Sermon for the Sunday of the Passion, April 5, 2020, YRA
Today, in the reading of the Passion, we have heard our story—the Christian story. But all of us know that we have not heard all of the story. Today we stopped telling the story in the middle of the narrative. We left off where Jesus has died on the cross. Even after the cataclysmic events that followed his death, for the disciples that was the end of the story.
But you and I, however, are not like those first disciples: we know that the story goes on. Even when we stop telling the story at the crucifixion, as we have done today, we know that’s not the end of the story. I suspect that it is almost impossible for us to enter into the passion of Christ without looking at it through the lens of the resurrection.
So what is our celebration on this day all about? Why do we tell this story the same way year after year? After all, usually we are not in despair as those first disciples were. Normally we would not leave this service in fear of persecution and death as Jesus’ followers did after his crucifixion.
But this year is different, isn’t it. In the face of a world-wide epidemic that threatens both our lives and our livelihoods, we easily fall into despair. Many have locked themselves in their houses to slow the spread of the disease. And yes, we are fearful—for ourselves, for our families, for our country—even for our world. How does this liturgy of the passion intersect with the very real possibility of infection and death?
I think there is a verse in Psalm 139 that helps illuminate what we are doing today: “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.” To God, “The night is as bright as the day.” To God, “Darkness and light are both alike.” But that certainly is not true for us! For us, it is the difference between darkness and light that seems to be “as clear as night and day.”
But the psalmist insists that to God, “darkness and light are both alike.” This is something that those first disciples had to learn. For with the crucifixion their hopes were dashed and they were plunged into fear and despair. And even we, who live on this side of the resurrection, must come to learn and experience what it means that to God, darkness and light are both alike.
To God, the crucifixion and the resurrection are both alike. Even we, who live on this side of the resurrection, must learn what this means. We must not rush to the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances. We must not deny the gravity of this moment. We must go further back, seeing God in the apparent emptiness and desolation of the crucified Jesus.
Even in the best of times it is hard enough to remember to offer thanks to God for our blessings. But how much more difficult it is to thank God when we are confronted each day with discouragement and pain, with illness and death. This is not really surprising. Why would we want to give thanks for something that is so difficult? And yet, that is what our story—the Christian story—tells us we must learn to do.
Once again we are called to enter more deeply into the paschal mystery: Christ’s dying and rising. The good news of the Gospel is not simply Jesus’ triumph on that first Easter Day, but rather the totality of Jesus’ witness: his life, death and resurrection. The suffering of Jesus, his passion, may seem like the greatest darkness we can imagine. But to God, “darkness and light are both alike.”
Saint Paul puts it this way: “All things work for good for those who love God.” These are words that help us understand our personal experiences of depression and discouragement, those dark times like the present crisis when we may have the sense that God is absent, or even that God has abandoned us. I do not have an answer to those feelings. I can only bear witness to you of my own experiences of feeling spiritually lost in periods of emptiness and times of darkness.
For me there have been moments in the midst of hopelessness—times when there was only darkness—times when somehow, by the grace of God, I was able to say: “Blessed be God. Blessed be God in the darkness. Blessed be God forthe darkness.” And at those moments, I have seen that the “darkness” was “light” – that the darkness is God’s gift, just as much as the light is God’s gift. That, when we are rooted and grounded in God, “Darkness and light . . . are both alike.”
The mystics tell us that our only hope of redemption and new life lies in acceptance, trusting in the God of whom we have lost track. Darkness teaches us that there is no one and no thing that can fill the vast emptiness welling up within us. Only God can fill us. Only God can fulfill us. The darkness is God’s gift, because when we accept the darkness in faith, then it can be transformed by God.
This is what we see in Jesus hanging on the cross saying the beginning words of the long lament we know as Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But even on the cross, Christ’s cry in the darkness is transformed by faith into words of trust and assurance: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
This is what we celebrate this day, this week: because this Holy Week is a sign to us of God’s presence in the very heart of our darkness. It is a sign that we desperately need to assuage our fear and calm our minds. And our liturgy is, in fact, a sacrament, a means of grace: for through it we share in those great events in which Christ takes up our darkness and transforms it into the light of the Holy One, the one he most intimately spoke of as his “Father.”
And this happened not just once in the past; it is happening even now, even today—and it happens in us. But our darkness persists: our disobedience, our anger, our unfaith, our addictions, our separation, our fear, our false idols, our sin. Even so, the passion narrative proclaims that in Christ, God continues to transform our darkness into God’s light.
This Holy Week is no mere commemoration of this mystery: it is another chapter in the great ongoing history of salvation. As I said at the beginning: the passion is our story, the Christian story. So in your prayers, when you open your heart to God, know that you are accepting your part in the great drama of salvation that is being played out in you.
This is God’s promise! We who are baptized into Christ must learn to die with him, to accept the emptiness of the darkness, so that in and through the experience of darkness and death, we shall also come to live with him in the glory of his eternal light.