The sound of sirens reverberates endlessly against glass and steel towers. A global pandemic has put the world in quarantine, and Manhattan wails—a daily litany of sorrows, echoed around the globe.
At sunset, the cacophony is interrupted by the sounds of hope. As the sun sets over the Hudson, human joy breaks through. It is the cheering that has become a vespertine ritual of thanksgiving offered to those sacrificing themselves to save lives. A city joins in the rupture of pain, and for a few moments, joy defies the daily requiem.
We have arrived at the threshold of Holy Week. Each apartment in the sky is now a cell in an urban monastery. Quarantined by need, and devoted to hope, millions are home. The Christian is now fulfilling the injunction Lent began with: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6.6).
Weeks ago, who would have imagined an end like this one.
Or is it a beginning?
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16.32-33).
He enters into Jerusalem, on a borrowed colt. They throw cloaks and branches about in homage, chanting Hosanna as they file through the gates. Yet the desolation of that people moves the Son of God to tears—they know not who is among them—or choose not to know. The pride of Jerusalem saddens Him:
And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke 19 41-44).
Between that entry and this one, millennia have passed. Yet the questions remain much the same: Do we know what makes for peace? Have we known the time of our visitation?
An upper room is readied, and the Passover is prepared:
Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover (Mark 14.13-16).
Christ desires to celebrate the Passover in a borrowed guest-room. It is a moment of divine intimacy made ours in borrowed space. For a time, the fear hovering over them subsides. He reaches for bread and wine. “One of you will betray me.” He speaks as one who knew the betrayer, and every betrayal that would follow. The betrayal of one, and of the many, saddens the Son of God.
But He proceeds: “Take, eat; this is my body”. “Drink it all of you; this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26. 27-28). He gives the gift of Himself in a borrowed space. His sacrifice would be for us—but that would not suffice—He desires to be ours.
Desiderio desideravi. “With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you before I suffer” (Luke 22.14-15).
He will enter our cities. He will find us, scattered, each to our own home. He will come into borrowed rooms, and celebrate the paschal feast in urban landscapes where sirens wail, and death knells toll. He sees there as we fearfully reach for bread and wine, as we watch the Easter fire burn away the night and hear Alleluias ring across a world of pixeled screens. He will sanctify by the visitation of His Spirit souls who yearn still for the Bread of Life: “Behold, I stand at the gate and knock; if any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3.20).
This time, may we not leave Him alone.
The hour has come. It is already here. The distress of the agony is permeated in glory. He prays to His Father, and leaves us his testament of love:
Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them (John 17. 24-26).
For as the cheering resounds to illumine the advancing gloom, and the heroism of our people move us to tears, so now also the sacrifice of the Innocent One will break through to console this weary world.
And we will weep over our cities in His place, having now witnessed His visitation. And we will kneel in borrowed rooms, overlooking borrowed skylines, advancing towards Calvary—a pilgrimage to a homeland long awaited by way of this exile long endured.
So let us take our part in the Passover prescribed by the law, not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally. Let us regard as our home the heavenly Jerusalem, not the earthly one; the city glorified by angels, not the one laid waste by armies. We are not required to sacrifice young bulls or rams, beasts with horns and hoofs that are more dead than alive and devoid of feeling; but instead, let us join the choirs of angels in offering God upon his heavenly altar a sacrifice of praise. We must now pass through the first veil and approach the second, turning our eyes towards the Holy of Holies. I will say more: we must sacrifice ourselves to God, each day and in everything we do, accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honouring his blood by shedding our own. We must be ready to be crucified. […]
-Gregory of Nazianzen, Orations, XXIII
The oblation has been made; the gift is ours. He desired to give in blood and flesh what we can now live for when all else is taken away. It is the communion of spirit made possible by that final testament of love—and His prayer, made eternal in flesh and blood will not fail us now. He desires with desire even now to be in us.
The upper room, today, is the human soul. The altar of His sacrifice, today, is our own flesh. We are one in Him.
[…] If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God. For your sake, and because of your sin, Christ himself was regarded as a sinner; for his sake, therefore, you must cease to sin. Worship him who was hung on the cross because of you, even if you are hanging there yourself. Derive some benefit from the very shame; purchase salvation with your death. Enter paradise with Jesus, and discover how far you have fallen. […]
What a pilgrimage to Calvary we are beginning! Our hour has come. It is already here. It is the time of our advance into the darkness of Golgotha. We must sacrifice ourselves to God, … accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honoring his blood by shedding our own.
We must be ready to be crucified.
The women will come with us.
And the Virgin, His Mother, will be waiting there.
And He will speak to us from the altar of sacrifice—”It is finished”.
[…] If you are a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body. Make your own the expiation for the sins of the whole world. If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshipped God by night, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning.
-Gregory of Nazianzen, Orations, XXIV
What else may we bring to the tomb? Aloes, or myrrh? The medicines of modernity?
They shall not be necessary.
That woman from Magdala, who once loved with tears and precious nard, confesses anew: “I have seen the Lord” (John 21.18).
It is our time, now, to proclaim the news of His victory: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5.2).
In the world, we have tribulation.
He has overcome the world.
We are consoled—by His Sacrifice.