Holy Week at Halifax Minster, 2017 Canon Chris Barber

Maundy Thursday


Today, tomorrow and Sunday, I want to take you on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages have been popular from the earliest days of the Christian church, and a must-do for many other religions too, like your Muslim neighbours here in Halifax. But for this one you will not go outside these church walls, except in imagination. All the same, we shall be seeking for God, as all true pilgrims do -seeking for him to tell us something about himself and ourselves, both as individuals and as a church.

It will start on an actual pilgrimage, though -one on which Mary and I and a miscellaneous party of Christians and non-Christians went to the Holy Land in Holy Week 1986. Our aircraft landed at Tel Aviv, a totally uninspiring place, on Maundy Thursday, and a coach tookus past modern kibbutzes straight to Jerusalem. Our hotel was on the Mount of Olives, but our first task was to go through the streets of Old Jerusalem to St.George’s Anglican cathedral for the same service as we are all having today. All at once we were taken back through the centuries as we trod those narrow winding streets with their open shop fronts and their paving stones worn by the feet of countless pilgrims -even perhaps the steps of Jesus himself.

But it was what we did there at the cathedral, and after, which gave new meaning to the breaking of bread and the washing of feet. The church, with its congregation of Palestinian and Christian Jews -and us -seemed to expand to include the whole world, and the time seemed to include all time. It seemed to us as we shared the bread and the wine, as if we are taking them from Jesus himself at that timeless Last Supper, and the sermon (in English) from the Arab

Bishop of Jerusalem seemed to take us out of the narrow box of our Anglican church life, and speak to the whole world.

We began to understand what God in Christ had done for us and for all this world -responding to those words which we ourselves have just heard "do you know what I have done for you?" We felt so much more clearly how God was sharing his creative and sacrificial love for us in Christ, and how we were called to share it with one another. Not just that multi-national congregation there, not just this congregtion here: we were called to share our love and concern for all God’s widely different, and often threateningly different, children -starting right here in our own church as we cope with the challenges of living together as a very diverse family -going out to our local community with all its strains (and all its needs) -andbeyond them to a world which needs God’s love and care so much.

As we share in the washing of our friends’ and neighbours’feet, share with them in the communion of the bread and the wine, and give thanks to God for all he gives us to build up this part of his family, so we look outside these walls to a city and a world for which also Christ died, to feet which we must also wash, and minds with which we must also share the message and the reality of God’s love.

But why should we do all this? Tomorrow I am going to take you on an amazing walk as our pilgrimage goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and we get an answer to this question.

The hymn on the extra sheet will perhaps give you a hint of this, and will be something to guide your thoughts if you stay toshare the Maundy Watch.

Good Friday 

Yesterday, as shared the Eucharist and "did this in remembrance of him", we almost felt ourselves to be in that upper room with Jesus: we felt something extra of what "communion" means as we shared the fellowship of each other and the Lord. It helped us to see what is meant by being a Christian family, united at the table of the Lord. The foot-washing showed graphically how we need to care for each other as Jesus cares for us, and extend our care wherever it is called for. Today we ask the question "why? What sort of God commands us to do all this? Indeed, if there is a God, what is he like?"

But back for a moment, to our pilgrimage. The Passion story which we have just heard mentions some very specific places -Gethsemane, the High Priest’s palace, Pilate’s judgement seat, the place of the cross, and finally the tomb. Pilgrimages have always sought (and sometimes invented) holy places and holy things -Jerusalem, Rome, Compostella, Canterbury, Lourdes, Walsingham. There is nothing wrong with that, providing that it leads to the deepening of faith, not the worship of a place or a thing. Our own pilgrimage took us, immediately after the end of the Maundy Eucharist in St.George’s cathedral, to walk in silence through the dark streets to a garden, rough and stony and filled with nothing but ancient olive trees, some of them perhaps dating back to the time of Jesus. We stood without a word for some minutes and felt the atmosphere of the Garden of Gethsemane. Later on we were to go to many places associated with the passion , death and resurrection of Christ, but for me it was there that he felt closest, because there he faced the cross and saw it as God’s will, and said "thy will be done".

And this is the answer to the question I posed earlier "why? What sort of God commanded him to do all this? If there is a God, what can he be like?" The answer is in front of us -a rough cross,

standing for an even rougher death -and a strange answer it is. Strange to those who imagine God just as an all-powerful and all-knowing explanation for the very existence of this world. Stranger still to those who have imagined God as a merciless judge before whom we must all give account (and there has been more than a little of this in a lot of Christian thinking and preaching). Totally impossible to those of any faith who cannot see God as "the Merciful", but only as the destroyer of unbelievers. Yet this is what Christ faced, and this cross is what we face.

