Sermons from St Faith's
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
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.
Movement: Being together
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
The third Movement:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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