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The Triduum Sermons 2013
Fr Simon Tibbs, Holy Week and Easter


Before I begin my homily, a few words of introduction to the Triduum as a whole.

We call this week ‘holy’, and we hold these solemn days  within the week, of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, particularly holy, for two reasons. First, these days are holy because they commemorate holy events. But they are also days that help to make us holy. During this week, we not only hear the story, but we participate in it in vivid, memorable ways that employ our senses and speak to our imaginations. We get swept along with the sacred story in such a way that we actually become Christ. We walk with him, we die with him. We rise with him.

Not that our coming to church is itself enough to bring this about on its own. That would be a miracle indeed! But Holy Week gives a texture and shape that informs the rest of our lives through the rest of the year. No two Holy Weeks are the same, and each opens Christ to us and us to Christ in a unique way. By the time we get to Easter Monday we are not quite who we were on Palm Sunday, neither are we still the same from one Easter Monday to the next.

Many of the ceremonies we perform in Holy Week are very ancient indeed, originating in the centuries after Christ initially as a single celebration that included the Last Supper, the crucifixion and the Resurrection all together. Over time, what was originally a single all-night service got separated into two, and then into three liturgies held on three different days. That’s why we sometimes refer to this sequence of services as a ‘Triduum’, using the Latin word for three days.

This evening’s liturgy of the Lord’s Supper is really the first panel of a Triptych, or the opening movement of a symphony in three movements. I invite you to observe it as such, by participating as fully as you can over these three days.

In keeping with the oneness of the three celebrations, I am going to offer three linked homilies that draw on themes from the readings and liturgies as follows: for this evening, my theme is ‘being together’; tomorrow I will preach on the theme of ‘being alone’; and on Saturday night at the Vigil I will preach on the theme of ‘being alarmed’. Being together. Being alone. Being alarmed.

In invite you then to keep this ‘triduum’, this three day celebration, with all its strange and powerful mixture of emotions, as seriously as you can, praying that each of us by walking with Christ, may come to know him more fully.


The first Movement: Being together
(Maundy Thursday)

An addition to our keeping of Holy Week this year has been the showing of a film at the Plaza, which took place this afternoon.

What we watched together was the 1987 film, ‘Babette’s Feast’, by Danish director Gabriel Axel. The film tells a story of hospitality and transformation in a small community on the wind-swept Jutland coast in the mid-nineteenth century.

The action centres on two sisters, Filipa and Martine. As daughters of the pastor of a small sect-like Protestant congregation in the village, they devoted their youth to supporting their father and helping him with his pastoral duties. In line with his wishes, they stayed at home, saying no to possible lovers who presented themselves offering opportunities for travel beyond the narrow confines of the village.

The community their father founded was a very close-knit one. Since the pastor’s death, before the film begins, they have continued to gather regularly for worship and hymn-singing around his table, though now with his daughters presiding. They cherish his memory and his teachings, and their conversation is sprinkled with his pious sayings and bits of advice he gave them. But though on the surface, things are stable, in fact there is a deep spiritual problem. Resentments exist between them, which the two sisters, for all the pain it causes them, are powerless to alter.

When they meet to pray, there is sniping.

Something needs to change.

Change comes one winter night in the form of a mysterious and unexpected guest, Babette, a refugee from the Paris revolution of 1871. With enormous kindness, and very few questions, Martina and Filipa take her in, welcoming her as a sort of unpaid house-keeper.

Babette manages things for them, gradually transforming the household by managing the money, and running the practical affairs of the house-hold, including the preparation of the food which the sisters distribute to the now elderly congregation. Martina and Filipa are old too, and find Babette’s help brings enormous relief to them. She also brings joy, a lighter, fresher presence in their life of service that over time has become rather burdensome.

Babette is an agent of change in the community, but for fourteen years, she goes about her work quietly. People love  her for her grace and gentleness. She brings about no revolution.

Until one day, she wins the lottery. She asks the sisters’ permission to lay on, for the hundredth anniversary of the pastor’s birth, a feast in the grand, French style. The sisters are very reluctant – in all their years they have only ever offered the congregation modest food. But Babette, whom they value so highly, has never asked them for anything. So they agree.

