Almost Holy Week…

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2015
Lent 5B 

Mosaic Christ Crucified, 12 Century

I think we all know what’s coming. I think we know what Jesus means when he says in today’s Gospel lesson, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” I think we know, too, what the author of the letter to the Hebrews means when he says that Jesus is a high priest who “suffered” and was “made perfect.”   I think we all know that next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the week following is Holy Week. I think we all know what’s coming; we all know that Jesus’ Passion and death are just around the corner.

If I’m not mistaken, there seems to be a certain giddiness in today’s readings.   Notice, for example, the triumphant tone in the letter to the Hebrews: Jesus has “been made perfect,” and has “been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”   Notice how in John Jesus bravely and serenely predicts the manner of his death: “I, when I am raised up, will draw all people to myself.” And notice how Jeremiah excitedly speaks of a new and better covenant known by all: “I will write it on their hearts… and they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Martyrdom, Ignatius of Antioch

Contemporaneous accounts of early Christian martyrdoms sound giddy as well; the early martyrs were unabashedly excited about their deaths. I’m thinking, for example, of Perpetua, the young mother who gave encouragement to her imprisoned companions in the days leading up to their martyrdom, and who is said to have calmly guided the nervous executioner’s sword to her throat. I’m remembering the story of Polycarp, who, when offered a reprieve on account of his advanced age – he was about 90 – replied that he had served Christ for 86 years and was not about to desert him now. I’m remembering, too, Ignatius of Antioch, whose letters ring with anticipation of “being ground by the lions’ teeth into the purest bread for Christ,” and for whom – as his guards marched him from Antioch to Rome – fellow Christians lined the roads to catch a glimpse of and to cheer on this saintly man. These martyrs were giddy about their impending deaths.

The martyrs’ giddiness came because they were about to attain, in Ignatius’ words, “the one object of my quest… my one desire,” Jesus Christ, by imitating him in his Passion.   I wonder if today’s readings were chosen and sound giddy because we are about to draw near to “the one object of [our] quest… [our] one desire,” and enter into his Passion.

I realize it is bold for me to say that I know the one object of our quest and our one desire. Let me explain. According to Basil of Caesarea, writing in the fourth century, we humans were created to walk about in God. Just as the birds were made to fly about in the air, he said, just as the fish made to swim about in the sea, and four-footed animals to walk about on the earth, so were we humans created to walk about in God. Basil’s friend Gregory of Nyssa wrote that all humans share deep within the memory of our creation: the face of God, inches away from ours, having just breathed into us the breath of life. We humans spend the whole of our lives, says Nyssa, trying to get back to that place of God’s arms holding us, God’s face just a few inches away, God’s eyes looking into ours. According to Basil and Gregory, we humans were created to be with God, and whether we are aware of it or not, we want nothing more than to get back to God. Like the Prodigal who left home and squandered his inheritance in a distant land, we have wandered away from God and squandered our inheritance. And perhaps now – just as the Prodigal realized how hungry he was and yearned for his father’s house – we realize how hungry we are and are discovering within us a desire to go home to God.

If you are sensing this hunger, this desire to go back home, know that Jesus is the one who can help us get there. Because of what Jesus has done – living in complete unity with the Father even to the point of death – we human beings have the opportunity to get back to God. Deep down, we want nothing less than God; deep down, we want nothing more than we want God. And our hope to get back to God, “the one object of [our] quest… [our] one desire” – and the reason for the giddiness in this morning’s readings – is closely connected to what we will celebrate beginning next Sunday.

In the letters that he wrote to different churches as he was being marched from Antioch to Rome, Ignatius of Antioch spoke of his impending death as a birth. He wanted nothing to get in the way of his being born into “real life” with God. I’m going to close with an excerpt from Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, a letter giddy with desire to get to God.

Martyrdom, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna

He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire. The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God.

I pray that as we prepare to enter into the passion of our God, we might better know our one desire and thereby become more fully the human beings God created us to be.

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