Before Abraham was, I am. (St. John viii 58)
John Henry Newman reminds us that in the Church’s calendar the first weeks in Lent are spent in repentance… and that… the last weeks [of Lent], are more especially consecrated to the thoughts of those sufferings, whereby Grace and power were purchased for us (Sermon v. JHN) by Jesus Christ. From here on, then, our readings and meditations will have more immediate reference to Him, whose death and resurrection we are soon to commemorate. (Ibid) In the next fourteen days our minds will be drawn to the suffering of Christ, what is called His Passion, so that our faith may find deeper understanding of His love for us and may then more gratefully receive it.
The word Passion comes to us from the Latin cognate passio, which means to suffer, submit, endure, or withstand. And so in Passiontide we are called to witness how Christ suffers innocently as He submits to the Father’s will for us, enduring all malevolence and murderous hatred with a love that withstands all threats to its persistent purpose. We are called into this spiritual vision because we must come face to face with what God will do in Jesus Christ for our salvation. And I pray that what we behold and retain is something that happens to us as the Love of God suffers to bring us into the Death that leads to new life.
But if this suffering Passion of Christ is to have its proper effect upon our hearts, first we must die to that bad religion which of all behaviors most rejects it. Bad religion is that tendency to think that our pious good works, moral rectitude, ritual purity, and ceremonial meticulousness will save us. Bad religion is external and visible behavior that normally deflects other men’s attention away from the darkness and corruption that dwells within. But God knows the secrets of our hearts. He says to Isaiah, To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?… I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats…. Bring no more vain oblations…. I cannot [endure the iniquity], even the solemn meeting… for when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah i.11, 13, 15) God has no time for insincerity, hypocrisy, and spiritual fraudulence. External gestures of religion that are unsubstantiated by deep faith, hope, and love are abominations to the Lord. Isaiah shows us that what many of the ancient Jews did not realize was that if they had hoped to be saved, they should have emptied themselves of their sins in order to be replenished and renewed by the Grace of God. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; learn to do well; seek righteousness, relieve the oppressed … (Ibid, 16) the Lord commands. For only then will you be fit to endure, experience, and withstand the love that I shall reveal unto you. As Monsignor Knox reminds us: All efforts to secure our own justification by careful observance of the [religious] law, ceremonial or moral, are not better than being tied to a corpse. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 106) If we hope to endure the living Love of God in the Passion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, we must leave the corpse of self-serving good works behind.
But the corpse of bad religion is not easy to bury. In this morning’s Psalm David longs to overcome it with his passion for God. Like as the heart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the presence of my God. (Ps. xlii. 1, 2) David desires that God’s Word might come alive in his soul, but the purveyors of bad religion torment him. My tears have been my meat day and night, while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God? (Ibid, 3) David, we remember, was King over a people specially chosen and called by God. He has brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving, among such as keep holy-day. (Ibid, 4, 5) And yet in his people he finds only the aversion and antagonism of a bad religion that make them into his enemies. He cries to God, Why hast thou forgotten me: why go I thus heavily while the enemy oppresseth me? (Ibid, 11) But then he comes to his spiritual senses and says, Why art thou so vexed, O my soul? and why art thou so disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God: for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance and my God. (Ibid, 14, 15) David knew that only God could liberate him from the bad religion that threatened to damn his soul.
And in today’s Gospel, God in Jesus Christ confronts its diabolical temptation and tries to liberate His disciples from it. If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (St. John viii. 31, 32) To which His enemies proudly and vehemently proclaim, (W)e are of Abraham’s seed; we were never in bondage to any man, and thus we are already free. (Ibid, 33) The bad religion they follow leads them to think that freedom comes by reason of their race or nature’s blood-tie. Jesus points out that because they serve sin, they are in bondage to the devil. They claim that they are the children of Abraham. Jesus agrees that by nature they are Abraham’s children, but in spirit they have not inherited his faith. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. (Ibid, 34) They may be of Abraham’s stock, but spiritually they are the children of Satan. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. (Ibid, 39) When they try to maintain that they are spiritually free, saying, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God (Ibid, 41), Jesus points out that if they were true children of God, they would be the sons and daughters of that love which rules and governs His life.
Which of you convicteth me of sin? Jesus asks. And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? (Ibid, 46) He that is of God heareth God’s words. (Ibid, 47) Blessed are they that hear God’s Word and keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) The enemies of God cannot bear, suffer, or endure His presence in the world. Their attack upon Jesus persists. Why wouldn’t it? They are determined to find in others what they have spent years cultivating in their own darkened souls. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? (Ibid, 48) Jesus responds: I honor my Father, and ye do dishonor me. I seek not mine own glory; there is one who seeks it, and He shall be the judge. (Ibid 49, 50) Jesus is the Passion of God; He suffers, endures, and withstands the assault of bad religion upon the Divine will. Jesus is the Passion of Man: He suffers, endures, and withstands the assault of bad religion upon His obedience to it.
The worst temptation that faces us this morning is that bad religion which concludes diabolically that God’s Passion in Jesus Christ cannot transform and save the world. It not only resists but also desires to kill the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes its motivation is purely selfish – the mollycoddled and cosseted adolescent in every age is resentful and bitter when the holiness of God challenges his delusionally religious comfort zone. Sometimes it is purely envious – the man who has never felt the motions of God’s presence in his heart must ensure that no one else should either. Whatever the cause, those who are moved and defined by a deluded possession of the truth are determined to kill the Passion of God in His world.
Jesus Christ suffered because He resisted perfectly that bad religion that forever attempts to sever and pry Him from His Father’s will for us. I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (St. John xiv. 6) As Fulton Sheen writes, This is the equivalent to saying that without the Way, there is no going; without the Truth, there is no knowing; and without the Life, there is no living. (Life of Christ: Image, p. 154) This way, this truth, this life congeals only in the Person of Jesus Christ. He alone can triumph victoriously over the sin of man’s bad religion. In the sacrifice of His Passion we find the only pure offering of Man’s body, soul, and spirit back to God as a re-commemoration of what was forfeited for all men in Adam. Through Him alone does Human Nature conquer sin because it has no power over Him.The innocent suffering and death of His Passion comprise the precious moments of that new life that carries men back to God. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22) His eternal and unchanging, essential, heavenly origin moves Jesus towards His end. Before Abraham was, I am. (St. John viii. 58) His end is His beginning. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. (St. John xviii. 37)
Jesus Christ’s Passion is born of our Heavenly Father, who intends always to make us all into His other sons and daughters. This is His Passion – obedience to the Father in that sinless suffering and death that alone break the chains by which the devil binds men to their bad religion. Perhaps the poet’s Muse might shake us free of our bad religion this morning so that we might begin to embrace the unrelenting love of His Passion.
And look at last, how of most wretched Wights
He taken was, betrayed, and false accused;
How with most scornful Taunts, and fell Despights
He was reviled, disgraced, and foul abused,
How scourged, how crowned, how buffeted, how bruised;
And lastly, how ‘twixt Robbers crucified,
With bitter Wound, through Hands, through Feet, and Side.
Then let thy flinty Heart that feels no pain,
Empierced be with pitiful Remorse,
And let thy Bowels bleed in every Vein
At sight of His most sacred heavenly Corse;
So torn and mangled with malicious Force;
And let thy Soul, whose Sins his Sorrows wrought,
Melt into Tears, and grone in grieved Thought.
(E. Spenser: Hymn to Heavenly Love: 239-252)