Babette immediately sets about procuring the finest food and wine from Paris, which starts to arrive by boat in fascinating crates and baskets, and preserved in blocks of ice. As the preparations for the feast get under-way, something miraculous happens for the viewer in the cinema, as the subdued browns and greys of the first part of the film gradually shift to rich colours. We start to become aware that something significant is under way.

The meal itself is the centre-piece of the film. It’s shot very beautifully, and what I took away from it the first time I saw it was mainly a message about food: The beauty of food, its colours and textures, and a tantalising hint of tastes and smells, though of course the film-maker can’t really make those things real for us.

Babette is more than a celebrity chef however – no mere Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver. What she orchestrates for her guests is not just food. It is a meal, and a meal that proves transforming for those who eat it. The combination of food and wine, the sheer beauty of the feast, with the individual and group memory that the people bring, causes a miraculous softening of attitude on the part of the joyless congregation. Initial fears and defensiveness give way to sheer enjoyment of the senses, and this in turn produces a change of heart. On the hidden level of inward disposition, they start to welcome one another, to accept one another. After the meal, quite spontaneously, people who have been at odds for so many years, pronounce blessings on one another.

The day after the feast, Babette, whose lottery win would have given her the chance to return to France and pick up her old life, announces that, having spent her entire win on the meal, she intends to stay in Jutland with her adopted and renewed community.

The film, which is very beautiful, has about it a slow, meditative and fable-like, or parable-like quality. Even a quality of worship. It lends itself to Christian interpretation.

One clue to the film’s religious symbolism comes when, at the last minute, the number of guests at the feast, is made up from eleven to twelve. We sense at that moment, if we haven’t already picked it up, that Babette’s feast is going to be some kind of last supper.

Babette is in some ways a Christ-like figure. Her feast, like the feast which we are sharing tonight, is one that brings joy and brings change. This reminds us of an important truth about the Eucharist. We can employ subtle or learned theological arguments to enquire about what happens to the bread and wine on the altar. But another way of determining whether the Eucharist is a real feast of love is to notice the effect it has on the community that shares it. Is it helping them become what they eat, ‘the body of Christ’?

Christ is to be found in the film, not just in the self-giving of Babette, but in the generosity and openness of the two sisters, Martina and Filipa. I think my favourite scene in the film is the Babette’s arrival, which the sisters welcome with an unmistakably Christ-like love. Christ who said, if you welcome the vulnerable in my name, you welcome me, Christ, who, as we have remembered tonight, welcomed his disciples to his supper by washing their feet.

And what of the congregation? Do we see Christ there too, amid their less appealing qualities of sternness, closed-mindedness and back-biting? He does not seem to be much in evidence before the feast takes place, for all the hymn-singing and scripture-quoting that goes on. But at the end of the feast, we can see Christ in their faces, in their forgiveness and acceptance of one another, in the brightening of their eyes. They are tough people, people who don’t easily show affection. The harshness of their lives, and the narrowness of their way of life has set them against one another, to the extent that the values of the community they formed together around the pastor’s love and teachings have been almost fatally compromised. But strengthened and encouraged by transforming food, they are enabled, for the first time for years, to truly bless one another from the heart. And there is no surer sign of Christ’s presence than that.

I am struck in the film by the way Babette moves from being guest to host. Whoever we are, however long we have been coming to church, Christ always comes to us as guest and stranger. We welcome him into our midst in this celebration of love and service, that he in turn may welcome us.


The second Movement: Being alone

(Good Friday)

I have twice had the privilege of being present as an ordained minister at someone’s death-bed. Both were scenes of great sadness, mingled with a sort of mysterious peace, of beauty, almost. The two I was at were also places of considerable strength and solidarity, as loved ones waited together, helped in their sorrow and sadness by the sense of having people around. There was low conversation between those waiting. Prayers were said. There was touch.

To hold a hand, or mop a brow, and for a priest, to apply oil very gently to the forehead of someone who is dying – these are experiences of intense tenderness. Many of you, I know have nursed loved ones to their final hours; others may have cared for the dying at work; still others give of your time and resources to help the work of the Woodland’s and St. Joseph’s Hospices locally.

Nothing makes you feel more in touch with the things that really matter, the things of God, than to be there for another human being at the threshold of life and death.

Dame Cicely Saunders, a pioneer of the Hospice movement, once said that above all, the dying ask three things of those who attend them: help me, listen to me, stay with me. Help, listen, stay.
For many people, dying alone bears a special kind of horror, so of these requests which the dying make of the living, I guess the most important is staying with someone, just being there, so they don’t have to die alone.

