The violet vestments have been replaced by red, the color of blood, signifying that in the final two weeks of Lent we draw closer to our Lord Jesus in His suffering and death. The Sunday before Palm Sunday is known among Anglicans as Passion Sunday. It prepares us for Holy Week somewhat in the manner that the “Gesima” Sundays prepare us for Lent itself. The veils on the altar crucifix and other icons remind us of the time when Jesus “hid himself, and went out of the temple,” signifying that the glory had departed.
The word Passion means suffering; one with a “passion” for art or music will actually experience suffering as he devotes himself totally in self-discipline and practice. In His suffering under the scourge and on the cross, our dear Lord revealed God's great passion for the souls of men.
All four of the Gospels devote a disproportionate number of chapters to the final week, and even the final hours, of the life of Jesus. The accounts have different perspectives and emphases.
Matthew (chapters 26--27) and Mark (14--15) are almost the same, emphasizing the rejection, humiliation, and suffering of Jesus. These two Gospels give only one of the “Seven Words,” the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The authenticity of the saying is evinced by the fact that it is quoted in Hebrew by Matthew and in Aramaic by Mark. Aramaic was Our Lord's normal spoken language, but Hebrew was the language of the Psalm He was quoting. The Matthew-Mark picture of the Passion is reflected in the crucifix above our Holy Table.
Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes (see chapters 22---23) the compassion of Jesus, which strangely elicits the compassion of others. It is Luke who tells us that “there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Luke gives us three words from the Cross, including, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and the word of compassion to the thief, “To day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Luke's third word reflects the serene resignation of Jesus, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Luke's perspective is reflected in the San Damiano icon at our side altar.
John presents yet a third picture, a portrait of Jesus already in majesty. At every point Jesus is in full control of the situation. The soldiers in the garden fell down in awe before Him. Clearly He worsted and embarrassed Pontius Pilate in the trial. John relates three other words from the cross: “Woman, behold thy son, Son, behold thy mother,” “I thirst,” and “It is finished.” All three reflect Jesus in command, even to the point of demanding a drink! The royal Christ is set forth for us in the Christus Rex over the west door of our church.
(The reader will forgive some allusions to the local use and iconography of the writer's parish.)
Running through St John's Gospel we have an interesting series of sayings from the lips of Jesus, beginning with the simple formula “I am.” We hear Him saying, “I am the true vine, ... the good shepherd, ... the door, ... the bread of life, ... the resurrection and the life, ... the way, the truth, and the life.” These sayings are all striking not only because they create vivid word pictures for us, but moreover because they use an especially emphatic and solemn form of “I am” in the original Greek which underlies our English Bibles. When Jesus said “I am,” He said it in a way which gets people's attention, as today's Gospel reading from John 8 clearly demonstrates.
The phrase echoes a number of passages from the Old Testament. As an example, there is Isaiah 41:4:
“Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the LORD, the first, and with the last, I am he.”
But the most striking example is from the account of Moses' encounter with the Lord at the Burning Bush, in Exodus 3:14. Moses asked the mysterious voice coming from the bush to reveal His name. Do not forget what a bold and presumptuous request this was on Moses' part! But God revealed His name, nevertheless, telling Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” That mysterious and awesome Name was abbreviated with the one word all devout Israelites past and present feel is too sacred to be uttered aloud, the Divine Name YHWH.
When Jesus began to make statements, “I am ....” it surely sounded as if He were claiming for Himself the very Name of God, the Name too holy to be spoken above a whisper. But in John 8:58, He left no room for doubt, when He stated firmly to His opponents, “Before Abraham as, I AM.” Not only did He claim to be older than Abraham, He claimed to be God. If the words are obscure to us, the meaning was perfectly plain to the Jews. It is no wonder that they attempted to stone Him on the spot.
When the huge band of soldiers went out to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, He told them twice, “I am He” (John 18:5). When the high priest asked Him “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” again He answered “I am” (Mk 14:62). Each time, He made the bold claim to be God, the same God whom Moses met in the burning bush. This is not merely an opinion about Jesus; it is not to be explained as the Church's faith regarding Jesus; it is simply what Jesus claimed for Himself. If He did not make such a claim, why were His opponents so angry? If we love Jesus and place our trust in Him, then we are bound to come to terms with the claims which He made concerning His identity.
A man who claims to be God, many have observed, is either lunatic, liar, or Lord. In any event, such a man is no one to trifle with. As Christians, we have been granted to know the right answer.