Cleansing our conscience of dead works: sermon on Passion Sunday

“Jesus said to the multitudes of the Jews: which of you shall convince me of sin?”

This Sunday, we will enter a new stage in the liturgical year: we have begun the last two weeks of Lent. These two weeks are an intensification of the Lenten season, which we call Passiontide, when we veil the statues and take out from the Mass the words, Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto. And notice that in the first gospel of Passiontide, the first thing that the Church puts before us is the innocence of Jesus Christ. We heard him say to the Jews in Jerusalem, near the end of His public ministry, “Which of you shall convince, or convict, me of sin?” It’s as if He is saying, “Can any one of you point to one sin that I have committed? To some word that I have spoken out of place, or to some duty that I have left undone? If, despite having been watching me closely for so long, and with such hostile eyes, you cannot point to any sin of which I am guilty, then you have reason enough to believe that I come from God.”

If our Lord speaks in this way, it is out of charity for His hearers. He would not otherwise, I think, have wanted to have spoken of His own innocence, since He would not have wanted even to seem to seek to be praised by them. But He speaks of it anyway, in order to give them yet another reason to believe in Him, in addition to all the miracles. He leaves nothing undone that might help them to be saved.

But why does the Church begin Passiontide with this episode? I suggest that there are two reasons: first, because the innocence of Christ was the cause that led to His death; secondly, because His innocence makes His death to be the cause of our salvation. Let’s consider these two things.

First, what do I mean by saying that the innocence of Christ led to His death? After all, in the normal course of things, it should be guilt that leads to death. So, the repentant thief on the Cross says to the other thief, “We are receiving the just rewards of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” And we know that Pontius Pilate tried to avoid passing the sentence of death on our Lord for the same reason: “I find no crime in him,” he said to the crowd.

Yes: but it was the innocence of Christ that made His presence intolerable to so many people. There’s a line in St John’s gospel that expresses this with a terrible clarity: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” As St Augustine puts it, diseased eyes find the light painful. The holiness of Christ was by itself a silent rebuke to the corrupt religious establishment in Judea. So they sought as it were instinctively to extinguish the light: to “cancel” Him, as people say nowadays. This is how the innocence of Jesus led to His crucifixion.

If this were all, then the Passion of Christ would be only a tragic event. But it is much more than this. The innocence of Christ, both as God and as man, is what gives power to the Cross. This is why I said that His innocence makes His death the cause of our salvation.

But how does this happen? St Paul gives us an answer, as far as one is possible. Think of the temple, he says (he is writing before it was destroyed), God set up in the temple a system of daily sacrifice, not for taking away sins, since the “blood of goats and of oxen” could not do that, but for taking away ritual impurity. Whenever the Jews transgressed their Law, they became ritually impure, and unable to take part in their feasts or to praise God in the temple. You remember how on Good Friday, the Jews didn’t want to go into Pilate’s house, in case they should become defiled and unable to celebrate Passover week.

Well then, says St Paul, if the blood of dumb animals could do that, because God so willed, how much more will “the blood of Christ”, the only innocent one, cleanse our inmost hearts? Contraries exclude each other: fire puts out water. Why then be surprised that the innocence of Christ should take away sin?

But more important for us than to know how exactly Christ’s death saves us is to believe that it has done so; and if we have any “dead works”on our “conscience”, to have recourse to this precious Blood, so that we may come through to Easter day with unmixed joy.