About Me

My photo
Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 8: “I AM: The Burning Bush, Ends and Beginnings”

“It is accomplished” cries Jesus from the cross, his final word in St John’s passion story. It’s natural to think of Good Friday as a day of despair or resignation as the other gospel writers do. St John stands out for his sense of completion, something accomplished, brought to its proper conclusion. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” Jesus has said near the beginning of the gospel. As he turns his face towards the cross he prays, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do”. Tetelestai! It is done.
Endings and beginnings seem to meet at Golgotha as we hear John’s great narrative. The cross feels like a great full stop, a closure, an end. We hear in Jesus’ words an unmissable tone of finality, even triumph. Perhaps that takes us by surprise? Not if we’ve been paying attention to the way St John has told his story. This end is not, for him, the petering out of a life that began so well. It is not the tragedy of a career that has been wasted, brought to nothing. It is not the extinguishing of a guttering candle flame finally overcome by the darkness. Rather, it’s that this great light has never shone more steadily, more brightly than at Golgotha. Far from representing the waste of a man’s career, this is its moment of culmination. His life, said Jesus speaking of himself as the good shepherd, was not taken from him. He laid it down of his own accord.  On the cross he draws all humanity to himself. On the cross there is vindication of all that he came among us to be and to do. On the cross his work of love is accomplished. What binds him to the cross is not nails but love. He reigns over us as the king of love, a kingship that is not from here but from another place  entirely. This is where we recognise glory, full of grace and truth, love’s endeavour, love’s expense, love to the very end.
Therefore, this finished work, this end is also a beginning. It’s a threshold across which a new horizon is glimpsed. It’s the door "held open to us that no-one can shut, the gateway to possibilities we only dared to dream about. The story of the crucifixion ends with Jesus’ body being laid in a tomb by those who loved him – in a garden, precisely where the resurrection story begins, at the break of day, on the first day of the week, like the garden that God planted at the beginning of time when he created this good earth and placed our first parents in it. Beyond the full stop of today’s “it is finished”, another sentence is launched, a new one whose words open up for all humanity a paradise of promise, healing and reconciliation. 
“In my end is my beginning” was the motto of Mary Queen of Scots which she embroidered on a cloth just before her execution. Perhaps she was inspired by the salamander, the symbol of her grandfather-in-law Francis I, the creature that in myth was supposed to self-ignite at death in order to be reborn out of the ashes, young and new and strong. T. S Eliot plays with that motto in his great poem East Coker. It starts out as a pessimistic reversal of Queen Mary, “In my beginning is my end”, an echo perhaps of the Prayer Book funeral sentence, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Yet from there Eliot finds his way to a place of expectation and hope, as if to affirm: in the midst of death, we are in life. St John would recognise it that way round. “In my end is my beginning.” If Good Friday is an end, then it is pregnant with hope and possibility. For love is not eclipsed by suffering, nor its glory by death. And if Jesus’ death is both the end but not the end, then the grave has lost its victory and death its sting. 
This Holy Week in the Cathedral, we have been looking at the seven sayings of Jesus in St John that begin with the words I AM: “the door”, “the resurrection and the life”, “the light of the world”, “the bread of life”, “the true vine”, “the way, the truth and the life” and “the good shepherd”. Those words “I am”, so emphatic in the Greek, take us back to the book Exodus. There Moses is confronted by the sight of a bush that burns but is not consumed. He is overawed. Then he hears a voice addressing him out of the fire. “I am that I am” it says mysteriously. It’s nothing less than the sacred name of God whose nature can only be explained in terms of itself, for God will not be likened to anything we can see or handle. “I am”, that is, the ground of all existence, all life, all consciousness, all thought. And this is the divine name with which Jesus associates himself in St John. “Before Abraham was, I am” he declares, the eternal One who is in the world yet beyond it, the great I AM who is the source and end of all that has been, and is, and ever shall be. So the risen Christ says of himself in the book of Revelation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”.
This is how St John portrays the majestic figure who is enthroned in the cross at Golgotha. How can God suffer and die? we ask ourselves. Other faith communities find this the most baffling question Christianity poses. If you want to see a display of naked power, a crucified God makes no sense. If you want to hear fine wisdom, a messiah nailed to a cross is not for you. There are many for whom Good Friday is a real stumbling-block. And yet... there is power and there is wisdom at the cross, a divine wisdom and a divine power that change lives, heal brokenness and bring great hope. Faith takes us to a place where we see how love drives God to embrace the cross and in doing so, embrace his whole creation in a supreme act of self-giving, what Jesus calls laying down his life. If God is not crucified, there is no God as Christians understand him and no Christianity worth following.
I imagine the cross as St John’s burning bush. It’s the place of transfiguration where we take off our shoes because we are on holy ground. We turn aside today to look into this sacred fire, and open our ears so that we can hear the divine voice that speaks to us. What do we see? The flame of love, its glory and its light blazing with divine passion for the world, for the human race, for each of us. And what do we hear? The word that says: here is the essence of all that it means to be God. Here at Golgotha we see his nature and his name. I AM utters that voice, I am all that love means, all that meets our hungers and hopes, that than which nothing greater, nothing more glorious can be dreamed or conceived, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the origin and destiny of all that is, our light, our life, our love. 

“It is accomplished.” In my end is my beginning. We gaze on the burning heart of God. We sense that in these holy days of the paschal season, the sun is rising upon us. There is a new creation. The day breaks and the shadows flee away. After a long and gloomy winter, spring has come at last. 

No comments:

Post a Comment