I wonder whether the intense pathos of Good Friday, and of the crucifix as an image, relates to this fear that so many of us share. The death which Jesus died was of course a particularly cruel and painful one. But it was also one whose manner was calculated to wreck the social character that can attach itself to a natural death, in hospital or at home.

This aloneness of Jesus in his death seems particularly stark in St. John’s account, in which Jesus carries his own cross, with no Simon to help him, and has no interaction with his fellow sufferers as he hangs. Peter and the others, of course, those who might naturally have helped, are long gone. Even the Centurion, who in the other Gospels registers the significance of Jesus’s death after the event, is absent here. All we get from the soldiers in John’s account is the banal haggling over who’ll get to keep his clothes. They don’t realise anything special has happened. For them, it’s all in a day’s work.

Help. Listen. Stay.

The sense of being listened to, the thing many of the dying ask of the living among their last wishes, is also impeded by the manner of Jesus’s death. Being listened to is more than merely being heard. Being listened to implies a degree of sympathy and understanding, an element of entering into the experience of the person speaking. In other words, conversation. What we get here at the cross can hardly be called conversation.

Words from the cross have been recorded and passed on to us. So we can say that Jesus was heard from the cross. But the words receive no answers that we know of. So perhaps we could say there was hearing going on, but not in that moment listening – there is no contact or communication, no sense of a still-active, on-going relationship.

Conversation in all the Gospels is a strong feature of Jesus’s ministry, and one of the things we can confidently say about him is that he was a listener, someone who was attentive to what other people said. His exchanges with other people are often pithy, sometimes sharp, sometimes witty, always brimming with perceptiveness and intuition.

Now he is reduced to brief, exhausted, one-way utterances.

The awfulness of the scene I suppose comes partly from the contrast with the Jesus we love from the Gospels, the sociable and generous Jesus, Jesus the talkative guest at people’s feasts, Jesus the host of loving care at the greatest of Feasts that we commemorated last night.
The sense of the loved one being reduced, diminished, shrunk as life ebbs away, is, I suppose, common to those who watch at death-beds. How often do we hear such words as, ‘I hate to see him like this’, or ‘she doesn’t seem to be herself any more’, or ‘she’s the shadow of her former self’?

Help. Listen. Stay.

Jesus was far from help, and no-one was able to listen to him in the fullest sense. But there were people who stayed. For them, as for us in the moments when loved ones are being taken from us, the sense of loss is intense, and particularly so when, as at this death-scene, the person dying is young. Perhaps you can imagine the grief of a mother watching her son die in agony, only yards from her, hearing his agonised cries, unable to touch him. I can’t, not really.

It has been said that there are tasks people generally seek to fulfil for the different stages of life. The task for the end of life is a sort of signing off, and will include things like trying to right old wrongs, making sense of the past, and seeking reconciliation with others. Hence ‘listen to me’ or ‘let’s have a conversation’ as a vital need of the dying.

All the Gospels show us Jesus through Holy Week engaging in signing-off activities, telling stories and offering sayings that seem to sum up his whole ministry, his sense of himself.

Jesus’s last words also encompass that process of summing-up, of meaning-making.

The first of the three words from the cross in John’s Gospel is addressed to his mother and the beloved disciple, the ones who stayed. Himself cut off from any meaningful sense of human community, his concern with his dying breath is to give those who will otherwise be alone in their grief to one another. I find great comfort in the companionship of these witnesses to the death of the Son of God as they walked away that afternoon. Amid the sheer, bloody awfulness of that situation, they now belonged to each other in a very particular way, the way we call ‘church’.

We often keep Pentecost as a sort of birthday of the church, but in fact we can point to several points of origin for the church in the Gospels. We celebrated one last night. Here is another: ‘Behold your son; behold your mother’. The tender care the members of the family of Christ have for one another is one of the most precious things there is. It is given us as a gift from the Lord himself.

Soon there comes a second word: ‘I thirst’. Jesus, himself God’s living water, here gives voice to the simplest, most basic of human needs. He shows himself as fully one of us. As we sing in one of our hymns at Christmas time – another moment of confronting Jesus in his vulnerability – ‘he assumed a mortal body, frail and feeble, doomed to die’.

