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How Can I Keep from Singing?

June 06, 2021

It’s all about the line you will join. Or - if I may speak as a Brit - it’s all about which queue you will go to the back of. It’s all about which one is the most important queue in the world. And for Christians, the choice - the physical choice - is found within one building. The building of which I speak, of course, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

For this extraordinary church is believed to be built both over the site of Calvary, where Jesus died on the cross, and also over the place of his tomb, where he was buried, and thus from where, on the third day God raised him to new life. And in the normal run of things, when Jerusalem and this church are full of pilgrims, you will find two lines.

One line circles a strange building-within-a-building known as the aedicule, built above what is believed to be the burial place of Christ. On a bad day it is easily possible for pilgrims to wait two or three hours to get their own chance of spending, at best, a minute devoted to prayer or photography at the tiny chapel that marks Jesus’ tomb.

The other line is to be found in a mezzanine gallery just inside the only public entrance to the church, atop some steep and awkward stairs. Here there is a Greek Orthodox altar built over what is believed to be the rock of Calvary, at the very point where the cross stood on that fateful Friday some 2000 years ago.

The two lines - the two queues of Christendom. And the question that I want to ask you today is, quite simply: “which line would you rather join?” For the two queues are almost always not of equal length. People would appear to prefer to visit the site of resurrection than the site of crucifixion, for the reality is that the line of pilgrims at the rock of Calvary is always considerably shorter than the line of pilgrims at Jesus’ tomb. But that is not, I believe, how it should be. For, as one Baptist preacher once wrote:

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging,

Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Of course, not everyone likes to join a queue. Standing in a line - even when you are trying to feel as holy as possible - can be tiresome. And thus it is that I have often taken my groups of pilgrims downstairs - downstairs to another chapel that lies directly under the Calvary chapel, at ground floor level. Another Greek Orthodox chapel that often is empty, and in which you can get a very good look at the rock of Calvary, just ten or fifteen feet lower down. And I am sure you can guess whom this chapel is named after - it is the chapel of the one who heard the sound of God in the garden, and admitted that he was afraid. It is the Adam Chapel.

For - theologically, if not historically or geographically - there was only one place that Jesus could die for the sins of the world - right above the burial place of Adam. Indeed, there are some who claim that the blood from the wounds of the nails and the spear trickled down the cross, into the rock, and - in a manner more akin to a Hammer Horror movie than anything to do with real religion, right into the skull of Adam.

For, as we are reminded this morning, it was Adam, along with Eve, who caused humanity to be thrown out of paradise. If you read just a few verses on from this morning’s passage, we would be reminded that because of his sin, Adam is consigned to eat bread, ‘by the sweat of his face’, until he returns to the ground from which he was taken. And - in so doing - Adam becomes a symbol not just of the birth of humanity, but of its death.

Where else, indeed, could Christ be taken to die than over the tomb of Adam? The first sinner - whose sin brings death into the world, in a manner that seems final and unforgivable, at least until the Second Adam comes and dies - literally - in his place. For it is the sin of Adam that consigns humankind of what Winston Churchill summed up as ‘blood, sweat and tears’ - although, as our Baptist preacher friend knew very well, God loved us despite Adam’s legacy:

What, though the tempest loudly roar? I hear the truth - it liveth,

And though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth.

But for all that, in that complex and hard passage from Mark’s gospel that we just heard read, Jesus speaks of sin that is unforgivable. In the context of a clash between what you might call domestic family and religious family - a clash which revolves around what it might mean fully and completely to be someone who denies the work of God, the truth of God, the very love of God as seen in Jesus, we are told that someone who ‘blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.’

There are no easy explanations of those words, and across 2000 years of Christianity, they have been open to many interpretations. In different ages, some have claimed that the unforgiveable sin has been presumption, or impenitence, or envy - although most often it has been held by some to be despair. Even in my lifetime, it has been the case that those who committed suicide were refused burial in consecrated ground, and in some cases were not even allowed to have a Christian funeral rite used for them.

And if, within the Christian tradition, there is one person who most encapsulates the hopelessness of sin and despair which places someone beyond the reach of God’s love, it is, surely Judas Iscariot. Not for nothing does Dante place Judas in the lowest circle of hell, stuck for all eternity in Satan’s jaws. But alongside the severity of such a vision, other Christian mystics both ancient and modern have had a different view.

Thus Julian of Norwich believed herself to have been mystically transported to hell - only to find it unpopulated. Catherine of Siena remarked that she could not go to heaven if there was anyone in hell. And more modern writers, in the Twentieth Century, have given new voice to older Christian legends of Christ’s activity between his death and his resurrection that we often call the Harrowing of Hell - often focusing on the opportunity of redemption even for Judas.