This cross is not a denial 0f God as creator and judge -rather is affirms the amazing richness of his creation and his longing for it to live up to the huge possibilities that are in it. It states in an only too tangible form what Jesus had already said in words in St.John’s Gospel, spelt out in John’s first Letter (4.16), "God is love". Now we can see what this really means. Bill Vanstone in his poem "Morning Glory" says it in verse far better that my prose can say it:

Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be
Here is God: no monarch he
Throned in easy state to reign:
Here is God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

What God did is all summed up in the cross "love’s agony, love’s endeavour, love’s expense". What an extraordinary picture of God! No-one whowanted to win over people to his views would present them with a God like this. Yet this is what the cross tells us; this is the cross with which we were all marked in baptism, and this is the cross we are all called upon to follow. Like Peter, we

often can’t face the consequences and duck out of them, but Jesus (again in John’s Gospel) still tells him to "follow me".

Pilgrimages often lead to shrines which may seem impossibly (0r improbably) holy, unlike the world outside. The Holy Land, or parts of it, was like this. But high on the city walls of Jerusalem, above the crowds of pilgrims, sat an Israeli soldier with his machine gun, reminding us of how much this world needs this costly gospel of love -how much hate and evil there is in a world which God made free to love him -most of all in the words of preachers of hate. Well, this is what God, the God of love, is like. Go on then and touch the cross to say that this is the God you want to worship. And then go, as a Christian and as a church, to live it out in the world.

Easter Day

Easter Day is a landmark on a pilgrimage. Those of you who have been with me here on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will know that I was recalling an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land on which Mary and I went in Holy Week 1986. Some of the highlights from that journey have helped me to shed light on these days too. There was the washing of the disciples’ feet and the sharing of bread and wine, which pointed to the church’s constant task of care and love for each other and the world. There was the stillness of the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus faced the reality of the cross, and we too had a glimpse of the eternal love of God which brought him there, and leads us onward on our pilgrimage.

So today we find ourselves at the tomb in the garden, withMary Magdalene and John and Peter -and no body. We too in 1986 went to the Garden Tomb and shared Holy Communion there. It’s only the "traditional" site of the tomb, but all the same, on that day and in that place, we could sense the presence of the living Lord whom even Mary Magdalene didn’t recognise until he called her name. It was a feeling we experienced later in the week, sharing Holy Communion in a church overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and then crossing the sea on a boat and stopping to look at the same skyline as Jesus saw and feeling the "Sabbath rest by Galilee…and calm of hills above"

But was it -is it -all just "atmosphere"? Was there really a Resurrection, and is there really a risen Christ, perhaps even with us here today? The disciples for sure were totally confused about it, and the New Testament accounts differ -there is no tidy story.

Whoever put the New Testament together didn’t edit the accounts to present the same evidence. Their stories are those of men and women totally crushed by what had happened when Jesus died, yet trying to make sense of a series of episodes which gradually opened their eyes to a Jesus who was still with them -in the garden, in the upper room, by the sea-shore, on the mountain-top.

Despite everything that Jesus had said to them, they had even less idea of what resurrection could mean that our own present godless generation has. Yet these demoralised and confused people were to transformed by the experience they had -transformed enough to take the experience out to the whole world. A new age really had started in those unlikely people. That really happened -it was never fake news.

But if the news had merely been about a charismatic religious leader who had been killed by the regime and was somehow now alive, it would have died by the time the next page of history had turned. There was something far more than that -they called it "the Gospel", the Good News. It included all they had learnt from Jesus, and pointed to all that was still to be learnt -about the God of love whose nature had been displayed for all time in Jesus’ cross and who drove them on to tell the world (often heroically) what love really means.

Of course they were only human they were scarred by their experiences, such as meeting the risen Christ, and were constantly hampered by human sins and weaknesses which blinded people to the Good News.All that isn’t just history; it’s present fact, true in the world-wide church and true in each Christian community. The Gospel, the Good News, that God is love and calls his people to be people of love and care for each other, in each community -in this church, in this town, in this world, is as true as it ever was. And it seems as impossible as it ever has been.

But those few confused and dispirited Christians knew one thing for sure. It was the continued power and presence of Christ, who was "risen and still with them" as his words had promised. He is here and with us today in Holy Communion, and has promised "to be with us always, to the end of the age"

Happy Easter!