Brian Wren in his beautiful, “Sing my Song Backwards” wrote, “sing my song backwards from end to beginning, Friday to Monday, from dying to birth.” Like a favorite bed time story that’s read over and over again, even though you know the story by heart, we have a child-like awe and desire to cuddle up to the Passion of Jesus again. And, of course, in knowing both cross and resurrection, and entering in to the story, we are invited in to God’s salvation history, right now, today and everyday. So, how well do you know the story?
Together, the Passion and Easter story actually fill a quarter to a third of each of the four gospels, and are easily the single longest storyline they contain, underscoring how important the Passion is in proclaiming the good news. “The Passion” means, in this case, not just passionate, heartfelt emotions, though there is that in the story. But the word also derives from “passive,” referring to Jesus’ willing obedience to God, in his arrest, trial and death. And so we trace the Passion of Jesus during Holy Week from this “Sunday of the Passion” to the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. It is the cross and resurrection, the palms and the passion, that reveal the Messiah, and change our lives.
The hymn from our second reading, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is a good guide to this story of the Passion. In this passage, Paul quotes from one of the very earliest of Christian Hymns, where we find Passion and Resurrection are also central. The first line begins, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and recalls Jesus’ gift of the Last Supper. Jesus hosts the Passover meal of his Jewish tradition, which celebrates the deliverance of God’s people, while at the same time he promises to be present in the meal to save us, ever after. On the night in which he was betrayed, by Judas, Jesus offers himself in the familiar bread and wine of the Passover meal, a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, a revelation of his, and our, oneness with God, the one he called Father.
The next line of the hymn goes, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, but emptied himself… being born in human likeness.” The Jesus born of the Holy Spirit, and chosen and anointed by God at his Baptism, did not exploit Herod’s throne or grasp the seat of the High Priest in the Temple, but Jesus embraced his humanness as an itinerant preacher. Accordingly, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gives himself up to the Temple soldiers to be arrested, tried and crucified. We see his human struggle, even as he divinely directs the events – Passion, at its best.
Then, the hymn continues: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Jesus, fully human, offers himself as a model of godly life. We can never be sinless like Jesus. But we can see the way most clearly in Jesus’ journey, and obedient struggle. When we turn around from our old life, there is no better model to emulate and give us direction. Jesus endures insults and torture not to encourage our victimage, but to overcome the model of retaliation and mob mentality in the world’s cultures. The Passion of Jesus clarifies our path. Knowing that Jesus went all the way to the cross for our sake, we learn the way of active non-violence. We learn, not to be victims, but to be empowered, whether as individual believers or as the collective people of God.
And the final line of the hymn looks beyond the Passion. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In our Lenten and Passion Week walk, we find with Jesus, the reversal of darkness and death, and experience exaltation and peace in the glory of God’s presence forever.
How well do we know the story? When we hear the beauty of this early Christian Hymn that Paul quotes, we remember Jesus’ Passion, and God’s new creation on the first day of the week. Today, and in the Great Three Days later this week, we celebrate this story in real time, the story of our salvation. Then, one week from today, we gather early in the morning, when the “sealed stone” is rolled away.