We live a double life.
Not at times but all the time. At least, this is true of those of us who are members of the Body of Christ, those who have been saved by God’s grace. We live a double life in a sense. On one hand, we are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb who was slain. But on the other hand, we still struggle against sin, the flesh and the devil. How can this be? There’s very much of a both-and situation going on here, a now and not yet.
This time in the Church calendar can be a little strange for us as well. We have begun what is called “Passiontide.” This time begins on First Passion Sunday (today) and ends on Holy Saturday. Why do we do this? I want to offer an extended quote from the 1956 St. Andrew’s Missal in explanation,
“During these last two weeks of Lent, leading up to Easter, the Church is at pains to make us relive with her the events which went before and surrounded our Savior’s death, and which, above all others, were decisive in effecting the salvation of the world.
Passiontide, by its close connection with Eastertide even now sets before us our Redemption in the Blood of Jesus, but it is the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ and the humiliations of His Passion to which the Church now turns particular attention. Before applying to our souls the fruits of grace in the triumphant celebration of our Savior’s Resurrection, she desires to make us follow Christ step by step in the dire struggle which He underwent in order to redeem us.
Thus the long retreat of Lent draws to a close, as we contemplate that unique contest, which could alone wrest man from sin and earn salvation for him. It is essential that we should be reminded of this and it is a source of great consolation for us. Our personal effort at self-correction and reparation is not thereby rendered useless, but it is only effective and of value in union with the Passion of Him who took on Himself the sins of the world and expiated them all. Through that mysterious solidarity, which exists between all members of the human family, Jesus, Son of God made man, takes the place of His guilty brethren. He takes our sins upon Him…”He was made sin for us,” says St. Paul, “so as to bear our sins in His Body on the tree.””
This, then, is Passiontide and today is First Passion Sunday. Our readings for today are going to reflect the dual nature of our reality as I introduced this reflection with.
Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-15
Gospel: John 8:46-59
We are presented in our Epistle text today with a vision of our Lord Jesus that is at once profound, slightly disturbing by modern standards, and glorious. We are told that Christ is our High Priest. We are given the image of expiation and sacrifice. The writer says,
“Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption.”
To a Jewish person of the 1st century, this would have made perfect sense. In the sacrificial system under which they lived, put in place by God, expiation for sin only came through sacrifice. In fact, later in this chapter (Hebrews 9:22), the writer tells us that, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin, calling to mind Leviticus 5:11, Leviticus 17:11 and Ezekiel 43:18.
The writer goes on to offer the perfect sacrifice of Christ for our meditation and great joy. If the blood of goats and oxen offer expiation, how much more, he asks us, does the perfect blood of the unspotted Lamb of God cleanse us?! And so, under the “Old Covenant” blood was shed for the remission of sin, now a new and better covenant has been fulfilled in our sight. By the shed blood of Jesus, a New Covenant has come forward that we who are covered in the blood of Christ may enjoy our eternal inheritance.
Here we see His glory and prestige as our great High Priest, yet His great humility and sacrifice in giving up His own Body and Blood for the salvation of the world. By His blood, a new covenant ensues. By it, we are made free.
And yet, we see in our gospel reading, the increasing hatred of the Jewish authorities toward Jesus. They even accuse Him of not only casting out demons with the help of the prince of demons but of being possessed of a demon Himself. What sacrilege and blasphemy! And then, in their minds, He commits the ultimate blasphemy. He calls Himself God. Look at verse 58 of our gospel reading,
“Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am.”
They take up stones to kill Him. Seems a bit harsh by our modern standards. But lest we took quickly consider our modern standards, remember that it was YHWH Himself who told Moses in the burning bush His most Holy Name: I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14). Make no mistake. Jesus was very clearly calling Himself God, the eternal One, and therefore unequivocally referencing His divinity.
The Jews understood this and tried to kill Him for blasphemy.
Such a sharp contrast put before us in our readings today. This is the dichotomy set before us in Passiontide. On one hand, we see the fruit of grace in the celebration of Easter anticipated. On the other, we see the torment He endured on our behalf.
This is happening today as well. Our world (at least some of it) will recognize Jesus as a wise man, a great teacher, perhaps even a holy man. But the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God who is indeed divine by whose death we are reconciled to God? No, that cannot be Truth to the world. For, if it is Truth, it demands something of us. The person of Jesus the Christ demands our faith and our obedience and for that, the world cannot stand Him. Our modernist world cannot stomach objective Truth, a Truth that exists outside our own selfish worldview of personal autonomy and what we believe is our own personal transcendence. Here is where our flesh conflicts with Christ. Here is where we don’t want to be.
