A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Passion's Trinity: Pain, Sex and Death
May 8, 2005
Ascension Day Luke 24:49-53
"The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now." Ascension Day - a sort of coronation - the happy ending for the Christ who suffered and was put to death. I want to take issue with this theology of the hymns of Ascension, or at least consider another side of the picture.
The early church had two ways of telling the story of the Christ. The first, which we find in our Ascension day hymns, and is the dominant way, comes from the church in Jerusalem and the holy land. It's the story told by the people who had a real sense of place. They lived intimately with these places Bethlehem, Calvary, Emmaus, the mountain of the Ascension. It's the way of telling the story of the Christ that fills those pilgrimages to the Holy Land. (e.g. Here is a rock Jesus sat on.) So for the Church in Jerusalem the story unfolded and was 'place specific'. It's very ordered, linear, tidy and affirms the happy ending of the Ascension.
I reckon it's a very familiar hero story, exemplified by the film The Passion of the Christ. It's a battle with enormous odds. Everything is difficult and painful and looks for a moment like total failure. But don't worry, in the last reel of the film the hero rides off into the sunset, or in this case rises up into heaven.
Contrast this with the way the story was told in Rome in those early days of the life of the church. Here nothing was linear, everything was held as one, complete and whole in the palm of the storyteller's hands. The birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is one story held firmly in the worship of the church - not a sequence of stories that happened one after the other in different places.
In this way of telling the story, the birth of Christ and the passion of Christ are the morning and evening of the same day. The risen Christ is present on the cross as is the crucified Christ in the garden of the resurrection.
There is no separation between pain and death and resurrection, between the baby greeted by the wise men, the man who turns water into wine, who cries out from the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and the Christ who holds out his wounded hands to Thomas or breaks bread at Emmaus or is taken into heaven at the ascension.
Christ is birth, and passion, and resurrection, and ascension - all one - one story.
It has little to do with the Hollywood naivety of the happy ending but the much richer reality that we know in our own lives, that death and life, pain and passion, joy and sorrow are different sides of the coins of faith - held in the palm of one hand that belongs to each of us - this is God incarnate. That's what every Eucharist says. All is one.
We can find one word for this whole story and that word for me is "Passion". The passion of the Christ which we know in our passion and which is always at the heart of our faith and our living. It is the passion that turns the happy ending on its head. Passion, where love, self giving love, is the only response to hate, where love in the face of hate does not transform hate (much as we might wish it did) but shows us that we must tolerate it. We must hold love and hate together in the palm of our hands and survive it in fearless living, in truth telling, and inevitably in persecution, pain, martyrdom, death.
And this evidence of passion - this passionate evidence - is what we've tidied up. Tidied away, leaving only the familiar thoughts and feelings and the happy ending of the Ascension, lest we are discomforted. As Swinburne, the 19th century poet said, "For their comfort's sake, they served up only half a Christ". And how tempting that is - to serve up only half a Christ!
I want to think about passion today and I'm aware that faced with that it's easy to become shy, reserved and embarrassed - to look for easy words and trite ideas that don't take us over the top or too deep down - that sidestep the full demands of the Gospel and send us home with our sensible sensitivities intact. But that won't do.
What does it mean as followers of Christ to take the passion of Christ seriously - to be passionate followers of Christ? We know from Christ that it's about life and death being one. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, talking about how we make meaning in our talking and in our living, said that ultimately the only thing that has meaning, has life, is what we are prepared to die for.
So what does it mean in our living out of our Christian faith to be prepared to die for what we believe? Here I believe is the context of the passion - passion in all its varied and rich forms. Passion from its root passio meaning pain and suffering, passion meaning the crucifixion of the Christ, passion meaning the orgasmic, ecstatic energy of loving abandon and sex.
Pain, death and sex have always sat close together and even embraced each other; it's no accident that, in the Middle Ages in English and, still to this day in French, the metaphor for orgasm is "the little death." Pain, sex and death then - passion's trinity.
Are we, when we try to hide our pain, rather than see it as giving us information about ourselves and our God, are we dumbing down our faith to nothing more than a harmless religious sit-com - an Anglican Coronation Street - that helps us pass a pleasant hour or two each week but keeps the reality, that we tuck out of sight, from disturbing us?
In turning the pain and suffering of the death of the Christ into hot cross buns and family services, who are we protecting from the passion, the children or ourselves?
In keeping sexuality out of sight - when we ignore and repress the glorious sexiness that is part of Christian worship and Christian theology - when we ignore the sexuality that informs us and excites us whenever we get together intimately, closely, with each other - in doing all this are we shutting off a vital part of God's incarnation at the very heart of us. After all we all have sex lives, whether it's in our heads or our beds?
At the moment the play Equus by Peter Shaffer is playing at the Maidment Theatre. It's the story of a middle aged psychiatrist working with a 17 year old boy. A psychiatrist who lives (or perhaps more accurately just exists) in a loveless, impotent, dried up marriage, who faces himself in his work and relationship with this boy, a boy who has found passion in riding horses bareback at night - who has found passion in the divinity of horses, in Equus who has found passion in the dark, sticky wildness of moonlight and wet grass and hot breath - a boy, who struggling to free himself from his religious mother and sexually frustrated father, addresses the conflict of repression and orgasm by the frenzied blinding of the horses he rides at night.
At the end of the play when the boy has been cured, exorcised from his passion, from his pain, from his God, from his ecstasy, the psychiatrist says: "In the end he'll be delivered from madness. He'll feel himself acceptable. My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband - a caring citizen - a worshipper of an abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost. Let me tell you exactly what I’m going to do to him! I'll heal the rash on his body. I'll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that's done, I'll set him on a nice mini-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world, entirely in control. I doubt, however, with much passion. Passion, you see, can be destroyed, it cannot be created."
How easily that can happen. Passion gets destroyed - without guile, without manipulation, in good faith, in so many ways, but destroyed nonetheless.
I know how much of a temptation this is in the work I do as a psychotherapist; the temptation to help people fit into this passionless world - the temptation to meet the desire of the patient for help to survive an unsatisfactory, dull, painful life unsatisfactory, but so familiar - than risk the unknown, the unfamiliar chance of a life of passionate intensity and creative living.
How easily we can do that in the church as well - offering people an anodyne, safe, exorcised experience where they can belong because little is demanded and little is celebrated other than the sanctification of the normal - the passionless - where inclusive means anything safe - where acceptance means no one is ever challenged to tell their real story and be their real selves.
I'm not saying that we have to rush off and be crucified, nor ride horses at midnight nor especially that we should blind horses, actually or metaphorically. Enough of that goes on already. What I am suggesting is that we look for that place in ourselves, that part of us as a community and as individuals where passion lies hidden, where we can feel it tentatively, an echo of how things once were and still might be, and rather than hide the pain and the ecstasy, risk showing it, encouraging it letting it live, letting it transform us into the passionate, ecstatic people we can be.
I believe that's what the ascension is about - Christ free to be at the heart of each of us - free to be the language and love the enables us to understand and integrate the whole of ourselves in God. That's what passion is - the passion of being alive, being truly human and therefore truly divine.
When I mentioned the play Equus earlier in the sermon, I originally included an encouragement for you to go and see it if you haven't already. I realized, though, that by suggesting that, I was falling into the very trap I'm warning you about. It's not a case of going and sitting in the audience and watching actors acting passion. My invitation is not to see the play, but to live it - to incarnate the passionate God, to risk it ourselves.