Later this morning the Community and our late Brother Roy’s family will inter his ashes in our cemetery. It’s appropriate that we do this as we begin to observe Passiontide with its purple veiling because when he was recently professed Roy had the singular honour of representing Jesus in various parishes in outdoor processions during Holy Week.
Today we turn our gaze and our thoughts to the crucifixion of Jesus, his suffering, death and burial. What did it mean?
Why did he suffer? What has it to do with us?
These are huge questions and many books and sermons have been produced to suggest some answers. So what can I say? The liturgy we are celebrating contains answers as the apostle says, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ 1 Cor 11.16. At the climax of our liturgy we hear the Lord’s own understanding of the meaning of his passion and what it has to do with us. ‘In the same manner after supper he also took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.” The Bible readings we heard also shed light on what Jesus said.
First at Mattins we heard from the gloomy prophet Jeremiah. Traditionally he is regarded as a type of Jesus, who like Jeremiah prophesied the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. We heard Jeremiah in an unusually optimistic prophecy saying, ‘God will make a new covenant’, the very words Jesus said over the Eucharistic chalice. The promised new covenant was made by the sacrifice of Jesus when he offered himself for all the world on the cross.
We must remind ourselves what the word covenant means. It’s a compact or binding agreement between two or more parties. In contemporary usage we talk of covenants meaning donations to a charity to which the government has agreed to add a further amount. In older usage we find in the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer the priest prays: ‘as Isaac and Rebecca lived faithfully together, so these persons may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made (whereof this ring given and received is a token and pledge). Jesus made the cross the sign and pledge of the New Covenant.
In the Hebrew Bible the word ‘covenant’ occurs very frequently to refer to the covenant God made at Mount Sinai with the people of Israel when they were about to enter the Promised Land.
Notice how this new covenant differs from the old. It’s a covenant between God and all people, not like the old covenant which was between God and the chosen people, the Jews. In the Gospel reading, some Greeks, representing the Gentiles, all the nations, the non-Jews, want to see Jesus and they hear him say that if he is lifted up, that is on the cross, he will draw all people to himself. It’s significant that the evangelist doesn’t say that after they had seen Jesus, the Greeks went away. No. They see and hear Jesus and stay with him. The new covenant made by Jesus on the cross includes all people, including all of us here. It’s a covenant in which God offers forgiveness of sins, reconciliation and peace. On our part it’s a covenant in which we promise faith, love and obedience. It’s a covenant which promises eternal life. The old covenant which required the observance of laws, both moral and ritual, didn’t provide for forgiveness for transgressions, though the Day of Atonement offered an opportunity to pray for forgiveness. The old covenant was sealed and ratified with the sacrificial blood of animals, which as the Letter to the Hebrews says, Can never take away sins. (Heb 10.1-4) The new covenant is sealed with the voluntary offering of the blood of our High Priest, Jesus Christ. The blood of Jesus is an all sufficient sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
Passiontide is the time for each of us to renew our personal commitment to the covenant with God, which was made in our baptism. We should do this by examining ourselves and making our confession of sins to receive absolution and the grace of the new covenant Jesus has won for us, which we receive in our Easter Holy Communion and at every Mass.