Fr David's sermon
9th April 2004
The Passion Story is very newsworthy at the moment due in part to Mel Gibson's controversial film, 'The Passion.' Some have praised its accuracy, others have found anti-Semitism, some have seen more plasma than theology and others have looked in vain for the humanity of Christ (and his divinity?) amidst the excessive violence of the film.
This renewed interest reflects wider controversies about religion in our world. Ancient antagonisms between the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been revived and seem unlikely to go away in a world of deep division in Iraq, between Palestinian and Jew in Israel and of al-Qaeda fuelled terrorism by those who contrast their love of death to the West's love of life. For good and for bad the ancient story of the crucifixion connects with current political realities and concerns.
The Passion stories in the Gospels have entered deep into Western consciousness in other ways too. They have inspired great art; whole traditions of religious painting, the drama of passion plays and musical works such as the St. Matthew and St John Passions of Bach.
At one level the Passion accounts simply tell the story of Jesus' last day; they are narrative before they are anything else. That the four are different reveals that they are much more than that. The evangelists selected and arranged their material carefully to give their own particular emphasis and meaning to their passion stories. Reading St. Luke on Palm Sunday and St. John today you can see that. Jesus has much more to say in Luke than he does in John where he is evasive. All four are compelling and of great impact and in many ways they can speak for themselves without further comment.
So having said all that my thought for today comes in the form of a question. What would it be like if we didn't have them or for that matter the New Testament at all? What would we then know of Christ? It has been said that if we only had Isaiah and the Book of Psalms then we could still know much of Christ. Despite the fact that these biblical books date from hundreds of years BC, from the earliest days Christians have applied them to Christ, something which Jesus seems to have done himself. The passages from Deutero-Isaiah and Psalm 22 seem to fit the crucifixion of Christ and lead us into deeper reflection on its meaning.
Scholars are divided as to whether the 'servant' described by Isaiah is the nation of Israel or a messianic figure or both. By the time of Christ it was increasingly seen as describing the messiah an interpretation the early church took further by seeing the prophecy as fulfilled in Christ. The passage somehow captures the appearance of Christ, his sufferings and the way he dealt with them and his burial. It deals with the impact of his life and death on kings and nations and gives meaning to that death. 'He bore the sins of many and made intercession for transgressors.'
Psalm 22 almost seems to give voice to Jesus' experience. 'My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?' With good reason in its recitation of the Psalter, did the monastic tradition see the words of the Psalms as Christ's words spoken in prayer to his Father. Thus the words of Psalm 22 were seen as Christ's words on the cross. The later verses, 'I am poured out like water, my mouth is dried up like a potsherd' seem to reflect the physical reality of crucifixion. The reference to the parting of garments and the casting of lots for clothing mirror the actions of the executioners.
On Good Friday we are given these readings to help us meditate on the meaning of Christ's death on the cross, so that we may know that his death is 'for us'. Our faith tells us that both the New Testament and the Old are given to us by God who inspired the original writers. They form an extraordinary gift to the Christian, one which repays much prayerful study and contemplation.
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Last updated 09/04/04 16:00:00 Author: David Shepherd