09 April 2017

Who is this Son of Man? Homily at the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Palm Sunday, 9 April, 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

When the Virgin Mary is told by the angel that she is to be Mother to God Incarnate, she asks, “Who can His Father be?” When Joseph takes her with Jesus to be presented in the Temple, they wondered that He was a called a Light, uncovering the secret of every heart. When the apostles are in the boat in a storm that Jesus calms, they ask, “What manner of man is this?” Jesus asks Peter, “Who do people say that I am?”

Of course, we have abundant answers. At His baptism John identified Him as the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the world; and the Father’s voice declared Him to be His favoured Son. Jesus Himself announced that He was the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Door, the Bread of Life, the Servant. But the point is that few could fully grasp how the One Who described the Kingdom refused to call Himself its King. Who can He be? Where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this?

On the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter and James and John at last perceive Him in a new light - uncreated, a light that casts no shadows but illuminates the soul to see Him as He truly is. They hear for themselves that the Lord is the choice of His Father to restore all things. But the great revelation, which they will need all their perception and imagination to come to terms with, is that the great restoration for which they hope comes only when their Lord is raised from the dead: first, he must die as Son of Man. (Cf. Matthew 17.1-12)
Still the questioning continues. The apostles argue: “Why can You heal the afflicted and we cannot?” (Matthew 17.19) “Who shall be greatest in this Kingdom of yours?” (Matthew 18.1) “How many times do I have to forgive to be able to join in it?” (Matthew 18.21) “We have given up everything to follow you – where does it lead, what is there for us?” (Matthew 19.27) Amid all these demands from the disciples, it is no small wonder that a last healing that Jesus performs is when He comes upon two blind men calling for His mercy: “Lord, we want our sight,” they cry out (Matthew 20.33), as the crowd try to shut them up. The contrast with the disciples cannot be starker: those who have been given the vision of light cannot grasp its meaning; the two blind outcasts recognise it immediately and want to see it for themselves.

It is in this new light that Jesus, then, goes on to His controversies with the Temple authorities, and in which the people, who for a moment acclaim Him as king, turn into a jury that convicts Him of treason and clamours for His crucifixion. It is left, then, to Pontius Pilate to answer the questions that have circled for years - Who can He be? Where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this? The one who asks Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, places him at his own Seat of Judgement, vests Him in purple and crowns Him with thorns and says, “Behold: The Man.” Jesus has all the way through said that there is no meaning to everything He is that cannot be found in Who He is as the Son of Man - a human being, the summary of everything that a human is, a person in the world of creation, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, one among many appointed to serve. People say that in this Jesus is mocked, or even that He is hated. It is true, of course; but it is even truer to say that, in this moment now, He is shown to be Who He is.

In other word what a King in His Kingdom in another world looks like in this one. In today’s Kontakion, we sang, “Mounted on a throne in heaven, You are mounted on a colt here on earth.” We can add, “Sitting on the Father’s right in glory, in this world you are fixed to a Cross beside a thief.” Or, to put it another way, what is transfigured by heaven with brightness, the world disfigures before it will look at it. What God brings into the light – whether it is the beauty of Christ truly God and truly The Man, or the secrets of every heart – we in the world disguise by means of darkness, or we spoil it out of revulsion at the divine glory that could be ours.

On Thursday at Westminster Abbey, there was a service of hope, to commemorate those who had suffered and died in the recent attempted attack on Parliament. Ahead of the service, one of the mourners was bitter that the attacker had died at the scene: “Pity he got shot. He should have lived to suffer the same way we are suffering.” Another person, an injured survivor now mourning her husband said, “I don’t feel I could heal … as a person if I had hate in my heart. Kurt wouldn’t want that either, so there is no hate.” Both are raw and honest expressions of loss and grief; and both are reflected for all eternity in the presentation of The Man by Pontius Pilate – a King degraded, His Kingdom rubbished;  a man made to suffer because of the threat He poses; an innocent victim refusing to be provoked from love to hate; lives torn apart by those to whom they mean nothing; nothingness where there had been so much; scars for ever in place of happy goodness; even frustration of the human chance for shortcoming and unbelief to find fulfilment by means of love divine. No wonder there is honest bitterness for lost love; but there is forbearance and hope, too:  the best of us. There it is in refusal to hate and in the face of Christ forgiving that will not go away. Forgiveness is the unavoidable reality that He brings from above and beyond us, that we must deal with, just as He has dealt with the reality of our suffering and our Passion, by making it His own.

Today’s readings – Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to find the God of peace in whatever is true, just, pure, and good (Philippians 4.4-9), followed by the gospel story of the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (John 12.1-18) – are appointed in the old English Latin rite to be read in Advent, the time that leads up to Christmas. As we read them in the Byzantine Church as we approach His Passion, thus they imply our expectation at the coming of The Man born to die and rise again, about Whom we ask, “Who can His Father be; where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this? What has He come for? Who is He?” As the story unfolds, He tells us to see Him as the One Who will restore all things, but as One Who can only raise them up if He enters into their lowest point, and lifts them from beneath their very depths. So, the only way to envisage Jesus on clouds of glory is to behold Him on His Cross. The only way for His Light to reach and shine on us, is if we peer into the gloom and let it pierce us there. The only way to know we are loved is to let it dissolve our hate. The only way to cry “Hosanna” truthfully is to accept that we have also shouted, “Crucify.” The only way to be forgiven is to accept a way to forgive. The only way to satisfy justice is not to seek revenge. The only way to be blessed is not to curse. The only way to bear the suffering and the painstaking healing is not to inflict more wounds. The only way to find peace is, for sure, in what is true and just; but this is only halfway. We press on to what is pure and good and worthy of praise from the God of peace. This is so hard for us to bear, for it is more palatable – as discovered by Christ betrayed – to shut down, close off, break, hit, destroy.

Yet, as always, our life in Christ and the way the liturgy, and its readings and chants are deployed for us to meet Him turn everything round to stop our thinking in its tracks. For what we see at Pilate’s Seat, on the Cross, is not just Jesus, Truly God and truly The Man: it is God’s presentation to us of how we are to be and what we are summed up in Him. If The Man is throned in heaven as an innocent condemned on earth, how much is it the case that we with all our sins and shortcomings look divine to God in His realm of heaven? Here our resentment at Christ’s beauty finds it unbearable to behold, as we take what we please for ourselves, and disfigure the gift that is truly good; there we look transfigured in the light of Christ as God reveals the unbearable secret bad in every heart, and takes it out of the gaze of His love. Here we are mortal like Lazarus, but already like Lazarus we are also risen from the dead?

The Lord answered Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18.36). Well, neither is our kingdom of this world. “Here we have no abiding city” (Hebrews 13.14): “Our homeland is in heaven2 (Philippians 3.20). This is actually where we are living now; this is how we live, this is how we act. And as Pilate clothes God incarnate in purple robing and a crown of thorns, saying, “Behold: The Man”, the Father is holding the fellow-humans of the Son of Man at His own judgment seat and says, “Behold: this will become divine.”