Passion and The Passion

Sunday 17th March 2013
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
John 12:1-8

We are quite properly wary of passion although I think we tend to over-do our self-caricature as a nation of the stiff upper lip. To be passionate is to take a risk with self-identity, to face the prospect of rejection and even ridicule. It might all end in tears and we cannot be certain at the outset what sort of tears these will be.

But the greater risk is to dispense with passion and this is most easily seen in the down-grading of sexual passion to the pursuit of lust; the down-grading of courage to the perpetration of violence; the down-grading of idealism to managerial politics; and, in our own religious sphere, the down-grading of Jesus from a passionate advocate of his mission to a pallid moraliser. Yes, three dimensional passion is risky but two-dimensional platitudes are much more risky. It isn't mere snobbery that leads us to value Shakespeare more than Corrie; it isn't antiquarianism that guarantees the survival of Romeo and Juliet long after Mills & Boon is a footnote of publishing history; and Christianity has survived in spite of every effort to reduce it to censorious moralising.

Under a previous dispensation today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, was called Passion Sunday, referring to that phrase, strange to some ears: "The Passion and Death of Jesus", but less strange when we understand the word in the sense of the old French usage from the Latin for suffering and endurance. But I would like to consider the Passion of Jesus in its later usage of highly charged attachment.

The scene before us is of a passionate woman anointing the feet of Jesus and weeping over him. In the synoptic accounts this is the tribute of a sinner, a supposed prostitute, perhaps Mary Magdalen, but in our account in the Gospel of John it is the story of a sister thanking Jesus, the Jesus who wept, for restoring her brother Lazarus to life. Ever since Jesus Christ Superstar the sexual aspect of the passion of a woman for Jesus - a bundling of Mary Magdalen and Mary the sister of Lazarus - has become a popular commonplace, Which should not be ruled out. But that is not to say that because all sexual attachments should be passionate, that all passions should be sexual, or all gratified. But the thanks of two women whose brother's restoration to life spared them penury and social isolation was indeed something to be passionately thankful for. And all the way through the New Testament we see people reacting passionately to this healer and teacher: Bartimeus pulling his clothes off; Zachaeus climbing a tree and later making handsome reparations to those he has cheated; the Centurion declaring himself unworthy to receive Jesus in his house. For some of the wrong reasons, the Old Testament is one of the most passionate collections of writing in the world, but surely the Gospels are the most sustainedly passionate pieces of writing in history.

And what of us on this day when we enter the final stages of our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, to Calvary and the tomb?

Passion is rarely quiet: how do we speak of Jesus? Passion is rarely sedentary: how do we stand for Jesus? And passion is rarely still: how restless are we for Jesus? In these two weeks of high drama, when we may reach the low point in our spiritual year, the answers will no doubt be nearer to what he would like: we are talking about what happened in Holy Week; we are being witnesses in the street and in church; and, for this brief period, we can't get enough of Jesus. And yet, we spend most of the time, even in this fortnight, talking to ourselves. While the world outside loses its sense of what this season means we, perhaps disillusioned, perhaps simply not seeing the point any more, come in ever smaller numbers to be with Jesus when the going gets really tough. We have been beguiled by the necessary precondition of Holy Week and Easter, by the Christmas Incarnation; we have exchanged the symbiotic passion of two people in the face of death - you and Jesus; me and Jesus - for the simpler emotion of loving a child which does not answer back either in the passion of commitment or the passion of endurance. We don't mind building the spiritual equivalent of a doll's house for the child but when it comes to building the Kingdom, chopping the logs, hurting our hands, feeling the cold, having to start all over again when the pieces will not align properly, we are less keen. But the motivation for our labour should be simple: this man who was God died for us all; and most people don't know this and it is our duty and privilege to tell them. Just think how much happier people would be if they came to understand that our sojourn on earth is critical in  the enterprise of Kingdom building but that death, of which almost all of us are frightened to a greater or lesser degree, is not to be feared because of what awaits us afterwards.

And so we must, particularly in this critically painful and uniquely vivid period, speak for Jesus, stand for Jesus and be restless for Jesus. In other words, we must be passionate for Jesus in both senses of the word, just as he, in both senses of the word, was Passionate for us.

There is a current fashion - I hope it is more than that - to promote mindfulness and during our Lent course, Jesus, Man of Prayer, we have seen how Jesus always prays at critical moments in his mission; but prayer, and mindfulness, are not substitutes for building the Kingdom, they are necessary preconditions. We cannot choose as Christians in the secular world either to pray or to build the Kingdom through public witness, we must do both; but without real passion for Jesus we will do neither very well. These next two weeks will remind us of the drama of the life and death of Jesus but this is not an end but a beginning, a springboard for the long days of what we call 'ordinary time'; but no time with Jesus is every ordinary.