One poem, by a woman I was privileged to know, called Ruth Etchells, who died some ten years ago, movingly challenges the belief that Judas should be regarded as being beyond the hope of forgiveness. Some of its verses tell us that:

Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair

So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
"It was for this I came" he said
"And not to do you harm

My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept

In three days' time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had

My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell"

Our Baptist friend this morning perhaps put it the more succinctly when he said:

In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to thee are winging,

When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?

All of which takes us back to the question of which line you are going to join. For we do not live in an ideal world, and even the most moving and wonderful pilgrimage to the Holy Land is set in the very pressing realities of time and space. In the Holy Land, just as in every other aspect of life, it’s not always possible to do everything you would like to do. And so I ask - do you join the line to visit the place of resurrection, or the line to visit the place of crucifixion?

Some of you may be familiar with the New Testament scholar and interpreter N.T. Wright - an English clergyman and author who has had a remarkable career as university professor, cathedral dean and diocesan bishop. He has translated the entire New Testament into very accessible text with helpful commentary designed for those who are coming to Christianity without any knowledge or scholarship - and he has written heavy, academic tomes for use by doctoral students in top schools and colleges.

Bishop Wright’s formational Christian roots were in a fairly hard-line evangelical tradition - and he once wrote that, “I no more contemplated going on pilgrimage than I would have considered kissing the Pope’s ring.” But - to his own surprise - his views begun to change, and back in 1989, at the height of the first intifada, he visited Jerusalem for the first time, arriving there at the start of Holy Week.

In a poignant and moving book entitled ‘The Way of the Lord’, he describes how, in the early morning of Good Friday, still in a fairly skeptical frame of mind, he finally made his first visit to the Holy Sepulchre. He comes to the Calvary altar marking the site of the crucifixion, only to be elbowed out of the way by some monks wanting to perform a liturgy. But he does not leave - he discreetly slides out of the way to the back of the chapel, where, to his own surprise, he spends the entire morning in prayer. 

As I thought and prayed in that spot, a few yards from the place where Jesus died,  [he says] I found that somehow, in a way I still find difficult to describe, all the pain of the world seemed to be gathered there. .. So much pain; so many ugly memories; so much anger and frustration and bitterness and sheer human misery. And it was all somehow concentrated on that one spot. And then, as I continued to reflect and pray, the hurts and pains of my own life came up for review, and they too all seemed to gather together with clarity and force in that one place. It was a moment—actually, two or three hours—of great intensity, in which the presence of Jesus the Messiah, at the place where the pain of the world was concentrated, became more and more the central reality.

I emerged eventually into the bright sunlight, feeling as though I had been rinsed out spiritually and emotionally, and understanding—or at least glimpsing—in a new way what it could mean to suppose that one act in one place at one time could somehow draw together the hopes and fears of all the years. I had become a pilgrim.

And the truth, of course, is that whether or not you ever get on a plane to visit the middle east, all Christians are called to be pilgrims in their hearts. We are all called to know and to rejoice in a new creation that comes, indeed, through resurrection life. But just as no bread can be shared that has not been broken, so, too, we cannot begin to experience resurrection if our pilgrimage does not take us to death.

And sometimes the death through which we have to travel is not just the physical death to which we will all come. Sometimes it is the death of tumult and strife - the death of despair and hopelessness that causes lamentation to be part of the human condition. A fact of which Pastor Robert Lowry, whose haunting melody and profound words we will hear a little later in our service, was deeply aware: 

My life goes on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation,

I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear its music ringing,

It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing?

Pulled in different directions between adoring crowds and misunderstanding family, we find Jesus this morning speaking not of those who cannot hear that music ringing, but speaking of those who would not hear that hymn, far-off though it might be.

Those whose fingers are placed so tightly and firmly in their ears that, like Adam whose fear caused him to try and make himself invisible from God’s gaze or Judas who believed he had placed himself completely beyond the love of his master and teacher, they believe that ‘the tumult and the strife’ have drowned out the music of God’s love.

But that music descends from Calvary through the tomb of Adam, to the very depths of the worst sin, the worst evil and the worst despair that humanity can create or imagine. Which is why, if you only have the time to join the back of one line, I hope that in the pilgrimage of your heart and mind, you will always chose to journey to Calvary. For, like Bishop Wright and Robert Lowery, it is only when you have stood there that you will ever be able to say, How can I keep from singing?