Andrew McKearney’s sermon for Wednesday 17th February 2016 —
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
That is the Gospel! The death and resurrection of Jesus has always been the centre of Christian faith and devotion. Look at the sermons of the early Church in the Book of Acts and you’ll see that this is all that’s preached about – read the letters of Paul, that’s what he writes about – take the Gospel of Mark, the lion’s share is simply about the last week of Jesus’ life, so much so that the Gospel is sometimes summarised as ‘a Passion story with an introduction’! The stories about Jesus that were first collected together and passed on were almost certainly about his last week of life, and it was only gradually that the year by year worship of the church marked anything except the Christian Passover of Jesus’ death and resurrection – week by week on Sundays, the day of resurrection, and annually at Easter, the time of the Contrast this with Jesus’ birth. There’s nothing about this in the Book of Acts, and Paul never mentions it in his letters. Mark and John are quite content to write their Gospels without it – and the annual celebration marking Jesus’ birth, Christmas, only became widespread in the C4th century. So what we do every Lent is prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate the spiritual and theological guts of our faith – the death and resurrection of our Saviour Jesus Christ – as Christians have done since the very beginning.
Now because the cross is the symbol of Christianity, this is where artists and musicians have gone to seek inspiration – think of Bach’s great Passions, and that wonderful exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’ that was full of paintings with this as the dominant This too is where Christian devotion has paused to contemplate, entering here into the heart and mind of God – and out of this has come particular devotional practices – the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Stigmata. Some of this may not sit very comfortably with us! Yes, it’s not always to our taste! But if it helps us dwell with the cross – and that is surely something we need every help we can get with, since we shy away from it every bit as much as the first disciples did – then I want to embrace these devotional practices to see for myself what spiritual fruits they might, just might, contain!
Dwelling with the cross, as best we can, is what we are called to do: “Consider him, who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” we read in the letter to the Hebrews (12.3).
And so to ‘the wounds of Jesus’, the theme of these Lent sermons. They are another way in, another place to pause and reflect, an other opening, if you like. Many of these ways in, developed in medieval devotion, a period of the church’s life when the humanity of Jesus was stressed – Francis of Assisi was the first person to set up a crib scene, he was devoted to the poor Christ, the humble Christ, and longed to be united to Christ crucified, hence the stigmata that he received at the end of Jesus traditionally has five wounds – two in his hands and feet from the nails, and one in his side from the spear thrust in by the soldier at the foot of the cross. The image at the top of this post is a painting of this experience, from the Church of St Francis of Assisi at Carmine, Giarre, Italy.
Many prayers and hymns refer to these five wounds – the five holes in our font cover evoke this symbolism and artists refer to it explicitly in paintings and statues. But of course those were not the only wounds on Jesus’ body, as any of us who watched that film by Mel Gibson a few years ago were made painfully aware – there was our Lord’s back, which was flogged, and his head, which was pierced with a crown of thorns. Christ’s head in particular is often referred to in the hymns that we sing during Holy Week:
O sacred head, surrounded
by crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding head, so wounded,
so shamed and put to scorn!
wrote the hymn writer, Paul Gerhardt, from a C14th Latin hymn. We’ll be thinking therefore not just about our Lord’s hands and feet and side, but also about his back and his head too.
And as we do so, our own wounds may well be touched and most certainly the wounds of our world too. For myself, it was as I grew in awareness of my own wounds and with them turned to our Lord for their healing, that I found myself drawn to Christ’s wounds. His invitation is for us to place our wounds, the wounds of the world and those whose wounds we know only too well, all these we place very deliberately there, in his embrace. It’s a bit like planting a seed, this seed of unresolved suffering from which it seems no good can come, planting that seed in the soil of Christ’s passion and death, waiting for new life to come. Scripture assures us that our cry will be heard: “for by his wounds we have been healed,” we read in the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 2.24b).
Wounds in the plural, whether five or more the number is not significant, they all point in different ways to the one wound, that is the wound of love. That’s what is conveyed through these reflections on Christ’s physical wounds – that deeper wound of love which pierced Christ’s heart.
John of the Cross was an accomplished poet, and all his great writings on the spiritual life are commentaries in prose on his poems. I want to conclude this first sermon with a short poem – it’s on the yellow piece of paper that you’ve got. The poem is called: ‘A Pastoral: verses on Christ and the Soul’
A lone young shepherd sorrowing apart
was far from comfort and in deep distress;
his thoughts were dwelling on his shepherdess,
and a deep wound of love had torn his heart.
Not from this burning wound of love his grief,
nor was his anguish from the pain it brought:
a deeper wound had torn his heart – the thought
that he had been forgotten passed belief!
His shepherdess remembered him no more.
So sharp his pain that in a far-off land
meekly he suffered men most harsh of hand
to wound the heart wounded by love before.
‘Alas for him who from Love draws apart!’
the shepherd said. ‘He does not wish to know
joy in my presence, close to me, although
a deep wound of love for him tore my heart!’
At last he did what he alone could do:
mounting a tree, he stretched his arms out wide
and there remained in love until he died,
his heart by a deep wound of love pierced through.