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What's On


Preached on 18 April 2011
by David Stancliffe

You may have watched Peter Kosminsky’s docu-drama, The Promise, on television, shown on four Sunday evenings in February.  It told the story of the Arab/Israeli conflict through the eyes of a young British sergeant in Palestine in 1947, who became involved with a Palestinian family and made a promise to return the key of their property in a Jewish occupied area after the conflict; and his granddaughter who discovers his war-time diary and goes in her gap year to keep a schoolmate from London company as she does her National Service in Israel today, and who manages to trace the family and return the key.  The film goes back and forth between the time-frames of the present and the past, and it is sometimes difficult to tell which period you’re in, as the issues seem almost identical: what doesn’t change is that personal commitments and social entanglements do not always match political realities on the ground.  Some things never change.


I start with this example, as I need to preface what I am going to share with you on these three evenings at the start of Holy week by rehearsing briefly the three different ways in which the church’s commemoration of the events of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus has been celebrated, and the parallel ways in which the events then and our life now have been connected.  How do we link the past to our present and our future?  To which ways of doing history is the church heir?


In the earliest tradition, and this probably reflects the basic Jewish pattern of the week and is in place long before anything we might later call ‘the Liturgical Year’ is a conscious entity, each first day of the week is the day of resurrection.  This is the pattern that is reflected in the single death/resurrection/ascension/Pentecost moment – a down/up movement of incarnation/descent into non-being/raising up to the Father’s side in glory that permeates St John’s gospel.


This pattern is visible from the first moments of John, which is why you never quite know where you are in a linear, historical sense: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’ is Jennens’ only quotation from the gospels in Part II of Handel’s Messiah.  And this comes not from the Passion narrative but from Chapter 1, as John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him out of no-where, as you heard in the reading.


This Johannine one-moment happening (though much overlaid with other and later understandings) is still part of our liturgical celebration today.  It is mostly rehearsed in the night/dawn between Holy Saturday and Easter Day, when in recounting the whole story of our salvation, we start with the creation and fall in Genesis, and then read Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s Dream, the Burning Bush, the Plagues, the Passover and the Exodus, before going on to other great stories of escape – Daniel, Jonah and the like.  But the all-embracing, one-event theology is also present in the liturgy on Good Friday when the liturgy – before it became overlaid in popular devotional practice with the sad death of Jesus – centred on the triumph of the cross.  Jesus’ cry from the cross:  – it is finished – uses the same root verb that the Greek Septuagint uses in Genesis (2.1) of the completion of the old creation, and this is how John quite consciously establishes Jesus’ completion of the new creation.  As Jesus dies, he ‘gives over’ his Spirit, and establishes a new and universal order.  That is why it’s Ps 67 that is traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Veneration of the Cross, with its promise that God’s saving power will be known among all the nations, with the refrain:


We venerate your cross, O Lord,

And praise and glorify your resurrection;

For by virtue of your cross,

Joy has come into the whole world.


There, in the middle of the Good Friday liturgy, death discloses resurrection; the sign of death brings life.  And furthermore, this moment of exaltation and triumph is linked in John’s time-frame to the precise moment (following the instructions in Exodus 12) when the lambs for the Passover meal were slaughtered.  This conjunction of Jesus’ death with that of the lambs was pre-announced by John the Baptist’s cry (Jn1.36) ‘Behold the Lamb of God’.  Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, provided by God like the substitute victim for Isaac in Genesis 22, whose blood will preserve his people from death, and ensure their escape into freedom from slavery.


By contrast with this Johannine vision of what Crashaw calls ‘eternity shut in a span – God in man’, the second layer of commemoration begins to find all this drama each week both too overwhelming and also too habitual; will it become commonplace even?  Would it not be better to make a major celebration of this world-changing happening (re-presented in the weekly memorial of the eucharist) just once a year for such a once-for-all event?  But when?  The church soon became locked into disputes about how to calculate the very day, depending on a wide variety of calendrical usages and lunar calculations, of which our own resolution at the Synod of Whitby in 664 is by no means the last gasp.


Behind this quest for the actual moment in each year, there develops a ‘re-memorative’ rehearsal of the events, before the more literalistic ‘historicisation’ takes over with the dramatic re-enactments and life-like crucifixions that we associate with German high gothic art, or Spanish devotions.  The re-memorative impetus develops from the pilgrim instinct of visiting, seeing, touching (almost Thomas-like) the holy places.  Helen’s quest for the true cross turns Jerusalem into the place to be for what is becoming Holy Week, and the lure of archaeology is born.  It is not only the building of the basilica of the s and the discovery associated with Helena of the relics of the cross, but certainly by time of the pilgrim Egeria’s visit – a Spanish nun who spent several months there at the end of the 4th century – this sense of being vividly in touch with the events of Jesus death and resurrection goes with the sense of place.  So holy places and spaces, the building of churches and shrines over those actual holy spaces and places, the discovery and valuing of tangible relics, the consciousness of our connection to the pastness of the past and the linearization of time that goes with it, all help provide a template for and so absorb – like a physical lifeline – the day to day passing of time, the playing out of every human life as a drama of birth/growth/decline, death.  This historicised pattern aligns more readily with the Synoptic style of narrative, where events succeed each other in a linear succession.  The archaeological time-line rather than the plunge into vivid and timeless experience becomes the main thread.


This is neither the time nor place for a major excursus into the difference between the Western and Eastern sense of time, and the ways in which the very linear sense of cause and effect in the west begins to impose a dominant pattern of causal thinking which has produced our legal system and the way we have come to understand history.  It shows most clearly in the strip cartoon style of events characteristic of Luke’s gospel, where one event leads into the next.  This has a significant influence on the pattern of Holy Week, where instead of a single great Pasch, celebrated over one night and early morning, the event is refracted into its component parts – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Day, Ascension Day and Pentecost.  Luke’s careful chronology underpins this linearization of the great Christ-event, in what we have come to know as Holy Week and Eastertide.  No Palm Sunday in Dorset is complete without a donkey; your Judas cup dredged up as a public demonstration of the fragility of capitular loyalty; the winch in the cathedral at Salisbury that tautened the Lenten veil – all these are indications of how much Holy Week has developed from its once-a-week through-the-night service, as well as the precise 40 days to the Ascension, and 50 to Pentecost.   


The third layer moves beyond the re-memorative to dramatic re-enactment – the imaginative historicisation that offers the participant the vivid sense of real presence.  We are familiar with the later mediaeval dramatisation of particular events as a feature of the liturgy, with little playlets enacted to illustrate the gospel like the Visitatio Sepulchri and other para-liturgical dramas and poetry.  This led in time to the pietistic internalisation of ‘what would it be like to be at the foot of the cross’, ranging from the 13th century sequence, Stabat Mater, to Haydn’s Seven Last Words.  This internalised mode give rise to the devotional pattern that gave birth to such different forms as the Jesuit Three Hours devotion on Good Friday and the Bach Passions.


What central thread or image connects these 3 layers of observance?


The image that has been in my mind as I have prepared this material is that of the screw or shaft.  Pictures of great screws digging oil wells or rescuing miners have been much in evidence this last year, and anyone who has had bone marrow extracted will have personal experience of just how painful this probing can be, this screwing down into the depths to reach the treasure, understanding the geophysical layers, the connection between the external and internal, how the surface flow and the deep structures cohere.  This is what I am seeking to illuminate in the way in which John’s gospel has formed our understanding of the Passion and Resurrection, to which I now turn for the first shaft of exploration.


© David Stancliffe 2011