Vicar's Sermon - Monday of Holy Week
Those of you who follow the parish FaceBook page will know that, after my weekend away just last week, I posted some pictures from my travels. Kim and I journeyed down to Oxfordshire to visit a close friend and, on the way, stopped off at one of the least likely tourist destinations in the country: Wakefield. Wakefield Cathedral is undergoing a major refurbishment and both Kim and I have wanted, for some time, to see the new labyrinth that has been laid in the nave. The cathedral is still something of a building site: the whole of the east end, from the choir screen, is boarded up whilst work takes place. But we saw the new labyrinth and we were pleasantly surprised to see that the cathedral was gearing up for a film showing of Jurassic Park. Apparently the cathedral runs a film club for parents and children twice a month presumably to help folk who might not be able to stretch to a family night out at one of the big cinema complexes – and we also noted the rood (or the great cross) above the choir or chancel screen.
The fount of all knowledge – Wikipedia – tells me that a rood, a great cross does not always need a screen. To be honest, roods pre-date the screens they now stand upon. Some old churches have long had a huge cross suspended between the chancel and the nave: only when the church felt the need to protect the reserved sacrament from the unruly folk who might inhabit the nave of the church did a screen become ‘necessary’. Roman Catholic churches surprisingly did away with screens at the Counter Reformation – we Anglicans however held on to them, institutionalising an ‘us and them’ division between the robed choir and ministers in the posh seats and the general laity down (in our case in Barnard Castle very much down!) in the nave
But I digress for the point of mentioning the rood and its screen is really to draw attention to the design that is frequently associated with them and which adorns Wakefield Cathedral: a central cross displaying the crucified Christ, flanked by the two figures mentioned in our reading: Mary (Jesus’ mother) and John (the beloved disciple). There they have stood, in many a church objects of devotion. The relationship between the three deemed to be worthy of note for generations of Christians – so much so that by adding Mary and John to the rood it sometimes feels as if focus is being drawn away from Jesus Himself. But their presence at the crucifixion has biblical support (at least, as we heard last week from David and Judith, if we take John’s Gospel as our guide....and, as we consider Jesus’ last words from this gospel the first of these are addressed to Mary and John. ‘Woman, here is your Son. Here is your mother.’
There are two things here that I’d like to mull over. The first is that these words are about ‘family’. Even as he is dying Jesus is thinking of His earthly family. Tradition has it that Joseph was older than Mary when they married: I suspect we are meant to assume that he has died. Interestingly he is not mentioned at the beginning of John’s gospel when Jesus, his disciples and Mary are on the guest list for the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Mary is then, presumably widowed and about to lose her oldest son. I say ‘oldest son’ because we know that Jesus was her firstborn but forget that he had brothers. Admittedly, John chapter 7 verse 5 records that ‘not even his brothers believed in him’ – were these Mary’s children? Or were they Joseph’s children (half brothers to Jesus) from a first marriage.
Family for Jesus seems complicated. Once we get past the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke his birth family seem to have struggled to know what to do with him. At the age of 12, according to Luke, Jesus makes it clear to Mary and Joseph that his relationship with God His Father trumps his relationship with them: ‘Did you not know I would be in my Father’s house?’ comes across as something of a put down. Indeed, once his preaching ministry began we have the gospel records informing us that his family thought he had gone mad – it is only after the resurrection that we learn that his family have ‘come good’ as they find their place amongst the community of disciples worshipping in Jerusalem.
But here we have an older child protecting his mother, ensuring that she is not abandoned in her old age. Jesus provides for his mother – and for whatever reason we must assume that his brothers were not able to do this for her. Jesus is keeping the commandment to ‘honour his father and mother’: he is providing for Mary as best he can. Even as he gives himself for the world he shows compassion for his mother. I don’t know your families, you don’t know mine: my brother and sisters live elsewhere, my parents live at a distance. Every family is different: the dynamics between siblings, parents and children can vary immensely but this word from the cross reminds us that compassion needs an object, it cannot remain ‘general’ in its reach. When we see the needs of so many but cannot meet those needs we risk what we call compassion fatigue. Jesus’ compassion will embrace the world but it does not neglect the person right in front of Him, the person closest to Him. Love is personal and more often than not, practical. So, here we have a reminder to pay attention to our families as part of our discipleship – to those we have been given by God, to those for whom we have a particular care and duty. We should bear the cost of our discipleship, not them.
And secondly, this first word from the cross shows us the creation of a new family: some commentators even see this as showing us the beginning of the church proper: a new community coming into being , gathered around the cross of Christ and shaped by it. ‘Woman, here is your Son.’ John ‘ Here is your mother.’ The thing here, of course, is that it is Jesus who creates this bond between people. He initiates the relationship and sets it on its course. He is the glue that holds it together. We forget this at our peril within the church: the moment we remove Jesus from our relationships as Christians we are headed for disaster. The Christian family comes into existence in and through him, it collapses (more often than not acrimoniously) whenever we attempt to build relationships without Him. The church lives by faith: faith that He can hold us together despite all our differences. What other community embraces so many different people: it is a miracle that sustains us. Our own attempts at community exclude more often than include: they are built on sand, on an idealised vision (perhaps) of uniformity, believing the same things, acting the same ways...when push comes to shove ‘being just like me!’ Jesus allows us the freedom to be together simply because He loves us. The person along the communion rail from me is loved as they are and I am asked always to see them through Jesus’ eyes not through my own.
Two families then: our birth family and the family of our second birth. They differ. As we have heard, Jesus Himself was not immune to the tensions that existed between seeking to serve God and the demands of his family and he was certainly not immune to the tensions within his own band of disciples (who without him cold easily fall apart) but both families are offered here as arenas within which to live out our discipleship: may we be granted grace to do so.