This coming week is about focus. We are not very good at it. More than any other generation in history our attention is scattered and fragmented. The novelist Sebastian Faulks commented on this when he spoke at the Brook Green Book Festival. His own sons, he said, sometimes had three screens going at the same time. I puzzled for a moment over what he meant, and realized that he was referring to TV, laptop and mobile phone, all whizzing away simultaneously. This is a sign and symptom of how hard it is for us to look, to ponder, to focus and then to integrate what we see.
To help us to focus and centre ourselves, the Church makes us read the Passion narrative twice in the next few days. The first time this weekend on Palm Sunday, then again on Good Friday. Every year the same thing happens: we are there with Christ. The element of drama draws us in, even although we know well the contours of the story. We are there on the edge of the crowd looking on, peering through the dust, trying to hear his words above the hubbub of the excitable throng.
You cannot hurry the Passion narrative. It slows us down as it unfolds. It makes us look even when we would rather turn away. We want to evade parts of the last day of his life because, to be frank, it is a story of shocking brutality. But then again, this is not only his world, it is our world. We hold life to be dear, but there are parts of the world where life is cheap. Contemplating the wounds of Christ we see our wounded world. The victims of rape, the persecuted Christians, the casualties of war, the needlessly starving children in a world of plenty. Now, admittedly we need optimism to make progress in the world. We would never work to improve things if we did not believe that it was possible to make a difference. We need, though, also to be realistic about human nature. Human beings are capable of great love or great hatred; of generosity or malice. Jesus calls us to love and generosity and mercy, and through his suffering he shows how much these things are needed.
As Holy Week begins, I have the image of a sick body, with poisons and toxins circulating around in its bloodstream. The body is the world. The only way to deal with these elements of sickness is to draw them out of the body. And Jesus will, in the events of Good Friday, draw these poisons to himself. All the hatred, resentment, anger, self-centredness and callousness of the world will descend on him. As he is displayed on the cross, so, too, all the ills that plague the human race will be displayed there. Only this time, by drawing them out and defeating them, God in Christ will heal what only he could heal: the hurt and ailing body of humankind. All that is hidden will be drawn to the surface, and its poison removed.
Good Friday leaves us in no doubt that there is a sad violence at the heart of human nature. God made us free and we are free to choose well and wisely or foolishly and sinfully. Yet God does not leave us there. Through the memory of Christ on the cross he draws us hack. He tells us that what counts is not our miserable sins, but the goodness of Christ, who met and defeated sin on the cross. As is sometimes said, God accepts us as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In Christ he gives us new life. The narrative we enter into is not just his story, but our story also. Because our story is part of Christ’s story, our death leads us to life, our sin becomes repentance, and our foolishness is overtaken by the mercy of God.
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at St Mary's in Finchley East, north London.