Knowing him in his divinity, that is worshipping him as God, it’s all the more wonderful that he should choose this way, this way of sacrifice, for the sake of lost humanity. He has said earlier in this same Gospel of John, ‘I lay down my life…No one takes it from me... I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.’ And here we find him, naked and vulnerable before us, reduced to this. Through choice. ‘O generous love’.
The last spoken word of God’s Living Word, ‘it is finished’, seems rather puzzling. Hard to understand, just as perhaps in St. John’s description it may have been hard to physically hear (John does not echo the tradition handed on in the other Gospels by making Jesus’s last utterance a ‘loud cry’).

What, exactly, is finished?

On one level, Jesus’s ‘it is finished’ may just suggest physical exhaustion and psychological and emotional defeat. ‘I’ve had enough’, ‘I’m done in’, ‘I can’t go on any more’. We know how strong the life-force can still be in the dying. Sometimes there has to be a decision to die, and that decision, the recognition that it’s time to go, can be very hard to make. ‘It is finished’ perhaps shows us Jesus’s decision that this is the moment to die.

But on another level, what is finished here is more than one man’s life. Something of unique power and comfort for suffering humanity. Something whose meaning is not immediately plain. And certainly not today. Today, we just look on, and wonder. ‘It is a thing most wonderful, a thing most wonderful to see’.

What do you see? I think what I see is something that brings into harmony elements of the way the world is and the way I am in the world that otherwise tend to be most painfully at odds. I imagine scattered points brought by the cross into relationship around a circle: I see my suffering, and the suffering of others, including their suffering in which I have a part. These find their resonance at another point in the circle in Christ’s suffering, such that the compassion of God through the Passion of Christ is enabled to flow through all the suffering there is. I think that is what I see.

The cross has moved, fascinated and challenged people ever since the first Good Friday. There are various ways in which it can be understood, as a sacrifice, for example, or as a victory. There are pointers to possible meanings to Christ’s cross and saving death in the three last words of John’s Jesus as we have heard them this afternoon. 

But the true meaning of the cross, the meaning it has for each of person, is not something someone else can find for you.

That truest, deepest meaning, I think emerges mysteriously, often unbidden and unpredictably, and over a long-time, even over a life-time, if we have that long to devote to the task. It comes, I think, by looking.

We are talking a lot in these addresses of the sacred Triduum about the senses – about the smell and taste of the food on which at Christ’s generous invitation we feast; about the touch of the tender host as he kneels to wash their feet; about hearing in the context of the flow of knowledge and love between two willing souls in conversation. But is sight, looking, after all the supreme sense when it comes to taking in the cross?

As for the mother of Jesus, and as for the disciple whom he loved, and any others who heeded the desire of a dying man to be stayed with, not to be left, today is for us a day of looking, of surveying the wondrous cross, a day of not flinching, of coming face-to-face with the crucified one. ‘A thing most wonderful to see’.


The third Movement: Being alarmed
Holy Saturday

At one of our Evensong suppers recently, one of you told the story of a little girl who was brought to an Easter service. She’d obviously been taking things in, and had heard a lot of stuff about Jesus dying and coming back to life. Children’s questions about religious matters are often the best ones, and this little girl was no exception. She waited for a pause and then asked her mummy in quite an audible voice, ‘so where is he then?’.

It’s a good question, and one that our Easter Gospel from Mark, the earliest of the accounts of Easter to be written down leaves hanging.

Mark’s Gospel inexplicably breaks off at verse 8, with the woman bemused and terrified, gazing into the empty tomb, trying and failing to make sense of the angel’s words: ‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has been raised, he is not here’.

People have puzzled for centuries over whether Mark can really have intended to finish at the end of his Gospel with no actual appearance of the risen Jesus (later editors of Gospels added fuller endings; you might find it interesting when you get home to check how this problem is presented in the Bible you use at home).

It’s a puzzle. If Mark didn’t actually mean to end his otherwise carefully-written Gospel on a cliff-hanger, scholars have to explain the sudden ending by means of some accidental damage to the first manuscript, the academic equivalent of ‘a dog ate it up on the way to school’.

If the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel did come about by accident, it is to my mind a providential accident, one of those mistakes that yields a better result than if things had gone according to plan.

I’m learning, by the way, that the life of a parish priest is full of such happy accidents. In ministry, as in life, I’m finding, it’s often better just go with the mistakes.

