Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.
On Wednesday of this week, the Church proclaims, as it has from earliest of times, a forty day fast in preparation to stand with Mary and John and the other disciples in awe before the Cross on Good Friday – that great and terrible day – and to celebrate on the third day after, the great Feast of the Resurrection – Easter.
In the Gospel today, Jesus tells the twelve disciples, See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.
In the Gospel accounts, we read in several places that Jesus warned the disciples of his coming passion and death. It was clearly not something expected by them, it is something they needed to be prepared for. When Jesus told the disciples, the Gospel repeats three times for emphasis:
But they understood none of these things.
This saying was hidden from them,
and they did not grasp what was said.
We, who live after the passion and death of Jesus, and who have heard this story year after year, and who have Christ’s death and passion presented before us every Sunday in Holy Communion, can find ourselves in the same position. We know at one level our Lord’s passion and death is for us, but on another level, we live our lives as if this knowledge wasn’t really at the center of everything we do. We have a disconnect between our head knowledge and the knowledge in our hearts.
The encounter with a blind man that happens next in today’s Gospel is not just a coincidence, but in God’s providence, a physical way of illustrating the spiritual circumstances that every one of us find ourselves in. We all know at one level the meaning of Christ’s passion and death, but if we would know it at a level that changes our hearts further, we are being told to cry out in faith, like this blind man, for mercy to see, to understand, and Jesus will respond.
We go on this journey of Lent with Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem, and we will be changed: faith leads to insight, to knowledge, and it is a knowledge that changes our hearts forever.
What are the things we can’t see fully yet about the Cross of Jesus?
- First, we can’t fully see the depths of God’s love for us.
The more we see God’s love, shown to us in Jesus’ self offering for us, in His mercy, the more we are able to face the truth inwardly about our true motivations. Jesus allows us to be completely honest with God, to lay bare before Him our hearts, to be truly repentant, and so fully forgiven, and freed up from the things in the present that we can hardly face and the things in our past that we regret, both of which bind us and hold us back from rising more fully to the new life in Christ.
The work of our sanctification, of our being made holy by God, is a work of allowing the truth to enter ever more deeply, and the walk to Jerusalem with Jesus gives us the courage to allow that work of the Spirit inwardly in our souls to happen. We do not fear condemnation when we hold before our eyes Jesus’ death and resurrection.
- A second way in which we are still blind to the significance of what Jesus has done for us on the Cross is revealed in the way that we treat one another.
The crowd, in today’s Gospel, is watching as Jesus passes by, and a blind man in the back of the crowd wants to know what is happening. They tell him that Jesus is passing by, so he starts to cry out for mercy. But those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. It is one of these situations where Jesus reveals to us how the world is upside down. The blind man sees something the others don’t, namely, that Jesus is one who shows mercy, he knows he needs it, and he cries out for it. The people who are at the front of the crowd, in other words, with a front row seat to see Jesus physically with their eyes – are shown to be blind – for one thing they are not falling down before Jesus and crying out for mercy for themselves, and they do not know how to show mercy on the beggar who is blind by stepping aside and allowing him to the front so that Jesus can touch him and heal him. They just think he should shut up. Their hearts are hard.
The Cross of Christ does not only give us confidence to dwell more fully in the truth about ourselves before God, but when we experience His mercy, if we truly know His mercy, we cannot view our neighbour without showing mercy. Our hearts are opened to the same sort of love. When those most vulnerable around us cry out, we don’t silence them or push them away, we show mercy to them, by encouraging them to come to Jesus. (There is a double miracle here – when the spiritually sighted but physically blinded man is healed physically, the spiritually blinded but physically sighted crowd are healed spiritually.)
- A third way that we are blind to the significance of the Cross and Resurrection is in the limited way we take this pattern as our own. What is that way?
Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow him. For each of us that is something very individual, very personal – something perhaps known only to ourselves. Jesus’ burden is the sins of the whole world, and he did not turn aside from it, but bore it faithfully. It is a way of bearing with suffering, a way that to the world seems an utter failure, and a dying. If we follow in this way with Jesus, suddenly the very burden that we have been continually wanting to shirk off, to be rid of once and for all, we realize is the thing Jesus is talking about – yes that Cross, bear it in faith, despite the shame and the world’s distain. I don’t mean our sin, that is a burden Jesus removes from us completely, but some other burden that we must still bear. Perhaps it is the consequences of our past sin, or the circumstances we are in with our family life, our obligations to others, something in our working life, some expectation that is unmet – we bear it in faith…and glory awaits us, resurrection to new life, a new way of being, the new creation in Christ.
The Church, taking its cue from the example of our Lord’s life, his forty day fast in the wilderness, has suggested for our spiritual health that we observe Lent with some form of fasting, of prayer and repentance, of self-denial, and special attention to a charitable work – including charitable giving.
Our Epistle reading is set here to remind us that whatever we do, whatever spiritual discipline we might decide to undertake, it is about love and about the perfecting of love. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
St Paul reminds us that we still see in a mirror dimly – that is, our souls, which are meant to be a perfect mirror of the image and likeness of God, are clouded – when we look at ourselves we see a dim reflection of God. But we are being changed by God – he will perfect all our loves, so that in the end, when we look upon ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ we will see God face to face.
There are many names for love in the ancient languages. CS Lewis wrote a book The Four Loves which describes these different kinds of love and summarizes how each one of the human forms of love can become destructive, even the source of hatred:
- Stor-ge, love for my family, a natural affection that all people have, can become perverted – we can think of the horrific destructiveness of sexual abuse, or of a perverse preference for my family above all others – nepotism, or as I saw in Sicily, the Mafia;
- philia, friendship love which often is held up as the highest of loves, can also lead to an exclusiveness, or snobbishness, cliquishness – as a church we need to be aware not to always be open to the new person in our midst even it is easier to stick with our friends;
- eros, romantic love is surely of the highest of gifts, but the feelings of being “in love” can become confused and very destructive.
These natural loves that all people whether Christian or not, experience, are good, but can also lead us into trouble, unless they are infused with the divine love, or charity (from the Latin caritas, or the Greek agape – the word that is used by St Paul throughout today’s Epistle reading), which orders them aright, away from their perversions.
The purpose of a Lenten fast is directly related to this – it is allowing God to reorder and perfect all our loves – both for the created order, to be temperate in our love of earthly things, so we don’t miss out on God – and God will perfect our natural loves for one another.
Jesus will show us ever more plainly as we travel with him to Jerusalem what divine love looks like. As people of faith we cannot behold this Love without being changed. May God grant that at the end of this Lent our eyes may be opened a little wider, and our hearts more in-filled with the divine warming fire of Christ’s perfect love.
Let us pray,
O LORD, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever lives is counted dead before you: Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.