Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2022
Passion, as a term, has a deeper more ancient usage.
The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon Steward and Archdeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 3rd April 2022 at 11.15 AM
Making our way through Lent, we arrive today at Passion Sunday which begins the period we keep as Passiontide. Its arrival signals that Holy Week is very near and that the journey towards the cross is deepening in its intensity.
In most everyday usage we take the term ‘passion’ to mean a strong emotion, or maybe an attraction or obsession: we might say of someone that they have a passion for gardening, fine wine or the films of Ethan and Joel Cohen. ‘Follow your passion’ we might say to a friend as they pursue an interest that has gripped them.
But passion as a term has a deeper more ancient usage, which goes far beyond the modern equivalent of an enthusiasm, no matter how fervent.
Arising from the Latin word ‘passio’ meaning ‘to suffer’ or ‘to endure’, passion most commonly referred to the suffering endured by Jesus during his last days or hours. The term was extended to refer the hardship endured by others, typically the suffering of a saint, but any great affliction could be considered a passion.
Understanding passion as great affliction endured, we may find Christ’s passion still resonating amongst suffering people across our world today, including: amongst the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, some being forcibly returned. In the millions of people in Sudan, at risk from violence and displacement. Amongst those in this country who worry about the rising cost of living, especially of food and fuel. And of course, amongst the many children, women and men of Ukraine whose lives, livelihoods, families and communities have been shattered in an instance.
This Passion Sunday we continue to hold these and other situations of great anguish within the Passion of Christ.
In turning to today’s scripture readings I’d like to highlight one aspect of Christ’s Passion;
It’s being a means by which a way is made for those for whom no way seems to exist. A way that connects God’s salvation past, present and future.
We start with those words from the book of Isaiah. Words offered to a people whose overriding concern was that they were far from their homeland, in exile. They had lost everything, their land, their homes, their families, their livelihoods, even perhaps they must have wondered, God. With the tragic images and accounts we hear daily now, it is striking how little some human experiences have changed despite the passing of the centuries. Then the people’s situation was grim but political maps were being redrawn. The powerful Babylonians responsible for their suffering had themselves been defeated and the Persian Empire was taking centre stage.
In that situation of exile they are given a reminder that God had delivered the people in the past. And a promise that God was about to do a new thing. which would overshadow even that past deliverance. God who had made a way—who had parted the sea to lead them out of bondage in Egypt would make a new way in their wilderness, to freedom.
Looking back through their immediate circumstances to what had been, the people were to understand that what God would do in the future would far eclipse what had gone before. Once again God would make a way where there was no way.
Holding fast to this understanding of God as the one who makes a way where there is no way, we turn to that homely setting where a meal was being shared in a village close to Jerusalem, at Bethany.
The time is just a matter of days before the Passover and the events of Holy Week.
Jesus is at a dinner, given for him. Martha was there. As was Lazarus, whom Jesus had only recently raised from the dead. That episode is recorded in just the preceding chapter of John. It was a turning point, from then on, both Lazarus and Jesus were marked men, time was running out. In giving Lazarus life Jesus adds to the pressure building for his own death. Jesus knew this and still he proceeds. He enters willingly into the way that will lead to his passion.
And here too is Mary, sister to Lazarus and Martha. Mary had sat at Jesus feet before. Doing so again she takes precious perfume and anoints his feet. Perhaps an act which looks back, a response of gratitude for the restoration of their brother from the tomb. An act which also looks forward to Jesus’ own death and burial.
Jesus himself will, it seems, take this moment with him into what is to come. What Jesus receives from Mary he will soon offer his disciples—as a few days later he tenderly wipes their feet.
The rich details captured by the gospel writer make this scene so human and so very vivid. We are told that the perfume was pure nard; are given its quantity, a Roman ‘pound’ or ‘litra’; and told its effect—how its fragrance filled the entire dwelling.
We are also to understand that all this is costly. And that not everyone will get it.
Mary had received much and her response a generous outpouring of costly perfume. Her action, wittingly or unknowingly anticipating the and costly generosity of Christ’s coming Passion, his out pouring of himself.
Earlier Jesus had described himself as the Way. The Way, the Truth, the Life. Soon it would be his outpouring of his life lived so truthfully, which would make a way for all of us who could never make a way for ourselves.
So, what might all this mean? How might we live in response to the One who makes a way where there is no way?
Perhaps in a world of beauty and joy yet so often beset with anxiety, violence and cruelty we might determine to be followers of Christ or to renew our commitment to following him in the Way. To draw near, as did Mary, and so to find the strength to neither despair nor to conform to the expectations of others, but instead to adore.
Perhaps we might reflect on what God has done in our past and in our midst. To find inspiration to live in the shadow of both the cross and the hope of the resurrection. Not to turn from the realities of suffering, our own and that of others but to hold them within the passion of Christ. Christ, whose extravagant love is even now calling us to join him in building a way that all might be free.
I began by noting the meaning of the word passion, how in general use its original mean has been somewhat blunted. But beyond the church we may most readily encounter passions most essential meaning in another word: ‘compassion’.
Compassion, which combines ‘passion’ with a prefix signifying ‘with’.
Compassion; ‘suffering with’.
This Passiontide as we look deeply into the passion of Christ may we be grasped by the vastness of his compassion. How he suffered with and for us and his suffering with people around the globe in their suffering. Would that we so inspired that we might join his work to create safe passage, a way for others. That we might be ‘passion bearers’, to cite a term used by our Orthodox sisters and brothers.
To do so, to follow the model of the apostle Paul in his willingness to share the passion the sufferings of Jesus may be costly. But Christ has made the way and invites us to follow him along it with joy, with anointed feet, secure with him as our compass and guide. As we will sing in a few moments:
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
'I am this dark world's Light;
look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
and all thy day be bright:'
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I'll walk
till travelling days are done.