Passiontide. The raising of Lazarus, the last of St John’s three great Signs is the opening of an unspeakably powerful vortex of light, drawing us forward into the mystery of the resurrection even as we consider Christ’s passion; it is like stepping into C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe and seeing the other side – a glimpse of Christ’s victory amidst an utterly human scene, so that nothing is ever the same again. A fundamental newness which is present right at the heart of pain and grief; a prophecy and sign of Christ’s resurrection  but also an unveiling of his cosmic identity – the God Man who destroys death and hell through his own passion and compassion.

You might remember Mel Gibson’s controversial film of 2004 The Passion of the Christ. Many commentators criticised it at the time because of Gibson’s obsessive focus on the physicality of Christ’s suffering. The flagellation scene alone goes on for many minutes, and is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen on television. Although the 83 year-old Pope St John Paul II is reported to have endorsed the film by saying Gibson had portrayed it “as it was”, part of the problem was that the film limits Jesus’s passion to his own physical suffering. There’s no broader context. Jesus’s passion, suffering and death emerges from his compassion with the world, from his life; a very same life which we know to be indestructible. His compassion and his passion are inseparable. His love for his friends, the honesty and frustration they speak to him, and Christ’s insistence that this scene is not quite what it seems, jostle around until they can see more clearly what is going on.

And all this, a fortnight before Easter. One of the cameo characters in this Gospel helps us understand the direction of travel. Thomas, who will later not believe until he sees the Risen Christ and touches his wounds, says to his fellow disciples and to us, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” This story, and the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones, are about the restoration of humanity, they speak of how a fragile creation will be consummated by the love of the Creator. The Christian Faith is not a series of helpful make-believe situations, of magic tricks or temporary feel-good factors. No encouragement for cryonics or reincarnation. There are no shortcuts. The real story of Holy Week is far more exciting. For us, this year, it might help to become more conscious that that story is one both of passion and compassion. As we celebrate Jesus’s own Sacred Passion we should remember that it is not a context-free transactional exchange – an abstract pay-off, which somehow makes everything else OK – but the final scene in a life of deepest compassion, which overflows in endless unbinding. The classical historian Kyle Harper has described the role of Christians in the turmoil of mid-3rd century Rome, as the city fell apart. The pandemic known as the Plague of Cyprian in the 250s led to around 5000 people dying each day.  Harper writes, “Christianity’s sharpest advantage was its inexhaustible ability to forge kinship-networks among perfect strangers based on an ethic of sacrificial love.”[1] It was precisely out of the ashes of such turmoil that Christianity became the key force which re-shaped classical civilisation. Our witness at this time of pandemic is one of Christian compassion and Christ’s passion. We are called to share in both. Deep solidarity, intense prayer, care for the other, self-restraint to protect the vulnerable, all rooted in our confidence that comes from the re-creating reality of Christ’s triumph over death. These actions of Christian witness testify that the dry bones shall indeed live, and that our own fragility and vulnerability may be where we encounter Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

[1] I am indebted to Mark Vernon’s excellent article The Plague that changed a civilisation for this reference

(The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press, 2017)