Sunday, April 01, 2012

Palm Sunday: Gory Garments and Saving Wrath.

Bishop A. Cleveland Coxe

Who is this with garments gory,
Triumphing from Bozrah’s way;
This that weareth robes of glory,
Bright with more than victory’s ray?
Who is this unwearied comer
From his journey’s sultry length,
Traveling through Idumè’s summer
In the greatness of his strength?

Wherefore red in thine apparel
Like the conquerors of the earth,
And arrayed like those who carol
O’er the reeking vineyard’s mirth?
Who art thou, the valleys seeking
Where our peaceful harvests wave?
“I, in righteous anger speaking,
I, the mighty One to save.”

“I, that of the raging heathen
Trod the winepress all alone,
Now in victor garlands wreathen
Coming to redeem Mine own:
I am He with sprinkled raiment,
Glorious for My vengeance hour,
Ransoming, with priceless payment,
And delivering with power.”

Hail! All hail! Thou Lord of Glory!
Thee, our Father, Thee we own;
Abraham heard not of our story,
Israel ne’er our Name hath known.
But, Redeemer, Thou hast sought us,
Thou hast heard Thy children’s wail,
Thou with Thy dear blood hast bought us:
Hail! Thou mighty Victor, hail!

There are times when I have sung hymns which have raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This morning at Mass I sang this hymn for the first time to a tune which I've always attributed to O the deep, deep love of Jesus and I must confess that it gave me quite a start.

Bishop Coxe based his words very closely on the episode in Isaiah lxiii of the figure who has trod the winepress visiting the wrath of God upon the enemies of His people. It is a troubling and arresting image for all those who cannot reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New. However, there is a great deal of hope in both Bible passage and the subsequent poetic rendition.

Of course, there are (not so massive) cultural differences between ourselves in the West and the original hearers of the prophecy of Isaiah (in this case trito-Isaiah). For the Israelites, the relationship with Edom was always very rocky. Edom became a vassal of Israel under David and Solomon, but later helpe Nebuchadnezzar II to plunder Israel, and it is this act to which God is responding through Isaiah. Interestingly, the name "Edom" has the idea of redness and was etiologically associated with Esau, Israel's rubicund brother. If we have that in the back of our minds when we approach Isaiah lxiii, then it gives our brains another jolt when we read of the "gory garments".

Of course, for many people, the difficulty is how we reconcile a wrathful God with a God of Peace. We tend to be a bit squeamish these days about gods being called upon in fighting battles. We tend to think of battle and war as being "politically incorrect", after all, Christians have still the problems of the effects of the Holy Wars known as the Crusades to deal with! We don't like to fight our battles in the name of God.

However, we are seldom at peace. For the past decade, the West has engaged in a "War on Terror", trying to rid the world of acts of violence which we saw all too clearly on 11th September. This has still resulted in horrible acts from all sides and it is quite right that we should find war repellent. We should be living as if “I hate you” was the most horrible swearing and cursing of all. Nonetheless, in this day and age we are still in the middle of wars and battles. Note well that, in the hymn above and the generating Biblical passage, Bozrah is the old name for Basrah of very recent memory in Iraq!

Yet, it is the titanic battle between Good and Evil that we overlook because it continues invisibly and yet affects us all the time. We are called to fight this battle, and yet more often than not we languish and fall to sin. All sin deserves the wrath of God because God thoroughly hates all sin. This brings us back to the picture of the wrathful and vengeful God that is supposedly peculiar to the Old Testament and different from that of the New. However they are the same God, and if we believe that Jesus Christ is God as the Second Person of the Trinity, then Jesus too possesses the wrath of God.

God’s wrath is a terrifyingly beautiful notion if we think about it. It is not we who are the objects of God’s wrath but Sin. If we choose to sin then we put ourselves in the greatest danger of death because God will not be where Sin is. We are so steeped in Sin. All around us we see the effects of greed, hatred, lust, loneliness, selfishness, cupidity and envy which are killing us and do we have anything that can help us?

This is where a passive, emotionless god would be useless, because such a being would sit on the side-lines, wringing his hands and calling ineffectually. Instead, God in His wrath does something.

It is He Who steps into the world, getting his hands, feet and garments gory with bloodshed. Ironically, this blood is His own, not that of His enemies. We are presented with a God who willingly pays the price for Sin, who makes good the satisfaction for the evil that we have done, do and will do, if only we will turn to Him. The price is His very own lifeblood.

This is such a very different wrath from that of a human being. This is because the idea of “wrath” is a human term and God is not simply a human being – the analogy breaks down if we think this way. God doesn't suffer from emotions and passions as we do, but He does act justly and with the most intense dispassionate compassion that one can every know. What we can understand is the intensity of emotion that wrath carries, that burning passion and the fact that it drives us into activity, usually foolishness and to our shame. But God’s foolishness is higher than Man’s wisdom and by His wrath we are saved.

This week, we behold that very foolishness and this very wrath. How will we experience them in our lives?

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