The Gospel we’ve heard begins much as we may have begun this evening, still in the sombre, Good Friday mood. The spices brought to the tomb, by women in Mark’s Gospel and by a man in John’s, restore the note of tenderness and perhaps the tactile element that the violent and public manner of Jesus’s death had eliminated.

It’s interesting to note in this connection how strong the impulse is that many people feel when spending their last moments with a loved one after death to touch or kiss them.
Care of the dead, and of the bodies of the dead, is a sure sign of the value we place on human life. Once again, perhaps you will have memories of your own, sacred memories, that come back freshly as we think of the tender feelings of those women as they approached the tomb. They wanted to be close to him again, and to tend to the body of their dead Lord.

What a shock not to find what they thought to find.

The idea that he wasn’t there because he was alive again must have seemed like some kind of sick joke. How could it be true? They probably mistrusted any initial excitement when the angel put it to them. It’s a kind of fantasy of many bereaved people, after all: like when you dream about them, and wake up expecting to find them next to you, only to realise they are gone for good, after all; or you think you see them in the street, only to find the person you thought was them is someone else entirely, possibly someone who doesn’t even look like them. The world of the Gospels is in many ways remote from ours, but I would guess this is something that hasn’t changed over two thousand years. When someone you love has died, particularly if they have died suddenly or violently, it’s hard to absorb the fact they have gone. You want them back.

What particularly interests me in the brief exchange in the Gospel between the women and the angel at the tomb is the angel’s words, ‘do not be alarmed’.
Ultimately he is right; angels always are. It is all going to be all right.

But in the short-to-medium-term, for the women, and for us, there is in fact good cause for being alarmed.

We often also fear what we long for. And nowhere is this more true than of the Resurrection.

The promise of a life different from, and better than, the one we know, one that would render unnecessary the dodges and strategies we have come to rely on to get us through our existence in an imperfect world; the promise of freedom us from our sins, and from the burden of not being able to deal well with others’ sins against us. Something that might away the sting of death, but make it rather a kind of glorious birth. Something that would really make a difference to this life we know, and have grown accustomed to and made our peace with, with all its deceptions and compromises.

There would, indeed, be every cause for being alarmed.

Because the sad truth about the  Resurrection is this: we probably don’t mind the idea of it after we die, but in the here and now, we’re often not sure we really want it, not if it means changing, or more precisely, not if it means letting it change us, that is, letting Him change us.

My favourite image of the Resurrection is an orthodox icon which shows Christ descending into hell, and heaving Adam and Eve up out from the grave. They are dead weights as he raises them up. They seem almost not to want to rise. They are quite happy in the grave, thank you very much. Or they think they are.

The wisdom of the Gospel – whether it’s an accidental wisdom or wisdom by design - is in breaking off at the point where you and me find ourselves this evening. Hopeful but also fearful, desiring the new life that Christ came to give us, but unsure if it is real. Or feeling that maybe it’s real but only for other people and not for us. Or maybe that it is for us but when all’s said and done it won’t be all it’s cracked up to be, it won’t make any difference. ‘You have been let down before’, the devil whispers. ‘Don’t get your hopes up’. ‘Don’t let your guard down’.

Nobody can prove the physical event of the Resurrection. You can only come to believe in it by living it. The Gospel breaks off at just the right point, the point at which we are making the choice whether we want it. And if we find we do, we had better take note of our own very good grounds for being alarmed. And isn’t this the great joy and mystery of this way we are following? However long we have known our Lord, we always seem to be meeting him for the first time. He is constantly catching us unawares.

So the little girl’s question was just the right one. Where is he? Well, he is where he is. Maybe he didn’t rise again, and his remains mouldered away many centuries since, in some corner of Palestine. Or maybe he is in heaven. Nobody is going to be persuaded by arguments about what actually happened to the body of the historical Jesus.

A better question is, how can I know him risen, or where can I find him now. ‘Where is he?’. Well, there’s a limited number of answers: here, within ourselves; and here, within his renewed community, his family, the church; and here, in the world, where he has already gone ahead of us.

Our Triduum is almost ended. We have welcomed Christ as guest and heard his welcome to us. We have seen him die. And now with the women we will hasten from the tomb, with joy and excitement, but still with some alarm, eager to find him, and to know more of this risen life of which we have heard.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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