But here we must be. In the middle of this duality, this dichotomy. We have the glorious and great High Priest on the one hand and the bloody corpse of the God-man, Jesus, on the other.
We cannot look away. We dare not. We must lean in, look closer, embrace our discomfort in fasting and penance so that we may join in His suffering.
By it, we are purified and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to our Savior.
In it, we join our Savior in His Passion and in His glory.
Anyone else feel like we’re living in some kind of weird time suspended state or something right now? It’s like this strange, world-wide Orwellian dystopia in which the world as we knew it seems turned inside out. Right is wrong, up is down. We’re all being put under house arrest and forced to cover our faces, prohibited from gathering with family or friends for fun and laughter and even holidays, even prohibited in gathering for worship. Our so-called leaders tell us that it’s our “patriotic duty” to submit to these oppressive tactics of our government.
Things are weird right now.
And, do you know what is wonderful?
The timing of Advent could not be more perfect right now. Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. It is a time of hope and anticipation, but not just any hope and anticipation; it is the hope and anticipation of One who will come and set right the things that are wrong. Justice will prevail, the final reign of the Christ will conquer all evil, hope and promise and goodness will rain down from His being soaking everything in holiness and wholeness.
Man, don’t we need that right now?! I’m reminded of what Legolas says in The Lord of the Rings, “Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.”
It feels like we’re living in a time when all is forlorn. There is trouble in the world and our human society. There is trouble in the Church with corruption inundating and apparent capitulation to the world from some of our bishops.
It feels forlorn.
What a perfect time for hope!
Advent has traditionally been a time marked by the Church to celebrate the anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ but also to mark the anticipation of the second coming of the Christ. The emotions expressed in our texts this week help us to feel this way as well; a longing, a yearning for something outside ourselves to come and save us.
Consider our Old Testament text, Isaiah 63:16-17, 19, 64:2-7.
We see here the longing for the return of “our father, our redeemer.” We get a sense that we don’t want to go back to the way it was in “the beginning, when thou didst not rule over us, and when we were not called by thy name.” There was a time when things didn’t make sense, the prophet says, when God didn’t rule over us and we had no identity and that was a dark time. But if we wait for our father and redeemer we, like the people of Israel can say with the prophet, “From the beginning of the world they have not heard, nor perceived with the ears: the eye hath not seen, O God, besides thee, what things thou has prepared for them that wait for thee.”
Wait for Him.
The Psalmist reminds us that our waiting is not for some vague esoteric reality. Rather, the reward of our waiting is our very salvation. Look at Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19.
“Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.”
We read this twice. It is repeated so that we may notice it, pay attention to it, meditate upon it. Turn us again. Return to us again, the Psalmist cries, and let us see your face. And the result of His return? We shall be saved. Our waiting is not in vain. Our waiting, our hope is for the salvation of our souls. It is more than just peace or no more sickness and no more death. It is so much more than we can even imagine. It is the very salvation we so desperately need. It is the antidote to forlorn. “Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine: and we shall be saved.”
Wait for salvation.
In our gospel text, Jesus, the very One we’ve been waiting for, reminds us to “take heed, watch and pray.” We see this in St. Mark’s gospel 13:33-37. Like the parable, Jesus has gone into a far country and has given his authority to his servants over every work of the Church and commanded us to watch and pray. He may come at any moment or he may tarry long in that far country. It is our responsibility to wait faithfully.
Wait in prayer.
Finally, St. Paul reminds us, in 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, that we are to wait in the grace of Christ for the day of his coming. In Him we are made rich, through the confirmation of the life of Christ in us as we await His return. And how can we be sure? I mean, it’s been a long time and things aren’t going so well so how can we be sure? St. Paul tells us, “God is faithful: by whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” We can be sure because God is faithful.
Wait in assurance.
Two of the greatest writers and thinkers in the English language, I believe, are JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Their story telling has been profoundly impactful for me and many others. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a masterful telling of the salvation of the world. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, was also good friends with Lewis. Lewis’ telling of the story of salvation in The Chronicles of Narnia is wonderful. I grew up reading those books, not really understanding the story I was reading. As an adult, I have come to love the mythical beauty of both these writers.
The major figure in all the Narnia chronicles is the mysterious lion Aslan, who is a clear personification in mythical form of the Christ. He always comes and goes and disappears for apparently centuries at a time…much like Jesus. He has come and gone in one form or another (theophanies of the OT come to mind) until He was incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And He’s been gone now for a long time.
Like Narnia, Advent reminds us that Good will come again. We read, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
The King will return and when He does, there will be no more winter in our souls. Only the sunlight and warmth of His love and the strength of His embrace.
Come quickly Lord Jesus!
Thy people await thee.