The Desolation of Holy Saturday (Matthew 27:57-66)

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.

The Song of Good Friday (Mark 15:33-37)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and am act of nominative irony.

But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings.

It’s easy to miss, even when you know that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. We’re a literate culture, we’re used to individualistically reading the psalms in our bibles. But Jesus would have recognised it for what it was, a song.

So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.

Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness heads towards conviction:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

There are times when we don’t have the words and we need to borrow them, especially in times of great pain; why shouldn’t the fully-human Jesus do the same?

But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a dimple of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.

But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.

Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5


My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

Slut Shaming and Virtue Signalling at the Quiet Heart of Holy Week (Mark 14:1-9)

There’s a lot of shouting in the Easter story, a lot of people thinking they’re right and making it known. We have parades and lynch mobs and debates and screams and mockery, a cacophony drowning out the truth of the situation. At the eye of the storm is Jesus; no-one seems to understand him, no-one seems to truly listen. Everyone seems convinced by the rightness of their position that the man who’s on a journey towards torture and death is almost hidden in plain sight.

At the quiet heart of Holy Week, one person seems to get it, one person seems to understand. Interrupting a meal between friends, she breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed anointing oil and pours it over Jesus. In many ways it’s a shocking moment – the unexpectedness, the scent permeating the house, the inappropriateness, the expense. The woman is immediately the victim of virtue-signalling, the disciples protesting that the perfume was expensive, that it should have been sold to help the poor. But we know that one of them had his hand in the common purse, and you wonder if they would have had a similar reaction if they hadn’t been scandalised by this woman and her actions.

In Luke’s gospel a similar incident occurs, but at a different time. There the woman is identified as sinful (and it’s always assumed that this sin was sexual in nature, when for all we know she stole stuff), and we tend to conflate these stories, pushing them through the grinder of tradition until the woman is depicted as a prostitute. There’s no evidence for this (and even if she was, what would it matter at the heart of a story of grace?) but it fits a narrative, and it’s another convenient excuse for the men to reject her act of worship.

But Jesus doesn’t reject it – he’s thankful for it. It’s a moment of intimacy, sure, but the intimacy that comes from him and the women being the only two people who know what’s going on. She knows he’s a king, she knows he’s going to die, and Jesus seems grateful for that acknowledgement. We read the Easter story as Jesus saving us from our sins, but here’s someone who’s more concerned with looking after him and his needs. On the eve of a great sacrifice, the woman ministers to Jesus and in doing so secures a place in history.

But in the moment there’s ‘slut shaming’ and virtue signalling and a criticism of her ministry. And even though she’s the one who gets it right, who helps Jesus, who worships and honours and anoints while everyone else argues and jostles for position, she’s still dismissed, her ministry and her act of prophecy devalued. That happens to women in the Church far too often, even though here the women carries out a pastoral act of worship, even though later Mary becomes a preacher of Jesus’s resurrection.

At the quiet heart of Holy Week, an unnamed woman understands what’s needed and does something about it, sacrificing her money and her reputation and her investment in the process. And in doing so she becomes a model of discipleship for us all. Maybe that, and her act of grace, is why Jesus said she’d be remembered.

Palm Sunday: It’s Hard To Weaponise Donkeys (Matthew 21:1-11)

There’s a dark impulse buried just beneath the surface of humanity, a desire to look at our environment and our relationships and our technologies and figure out how to use them to harm others. In this week leading up to Palm Sunday we’ve seen a city terrorised by homemade bombs, the use of data to manipulate public opinion and emerging trade wars. Everything is weaponised through our MacGuyver-like potential to turn anything into a blunt instrument to use against our enemies.

But Palm Sunday offers us a different path. We use the language of Empire to describe it – triumphal entry – but in reality Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is a journey born of satire and it’s heading to a cross. This is the announcement of a different kind of Kingdom, a new kind of king. Jesus rides in humility, he rides towards Good Friday. Maybe, deep down, we find this difficult to stomach: we turn everything into swords, from metals to social media, but it’s hard to weaponise a donkey.

Maybe we would have preferred Jesus to ride in a chariot, pulled by a war horse and followed by a parade of cavalry and nuclear missiles. That would be a show of strength, of power, our enemies would tremble. All we have to do is press a convenient red button and we unleash the fury of our weapons, of our economy, of Facebook and Twitter.

On Palm Sunday, meanwhile, Jesus unleashes the fury of a donkey. It’s hard to know what to do with that. We want him to sanctify our budgets and our bombs, our guns and greatness, all the while wrapping himself in the flags of our kingdoms.

But these things don’t mirror Jesus, they mirror us, our rage and fear. And who would fear an empire heralded by a pack animal, a child’s seaside distraction, by Eeyore and Shrek’s best mate? We talk about following the Prince of Peace, but that’s a moot point if we can’t even respect his mode of transport.

But still Jesus rides a borrowed donkey towards Good Friday. And we can either follow him wherever he leads, or ditch his parade for one lead by tanks and swords. Palm Sunday, our choice.