St Margaret’s Church, Binsey, Evensong on Sunday 7th April 2019 [Lent 5]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Psalm 35; 2 Chronicles 35:1-6, 10-16; Luke 22:1-13.

Now the feast of unleavened bread drew near, which is called the Passover [Luke 22:1]

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the beginning of Passiontide, a season at which we begin to focus more intently, if not exclusively, on the meaning of the cross and on sacrifice. Reading the account in Chronicles, which is essentially about the preparation and practice of a specific animal sacrifice linked to the story of the Exodus, the sacrificial ritual may seem strange, even uncouth and certainly unnecessary to us today. However, in Antiquity, virtually everyone, Pagans as well as Jews (and these certainly included the early followers of Christ) were used to sacrifice as an everyday event or certainly an every festival event: for Jews sacrifice meant essentially the Temple in Jerusalem; for Pagans sacrifices were performed by priests at temples everywhere. As an archaeologist I spent yesterday morning writing up two miniature altars, from a temple in or near Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire where they were found, and attesting the practice of sacrificial worship there. Yes, Christianity did reach even Bourton in the 4th century as attested by two lead tanks, probably fonts, but that is another story.

In most languages, but not English, Easter is designated by a name analogous to Pesach/Passover. As St Luke makes clear Jesus was going to celebrate the Passover Festival with his friends and disciples but, unbeknown to them, he himself was in a manner of speaking the Paschal lamb or so he is presented by the Evangelist.

We need to be careful of the theology here. A Calvinist view sees the crucifixion as an act of penal substitution. This problematic doctrine is expounded in the very well-known hymn by the Victorian hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, There is a green hill far away…which we will not be singing, One verse goes:

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
he only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.

That, of course, is a travesty of justice, and if we believe in a God of mercy as well as justice the idea of sending his son to die a horrible death is distressing to all truly religious sensibilities. Rather. we should see the Passion as God fully entering into all the cruelties, entering into all the wrong in the world as saviour and redeemer. He was and is there with the victims in the Shoah, with the victims of the horrors of the Syrian War and with the victims of every single act of violence and wrong from the beginning as he will be for ever. I often mention the Coventry cross of nails and the simple inscription ‘Father Forgive’.

Yes, he was there at the King Josiah’s sacrifice in 2 Chronicles, but he was assuredly just as much with the sacrificed lamb as with the people. Where do we stand, feeling so very superior in having abandoned animal sacrifices, but consenting to the daily slaughter of millions of sentient animals, cattle ,sheep, pigs, chickens and turkey, without uttering so much as a prayer? Do we ever consider that the living Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World is with every lamb that is killed and all the other creatures killed…as he is with us humans?

The Passion of Christ is a clarion call to repentance, to ask Our Lord’s help in dealing with our own sins and asking for absolution. His suffering and death has, over the two millennia since his death, brought some people to their senses and has taught them that absolution and redemption are always there if only we have the humility to ask for it. The author of today’s psalm, attributed to David begins with the words:

Plead my cause, O Lord, with those who strive with me; fight against those who fight against me…

It was not only physical enemies which fought against one. In the Ancient world sin was associated with demons and sometimes with a Devil. People frequently wore protective charms against the Evil Eye like a little Roman gold charm found in Kent which I examined last week in which a large eye was under assault from various beneficent creatures, and Jesus’ healing ministry in his lifetime was often concerned with those very fears of malevolent powers. Our own vulnerability today may be different but our need for redemption remains the same, we need to know that God is with us in our suffering, not far away or departing as Artemis was from the mortally wounded Hippolytus in Euripides play, because the divine for the Ancients could not be with us in our mortal suffering as Jesus is and, in the Angelus , so is his Blessed Mother ‘at the hour of our death’.

Pesach, the Jewish Passover, celebrates the liberation of the Hebrews from their enslavement in Egypt. We should never underestimate the importance of temporal Liberty, which is after all what our society claims to be trying to maintain all the time. We believe, as did Jesus, in liberty for all, liberty from bondage, from the oppression of others, from greed, from violence. But there is more: one of the most attractive figures of Late Antiquity was the Neo-Platonist philosopher Synesius (c.365-413), pupil and lifelong friend of Hypatia, head of the great School of Philosophy at Alexandria and a Pagan; although Synesius became Bishop of Cyrene towards the end of his life, his ten hymns are grand philosophical poems which place Christ in a cosmic context, inclusive and not at variance with his past beliefs and friendships. Appended to these hymns are a few short verses, perhaps not by him, which I think gets us far closer to what the events of the next fortnight are about than a hundred ‘green hills’. The translator and adapter was, however, another Victorian, A. W. Chatfield.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
and purge away my sin;
from earthborn passions set me free,
and make me pure within.

It ends with the verse:

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that when the flood is past,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share thy joy at last.

Synesius was a Greek and the Greek church puts more emphasis on salvation, on the eternal brightness of the Platonic philosopher than on a gloomy and vicarious attempt to flagellate ourselves in imitation of Christ’s suffering to no very good purpose. This little hymn is certainly a world away from the morbidity of Stations of the Cross, It looks beyond the suffering and the penance to the starry sky and to the ultimate redemption of all that there is.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.