Vicar's Talks - Wednesday Holy Week
As we have made our way through this extended service of Tenebrae we have been looking at the psalms set for our meditation.
On Monday the psalms introduced us to the lament of the servant of God and we were invited to contemplate how the Christ was stripped of everything, even life itself as he made this journey through Holy Week. Last night’s psalms carried on this theme but the focus shifted to how the servant of God’s enemies were closing in around Him – their scheming, machinations, violence and betrayal. Even through the deep darkness of the soul occasioned by this the psalmist was able to say ‘The Lord is my light, my light and salvation. Whom then shall I fear.’ So last night we were both challenged and comforted: challenged to stay faithful to God ourselves; comforted to know that Jesus is present to us in the depths of our experience as well as the heights.
This evening our psalms echo similar themes…or at least two of them do. Psalm 54 begins with the plea ‘Save me O God’, ‘Strangers have risen up against me and the ruthless seek after my life’ – again, we could be in the garden of Gethsemane as the temple police arrive…or stood before Pilate’s Judgement seat. The last of our psalms (Psalm 88) is the meditation of a man who feels he is close to death. We, of course, don’t know the original setting for this psalm, but here in Holy week the words can become for us the words of Christ: ‘My life draws near the land of death.’ ‘I am counted as one gone down into the Pit.’ ‘I am so fast in prison I cannot get free, my eyes fail from all my trouble.’
For the psalmist, deliverance means escaping death and being restored to life and health. ‘Do you work wonders for the dead? Will the shades stand up to praise you?’ he asks. For later Christian thinkers the answer might be a ‘yes, God can work wonders for the dead, and those who have died can and will praise God.’: the resurrection of Christ changes everything…but for this writer his plea is to be saved from death in order that he might praise God in this life, for, to him death is a full stop beyond which God cannot be praised.
But of all the psalms this week, Psalm 76 is the odd one out. This is most definitely not a lament: there is no cry for help or deliverance, rather this is a psalm that celebrates God’s acts in judgement. God breaks ‘the flashing arrows of the bow, the shield, the sword and the weapons of war…horse and chariot fall at his rebuke…he breaks the spirit of princes and strikes terror in the kings of the earth.’ Last night we heard something of how the psalmists looked for God’s judgement, how they longed for vindication. Here we have it. God rises to judgement to save the meek upon earth….He acts to put the world to rights.
But there is a cost. Perhaps that is why we are given readings from the letter to the Hebrews this evening. The cost is the death of Christ. The letter to the Hebrews (as it’s title suggests) is written with a Jewish audience in mind: it is shot through with Old Testament references, references that only someone schooled in the Old Testament scriptures would stand a chance of understanding. But the letter also reveals an understanding of the world that has been shaped by Greek thinking and ideas. So this evenings readings marry seeing Christ’s death on the cross as being akin to a sacrifice made in the Old Testament tabernacle with the thoroughly modern Greek thought that what was taking place on earth, on Calvary, was in some way being reflected in heaven. Perhaps our language about sacrament might help to underline the point: we regard our sacraments as being ‘something physical that reveals a deeper spiritual reality’. So too with the death of Christ says the writer to the Hebrews – what is really happening on the cross is that our High Priest is offering Himself to God to create a new relationship with God the Father….an eternal, undying relationship.
Rowan Williams’ little book God with us explores the idea of sacrifice. He reminds us that there are very many different types of sacrifice in the Old Testament, sacrifices for different purposes, but then he says: ‘In the middle of it all (all the talk about sacrifice) there is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or a whole people. It removes the consequences of sin; it offers the possibility of a relationship unclouded by guilt with God; it is a gift that stands between God and the failures and disorders of the world. The gift is given…so that peace and communication may be re-established between heaven and earth’ (p24-5)
Archbishop Rowan further goes on to say that Old Testament thinking about sacrifice was in no way ‘primitive’: Jewish writers and thinking wondered, as do we, about what it is about sacrifice that is crucial to the act – and their wondering led them to the belief that what really matters is ‘obedience’. And we will come across this in our letter to the Hebrews – the son ‘learning obedience through what he suffered’, not in the sense of a recalcitrant teenager being snapped back into line by the Father but rather, conforming His life so that it expresses the will and the purposes of God – namely the ongoing outpouring of divine love that redeems us.
Judgement…and sacrifice. The judgement in the psalms is against all that might thwart God’s purposes – it is levelled against ‘the wicked’…and yet, in Holy Week we cannot fix this title on others without carrying it ourselves. We too stand under judgement. We too would have abandoned the Christ, fled the scene, denied knowledge of him. We too are capable of anger and betrayal, of carelessness and cold hearted pragmatism. We stand under judgement. But we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, offering his life for us once and indeed for all, for the whole world. His life of obedience is fulfilled on the cross so that now we can sing ‘Look, Father on his anointed face…and only look on us as found in him.’ In Christ God remembers us as we can be, not as we are. He deals with our waywardness, he ‘judges it’ for what it is but Christ’s obedience opens to us a way of living before God that is free from sin and guilt and invites us to live up to the fact that we are made in God’s image – Jesus puts us in a new place, a new relationship with God that is marked by its confidence and boldness in approaching the throne of grace, able to offer Him praise in this life and in the age to come.