ET VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST ET HABITAVIT IN NOBIS
'And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us'
These words in their Latin form stare us in the face - regular worshippers and visitors alike - as we approach the high altar at St. Chad's. Taken from St. John's Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14, they run the full width of the altar, just below our beautiful reredos. They are of course closely linked to the central panel of the reredos which shows the Nativity of Christ; but even when the panels are closed up, as they are throughout Lent, that text is still visible, taking on an even greater prominence because of its plainer surroundings.
The Incarnation - that is God coming among us in human form - is not only about the Nativity, as St. John so eloquently informs us in Ch.1 of his Gospel, as he points us towards the Passion. He also tells us quite unequivocally who Jesus really is. A gentleman who visited St. Chad's just a few days ago reminded me of that when he said, 'Christ was the Word made flesh. Therefore he was perfect in every way, in everything he said and in everything he did'.
As we move once again into Holy Week and Easter, we come face-to-face with the awful fact that Jesus - who was with God in the beginning before time began - was rejected and put to death by the human beings he identified with. 'He came unto his own,' writes St. John, 'and his own received him not'. The crowds who hailed him on Palm Sunday as the One who came in the Lord's name were the same people who shouted 'Crucify him' only five days later.
During Holy Week we are drawn closely into the Passion story through the Liturgy which involves dramatic re-enactment of those events to help fix them in our minds. The Palm Sunday procession is followed by the reading of the long Passion Narrative, in which everyone takes a speaking part. Then we move quickly into Holy Week. The Stations of the Cross, whether we take part formally as a group, or individually (as we may of course do at any time) take us on that last journey of Jesus from Pontius Pilate's judgement seat to Calvary, and help us to fit the Passion of Christ into our own lives.
Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin mandatum which like its English derivative, mandate., means a command. Jesus gave his followers a new commandment, that they should love one another. He also gave us the Holy Eucharist, based on his actions at the Last Supper: 'Do this in memory of me'. All of this is recalled in our Maundy Thursday worship, after which we keep watch for a while in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, as the disciples kept watch with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Supper.
There has been much debate over the centuries about the precise nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. It is perhaps enough for us simply to know that he is with us whenever and wherever the Mass is celebrated. As Queen Elizabeth I once eloquently put it,
'Christ was the Word, and spake it, He took the bread and break it; And what his word doth make it, That I believe, and take it'
- which brings us back again to the reality of Christ as the Living Word of God; 'perfect,' as our visitor-friend said the other day, 'in all that he said and in all that he did'. It is no accident that at one time every Mass concluded with the silent reading of St. John 1.1-14, '....And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us'
Good Friday - yes, we call it 'Good' in spite of the horrific events it recalls. Christ's perfect obedience to God, and his love for his fellow human beings, stopped at nothing; even though rejection and execution as a criminal stared him in the face. We can try to apportion blame, as many have done in the past, but since we are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we are all guilty. The Liturgy of Good Friday enables us to face up to our own failings and shortcomings, and to lay them at the foot of the Cross, knowing that we shall receive the love of God in return. The church is quite deliberately plain and bare, having been stripped of its ornaments after the Maundy Thursday Mass, as Christ was stripped of his garments before being crucified. Holy Communion is distributed from the Elements reserved on Maundy Thursday.
Holy Saturday and Easter Eve. Having been taken down from the cross, the body of Jesus rests in the tomb. This is 'Holy Saturday', not - as some would call it, 'Easter Saturday'. It is a time for quiet reflection and preparation. Then, as the daylight fades, we begin the Vigil by lighting the New Fire, and from that is lit the Paschal Candle to be carried into the darkened church. The celebration of the Resurrection begins; the resurrection which took place, we should remember, during the hours of darkness. The Light of Christ penetrates even the deepest darkness, driving away the shadow of death. The Vigil Service includes the renewal of Baptismal vows, reminding us that we are given a share in Christ's Risen Life, and concludes with the first Mass of Easter.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead reversed human judgment upon the life and work of Jesus, confirming his identity as 'the Word made flesh'. That is why we can look upon the Cross as a symbol of victory and give it a place of honour in our churches. It also vindicates the claims made by Jesus during his ministry - 'I am the way, I am the truth, and I am Life' (John 14. 6) and offers hope to all of humanity - 'I am the resurrection and I am life; he who believes in me, even though he die, he shall come to life' (John 11.25). As our visitor-friend rightly observed, the resurrection also affirms the sovereignly of Christ whose words and deeds are true for all time; thus the Church should never allow itself to trim its teaching or its practice to the spirit of the age. 'Christ was the Word made flesh; therefore he was perfect in everything he said, and in everything he did.' Take this thought with you into Holy Week and Easter, and let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly (Colossians 3.16).