Before Abraham was, I am.
The cross is veiled. We see but only “in a glass darkly.” The veiled crosses of Passiontide remind us of a discomforting and yet profound truth. We know and yet do not know the full and real meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. Indeed, it is the struggle of our lives to come to understand more fully the significance of the Passion of Christ. Everything in the ordered life of the Church, in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the sacramental liturgy, in the pattern of the church year and especially during Lent, points to a mystery which we see but do not yet fully comprehend. At the heart of it all must be our willingness to enter into the mystery of Christ’s passion in the hope that at last “[we] shall know even as [we are] known.” But only through the intensity of the passion, only through the mystery of Christ crucified, the mystery of sin and salvation, the mystery of human redemption. “The Cross shines forth in mystic glow” and we are illumined in its shadows.
For it, too, shall be said of us, as Jesus says to the mother of James and John, that “ye know not what ye ask.” Such, after all, are the disorders of our desires. We do not really know what we want. Even more, it, too, shall be said of us what Jesus prays for on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Such are the consequences of the disorders of our desires – the agony of Christ’s crucifixion and the agonizing tenderness of the first word of the Crucified who prays for our forgiveness.
But such things can only be said of us if we enter into the way of the passion, the way of the cross. We are precisely those who know not what we ask and know not what we do. The veiled crosses of Passiontide signal the dark ignorance of our minds and the dreadful darkness of our wills. We are the crucifiers; Christ is the crucified. But what that means is only dimly seen. The cross is veiled; present, but not clearly seen, an image hidden in the dark purple of sin and repentance, an image concealed in the dark purple of the royal divine. The veiled crosses of Passiontide suggest the shadowland of sin and salvation, the shadowland of divine love and human redemption.
Yet the veiled crosses of Passiontide reveal as much as they conceal. They reveal the deeply conflicted and darkly contradictory nature of our humanity and they point to the heavenly king who reigns supreme from the tree.
O Tree of grace, the conquering sign,
Which dost in royal purple shine,
Gone is thy shame; for, lo, each bough
Proclaims the Prince of Glory now.
The late sixth century bishop and poet, Venantius Fortunatus, has captured the meaning of this day in his memorable hymn Vexilla Regis, which we have already sung. A profound meditation upon the Passion of Christ, it signals the paradox of glory – the Crucified is King. The shame is the glory. And “by that death did life procure” “He reigns and triumphs from the Tree” whose “favoured branches bore / the wealth that did the world restore, / The priceless treasure, freely spent, / To pay for man’s enfrancshisement.” The language of restoration and restitution, the language of sacrifice and substitution all belongs to the mystery of human redemption. In a way, by hymn and liturgy, all is revealed.
And, yet, all is veiled. We don’t get it and even when we think we know what we want – surely we want what is best for ourselves and for one another, for our children and the children of the world – we discover that we don’t really know what is best. How can what is best for our humanity be realized through the grim horrors of a tortured and bloodied man nailed to a cross of wood? How can dead wood become a living tree, “O Tree of grace”, that restores us to paradise and even more, to heaven? Only through our awareness of the darkness of our unknowing and the destruction that our darkness causes. Such is part and parcel of the Passion. Such is part and parcel of the deep mystery of the Gospel itself.
Today’s gospel in our Anglican Missal is rather unique. It marks one of the few times where a change has been made to the appointed readings belonging to the Eucharistic lectionary of the Western Church. The more ancient reading is from the 8th Chapter of The Gospel according to St. John which tells the story of Christ’s encounter with those who accuse him of two things: first, not being a true Jew; and, secondly, having a demon. Jesus responds by proclaiming his identity with the Father, God the Father, that is to say, and by proclaiming that in him the promises to Abraham have their fulfillment. “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” And when pressed by his puzzled interlocutors, he makes the astounding statement, “Before Abraham was, I am.” It is an outstanding proclamation of Christ’s essential divinity.
The reaction signals the necessity and the heart-rending poignancy of the Passion. “They took up stones to throw at him.” Our darkness is made visible in the face of the light of Christ. The passage actually appears between the two places in John’s Gospel where Jesus identifies himself as “the light of the world.” And in each case there is a connection to the dust of the earth, the dust wherein Jesus writes with his finger on the ground and speaks words of forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery, the dust out of which Jesus makes a healing poultice and bestows sight upon a man who was born blind. Forgiveness and Glory. And in response, there is only the darkness of animosity and the desire to extinguish the light. Why? Because we do not understand what is clearly stated. Because we will not open our hearts and our minds to see what God wills for our good. How, then, will we know more fully and more clearly? Only through the Passion of Christ who makes visible our sin and who makes known God’s love. Such is the point of the Passion.
We have to enter into it year after year. It is really what the Church in her liturgy and life constantly proclaims in each and every service of the Holy Eucharist, namely, our participation in the Passion of Christ. He suffers for us, to be sure, but to the end that we may know his love, the love of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that immense and incommensurable love that we can never exhaust and never fully comprehend. Only through the Passion in all of the grim horrors of our humanity in its ceaseless and endless disarray, it seems, can we even begin to contemplate “the breadth and length and depth and height” of that divine love which sets all loves in order. In every service of the Holy Eucharist we are reminded of the Passion of Christ and of the grace that is given that we may participate in the Son’s thanksgiving to the Father. For that redeems all our sins and makes us lovely even out of the unloveliness of our ignorance and the darkness of our sin. Such is the purpose of Passiontide: to reveal, as the hymn puts it, “the rule of heaven.”
“Before Abraham was, I am” is that rule and that reality. It points to the infinite mercy of the grace of God in Jesus Christ; he is “the perfect life”, the life that “was given.” It proclaims the mystery that we can only enter into with the prayer that we may grow in understanding. We go the way of the cross to behold the horror and the glory.
Somehow the shadows of the purple-veiled crosses of Passiontide illuminate the darkness of sin and show us the light of redemption. The Eternal Son of the Everlasting Father wills to suffer for us; his passion, meaning his suffering, signals the divine love which wills our redemption.
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne