Earlier in Holy Week, I went to All Saints’, the Anglican church in Rome, for the service of Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Blessing of the Oils (blessed by the bishop, these are used at baptism, confirmation and with the sick).
Since then we have had the observance of the Triduum, the final three days of Holy Week. At Vence, we shared a service with Eglise Protestante, who have their services at St Hugh’s every week. In Nice, we celebrated the traditional liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Tomorrow we have the first Eucharist of Easter (at 8.30 p.m.) and on Easter Sunday we have celebrations of Easter at the normal Sunday times (9 a.m. at Vence and 11 a.m. at Nice).
Stories, particularly family memories, shape who we are. This is also true of faith communities. For Jewish people their great formative story is the story of the Exodus, the liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt and the journey to the promised Land. This is recalled every Passover.
The story of Passover is essential to understanding the story that we have been re-telling and re-enacting this Holy Week.
We began last Sunday with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, with the crowd cheering him on and waving branches. This procession – we might say demonstration – was in stark contrast to the show of military might being staged on the opposite side of the city as Pontius Pilate came in with his war horses and soldiers. Jesus’ style emphasised peace and the power of humility and Pilate’s the power of violence and oppression.
We know how the story continues. Powerful people are suspicious of Jesus’ motives and fear that he might provoke a revolt. As the High Priest said, ‘It is better that one man die’ rather than have this outcome. So, forces gather to annihilate Jesus.
On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathers with his disciples for a Passover meal. As the story of deliverance from Egypt is told, Jesus introduces a new dimension. The traditional cup of blessing and the unleavened bread are given a new significance. They become ‘his body’ and ‘his blood’. They are to repeat this meal into the future.
This meal with his disciples is a meal that looks back and looks forward. It looks back to the night of the Jewish people’s deliverance from Egypt and looks forward to Jesus’ crucifixion.
The disciples don’t understand what this means. In fact, as Jesus agonises about staying to face those who would sacrifice his life or flee, they fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane (beautifully evoked in one of the principal windows at Holy Trinity Nice). The disciples cannot share Jesus’ choice or his consciousness.
Then, on every Good Friday, we recount the trial, death and burial of Jesus. We simply tell the story and come to the foot of a simple cross and venerate it.
John’s Gospel, read on Good Friday, confronts us with the startling insight that the Crucifixion, the moment of Jesus’ humiliating public execution, is a moment that reveals God’s glory.
Far from being the object of vile taunting from those crucified with him or the powerful people who thought that they had got rid of him, the Cross is the place where God reveals how much he loves us – he will put up with all our anger and violence and not resist.
But Good Friday ends with absence and numbed silence. The glory of God may be apparent later but on the day of Christ’s death, there is desolation and the hurried burial of the innocent Jesus before the Sabbath begins (the Sabbath begins after sundown on Friday and ends on Saturday evening after sundown).
Once the body is in the grave there is nothing more to be done until first light after the Sabbath is over, Sunday morning.
The gospels teach that the resurrection occurred on ‘the third day’, that is after sundown on the Sabbath and before the Sunday morning. Therefore, we have the first celebration of Easter, the great liturgy of the Easter Vigil, as soon as the sun goes down on Saturday – at 8.30 p.m. at Holy Trinity on Saturday April 20 this year.
On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the discovery by Mary Magdalene of the tomb, empty after the resurrection on the third day. She returns at first light to finish the burial ritual. Imagine her pathos. The men had run away and Jesus’ principal disciple, Peter, had denied that he knew him. Now all that was left was for the women to perform the last rites of Christ’s wounded and dead body.
But we know what they discovered. An empty tomb. Mary rushes to tell the men what she’s seen. They return. Apart from the Beloved Disciple, they haven’t a clue what it means.
Mary confronts someone whom she thinks is a gardener. She’s angry and accuses him of grave robbery. Then he turns to her and calls her name and she know that it’s Jesus. The risen Jesus is ultimately recognisable but changed.
This isn’t just a good story. If something hadn’t really happened, no one now would be bothered to tell the story I have just told. Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the Risen Christ, the first evangelist who tells the disciples of Christ’s resurrection, who in turn spread a message that has never died.