The mind and heart recoils from the suffering of Jesus. There is a double cause to this shying away from its reality. The first is the common difficulty of being with someone in pain: the suffering of others, even a total stranger, is hard to bear. This is doubly true of someone we know and love. Many people say, with the utmost sincerity – ‘I wish it were me.’ The sense of powerlessness, of frustration and a sense of injustice, all combine to turn away the focus of heart and mind. The second and sharper cause of this revolt of reason against Our Lord’s Passion is the sense of shared responsibility. The bloody agony stands at the centre of our redemption as children of God; it is difficult to accept that this awful death and humiliation is in some way necessary to give me new life.

A school of the will

So it is that the mind, imagination, flesh and spirit can combine to push away the scripture and liturgy of Passiontide to a safe, yet pious, distance. For some people that inability to be intimate with Jesus in his suffering is itself a personal trial and agony. It may be that an individual’s own life experience does not hold the memory of pain, death and bereavement to aid the prayerful imagination. In such a case there has to be a gracious acceptance that, for the time being, Passiontide may be a dry time spiritually. It does not matter that a person at such a distance from the suffering of Jesus feels that they are merely going through the motions; what matters is that they school their will to turn to Golgotha and steep their minds in the Gospel accounts. The time may come when the cry of a dying man will echo in the depths of their being.

This experience or distance from the Cross can be the work of the Holy Spirit. It is quite possible that the Lord is teaching some Christians that it is not necessary always to receive a powerful personal understanding and revelation of Gospel truth. It is sometimes a test of faith to rely on the public liturgy of the Church and of the insight and experience of others. It is often a spiritually challenging and enriching perspective to stand at the back of the crowd and see and hear nothing clearly.

Empty Friday?

With all this in mind, it is important to enter Passiontide with intelligent preparation. Churches are notoriously empty on Good Friday; many of us find something else to do. Before the ‘Passiontide recoil’ sets in, make deliberate plans to participate in the liturgy of the last four days. Many do find it difficult to cope with the emotional force of Holy Week; this makes it even more important to plan ahead, and to make prayerful preparation. It is vital, for each person to ask for grace to enter again through worship, the reading of scripture and private prayer into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering. In one’s own words, from one’s own heart, speak to the Lord about the fears and doubts one has. Pray for strength to stay with Jesus through that last week.

There is no doubt that a response to, and an understanding of Jesus’ suffering can be intensely personal. It can be quite dangerous for individuals to drift into the darkness of their own thoughts and prayers. This is one reason why involvement in the Church’s liturgy is so helpful. It is in the liturgical action of the people that praying the Passion becomes possible. The visual and musical richness of this time of the year gives us every chance of communion with Christ. Carried by the experience of the tradition, and strengthened by the fellowship of the Church throughout space and time, we are given grace to say, ‘we adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, for by thy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.’

Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham on the Hill and Swinstead and Rural Dean of Beltisloe.