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Friday, 3 April 2020

no more plastic tombs*

* Some may recall a book published in the 1970s, entitled No More Plastic Jesus

PALM/PASSION SUNDAY (April 5th) 2020


(1) (the Liturgy of the Palms)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

(2) (the Liturgy of the Passion)

Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Psalm 31: 9-16
Philippians 2: 5-11
Matthew 26: 14 – 27: 66

Back in the day, when I was still “hands on” in faith communities, I wouldn’t preach on this day of the year. Apart from anything else the long reading of the passion had far more dramatic impact than I could ever summon in a sermon or homily – and the silence after would speak far more than any additional words. I have since the late 1980s, when I had charge of my first parish, used the (I believe unsurpassed) British Lent, Holy Week and Easter rites. This resource, based on the ancient rites of fourth century Jerusalem, provides the liturgy of the eight holiest days of the Christian Year. It’s been a few years now since I left full-time parish ministry but in any case, we are all locked down and away from the rites of the church this year, so times have changed.* I don’t recommend attempting to do the whole Lent, Holy Week and Easter rites in lockdown. Let us do it this t-year in other ways. But let us feel the pain.

So a sermon, on-line, in printed form only, it shall be. By the Wind of God may these words be a word for you.
*But may I just add that I have no truck for those perpetrators of idiocy who believe that churches should disregard lock-down orders. These orders, in this context, are not persecutions of Christians and our faith, but preservation of human life. Last time I checked God was quite keen on nurturing and preserving human lives.


Reading the Passion year by year is a powerful faith experience. In my tradition it is read twice: once on this Passion/Palm Sunday, and once, five days later, on Good Friday. I have tended, for various reasons, to have the Sunday reading read in several voices, and the Friday recitation in one voice.
So let us imagine for a moment we have heard masterful, brilliant actors deliver the Passion according to St Matthew. Voices like those of David Tennant, Hugh Jackman, Emma Watson, the best voices of world drama, have delivered Matthew’s crescendo-ing tale, closing with the resounding words “they went with the guard and made the tomb secure.”
And that’s it.
For now, that is. Of course, most of us know the story, and our memories allow us to take a sneak peak at Easter Day. Some frightened but loyal women turn up, and the storyline changes.
But let’s stay with a sealed tomb. Becsuse it hurts. If we were reading in the Year of Mark we might hear an additional sentence, for Mark is a master of the hint: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” In the Year of Luke we might end “all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things,” or perhaps tiptoe a little further: “they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” John’s, too, though we use him in different ways in liturgy. He ends “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
In any of these cases we are left with a resounding silence. We are left with a hushed world, in the biblical authors’ hands. Hushed, like the streets of today's surreal Covid-19 world. Hushed, surreal. 
But more so.
In literary terminology there is a thing called a radical caesura. It is often a break in an established rhythm, an expected closure that never happens. 
De dum de dum de dum de dum … 
De dum de. 
In great literature this is often achieved … most famously, perhaps, by James Joyce, who ends his Finnegans Wake in the middle of a sentence with a non-conclusive word … riverrun, which just happens to be the word that began the book. In music imperfect and interrupted cadences achieve the same effect - Mahler and Pink Floyd, Wikipedia tell me, have used this technique to effect. No doubt Krzysztof Penderecki, who died this week, did so as well, though ironically his magnificent St Luke’s Passion utilizes thwarted tonal expectations throughout, then closes with a majestic completed cadence. Perhaps that is an uncharacteristic but a fitting “amen” to his creative life and, in God’s hands, all life.
But that’s the point. The gospel writers, liturgical writers, many creative artists across genres use techniques of thwarted expectation to give us glimpses into the heart and the purpose of God. Elsewhere I am writing of St Paul’s remarkable skills with language, by which he catapults his audiences into deeper encounters with the meaning and purpose of God. The gospel writers do the same. As, let us imagine, Hugh Jackman solemnly intones “they went with the guard and made the tomb secure” a light begins to flicker. Was a secure tomb able to contain Christlight?
But let us leave the tomb and its door for a minute. It is tightly shut. Matthew wants us to get that, so let’s not fast forward. 
No peaking. No spoilers.
Let us stay instead with the death of hope. Not an ersatz death, but death. Real death. Death like the deaths of those countless souls dying, separated from loved ones because draconian regulations now forbid basically all human contact while victims are dying of coronavirus. Death mind you like a myriad other forms of death: death like those died in the hell-holes of war. Death like those died in concentration camps. Death like those died in the Black Death. Death like the early waves of HIV-Aids. Not romantic “turn your eyes upon Jesus and beam a beatific smile death” but death like the tormented death: those of NZ's obscenely high suicide and domestic violence rates. Real death. Your death, my death, either of which may or may not be peaceful.
The habit of Christian communities to deny the realities of existence and non-existence are an obscenity. For some time now I have predicted a different death: the death of the church. Not a romantic, easy death, but a struggling for breath death. Perhaps Covid-19 is another struggling last breath in that process. For those of us who happen to love the church and its comforts this is deeply distressing. 
Death always is.
Other deaths, too. The strangling struggling for breath death of our planet earth, Papatuanuku, Gaia, call her what we will. She will outlive us, but not in the form we have known her. The death of her species – countless species, and while some are dying in the natural cycles, others are dying because we have accelerated death. The loneliness of the last white rhino or the last Hector's dolphin is a hideous state to imagine.
Death of hope. That’s where Matthew and the other gospel writers leave us at the end of the Passion.
Except they don’t. But in this week of hellish death, as we engage with the absence of rites and patterns and hopes and normalities that we have loved, let us engage with that death. For it is only when we enter it that we find the first breaking of light’s reddening dawn.

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