Sermon: He Came to Pass
2 Easter 18
The Corpus clock in Cambridge England is a mesmerizing moving sculpture. The clock was a gift from the late physicist Steven Hawking, who famously authored the book, A Brief History of Time. The main feature of the clock is an eerie metal Locust-like beast called the Chronophage or time eater, who keeps time by chomping away at the seconds while producing the grinding sound of time being consumed.
Across the street is the King’s College chapel, where on every Christmas Eve the service of Lessons and Carols presents a very different interpretation of time. In that service, time is not savagely consumed; rather, time moves toward consummation, carried along by readings and music that tell the story of the eternal God’s entrance into the thick of human history. This movement toward consummation is captured in the arresting phrase, “And it came to pass.”[i] Thomas’ doubt set in motion things that connect the phrase, “And it came to pass” with Jesus’ greeting “peace be with you.”
Thomas doubted the testimony of the others because they reported a foreign, by which I mean freaky, understanding of the meaning of resurrection. Whatever Thomas thought the word resurrection meant, it would have drawn from two dominate understandings—roughly speaking—the Greek and Jewish versions.
The Greek version was that resurrection, if it was desirable at all, was nevertheless impossible. It was the stuff of myth because there is no conceivable escape from the underworld. When myth conceived of an escape, it was the story of Orpheus, who, in deep anguish because of the death of his beloved Eurydice, put his sorrow into song. The music moves Hades, the god of the underworld, and his wife, Persephone, to offer Orpheus the chance to reclaim his Eurydice with the one stipulation that Orpheus not look at Eurydice until both had departed the underworld. But Orpheus, moved by passionate impatience, turned back too soon and Eurydice was lost forever.
Well, that’s one version. Another version is Margaret Atwood’s poem, Orpheus 1, where the feminist Eurydice is put off by Orpheus’ chauvinistic strutting around the underworld to take back his property. During their exodus Eurydice purposefully charms Orpheus and gets him to look back, thus freeing her to return to hell rather than spend another minute as Orpheus’ wife.
The Jewish understanding of resurrection was defined by a long dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees about the meaning of Elijah and some scattered passages in the Psalms and Ezekiel. Jewish thinkers agreed that IF there was a physical resurrection, it would take place at the end of history. This would most likely have been Thomas’ view, albeit complicated by the raising of Lazarus, the surprise appearance of Moses on the mount of Transfiguration and Jesus’s promise of Paradise to the thief on the cross. The point is that nothing prepared Thomas for the kind of resurrection reported to him by the others.
Thomas doubted the testimony of the others because they claimed that flesh and blood had suffered a gruesome disfiguring death and had returned, within time, with a transfigured glorified body. Thomas doubted this notion of resurrection and so needed to test the truthfulness of the testimony. The truth would be found in the wounds. If Jesus’ coming and passing had come to this notion of resurrection, then time had changed; time’s coming and passing was not that of violent consumption but the steady movement toward consummation. The wounds would not lie. If the wounds were healed and had become beautiful, then Thomas could believe the prophet Isaiah’s claim that by his wounds we are healed.
Before submitting to the test however, Jesus greets Thomas saying, Peace be with you. The greeting stakes a doxological claim; namely that the primordial peace that was “in the beginning” before time, is the same peace that “ever shall be” at the end of time, and that this peace is present in the presence of Jesus. Jesus did not come to stay, nor did he come, and see and conquer. Because he came as the Lamb of God, Jesus came to pass, and that coming and passing somehow takes away the sin of the world and gives us peace.
On Christmas Eve, while in the chapel of King’s College, during the service of Readings and Carols, I was contemplating the phrase, “And it came to pass” while enjoying the coming and passing of readings and music. After the fourth reading, the choir began to sing John Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s poem, Little Lamb. The music triggered an immediate rush of repressed sorrow because, 18 years earlier, I had put this piece of music on a playback loop to help me through a rough patch in my life. I listened to this music because the coming and passing of words worked together to make poetic meaning and the coming and passing of notes made melody and harmony.[ii] I hoped my sorrow might also come and pass into a kind of poetic and musical beauty.
On Christmas Eve, in a setting where so much war-time sorrow had been met with these readings, prayers and music, I was struck by the sadness and joy of Christ’s birth. The Lamb of God had come to pas and the wounds he sustained in his sacrificial coming and passing broke the tyranny of the time-eater. The Lamb of God had come to pass, so that the sadness and glory of the coming and passing of Jesus’ little lambs might come to rest in his peace.
[i] Simon Oliver. On motion seeking its destruction in rest. 2 Peter 3 exemplifies how the violent passing is imagined as a promising sign of the restoration.
[ii] “Plato is here recommending the study of astronomy, that is the exercise of intellectual powers in the learning of the mathematical proportions which constitute the music of the heavens,…” Here Oliver connects music to the movement in the material world that seeks its annihilation in peace. By this we understand ourselves as bodies in motion to some end which is the cessation of motion in peace.