This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Dermot O’Leary standing in for Zoe Ball.

If you have a thing about round numbers and anniversaries, then today is going to have you shouting bingo out of the window.

150 years ago today the Royal Albert Hall was opened in London – ten years after the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, and a visible expression of her grief. It’s a reminder of the fact that grief is a process and not an event.

I’m glad she decided to honour Albert in this way because when I lived in London for eleven years I always went to Jools Holland’s gigs there and they are unforgettable. Just like the said Albert.

But, Victoria’s grief speaks to us today because it recognises that loss has to be marked. This wretched pandemic has cost the lives of nearly 130,000 people – and that represents a lot of hurt and pain and mourning. Our ability to mark this has been limited, of course, because of all the restrictions.

Grief can’t be “defeated” like an enemy. It has to be lived with, gone through and accommodated, knowing that it is an unavoidable consequence of love.

In a beautiful song about this sort of stuff, the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn wrote: “Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.”

This week for Christians is called Holy Week. We follow Jesus and his friends as the tensions grow, the emotions get fired up, and a cross is planted in a rubbish tip called Calvary. You can read it in the gospels. There is no romance or wishful thinking, no bargains with God for an easy life or an exemption from suffering. The utter realism of Jesus – although, to be honest, his friends weren’t quite on the same page – is striking. He grieved his own impending loss and tried to prepare his friends for their own grief and how to navigate it.

And what did he urge them to do? To love one another, to wash the feet of the undeserving, to recognise that we belong together.

At the end of it all is love and mercy. And that is where the healing begins.

Empty Saturday. The worst.

You know what it is like when you have been bereaved. You somehow get through the hours that follow and life is thrown out of kilter. There is a sense of real unreality about what has happened. The world has changed for ever, but the rest of the world just keeps turning as if nothing remarkable had happened.

Eventually you get to sleep. And when you wake up your mind plays games with your mind. And you gradually work out that the death was real and the loss is total. It wasn’t a bad dream; it is too real. Everything in us wants to make it better, heal the deep wound of grief. But, there is no magic sticking plaster, no easy healing.

In fact, as Asian theologian puts it in his ‘Three Mile and Hour God’, when we are led into this sort of desert of emptiness, the key is not to obey the instinct to get out as quickly as possible. We need to stay there, facing the pain and the grief and the raw loss – living with it and going through it, not running away from it. For, it is through the experience itself that eventually we will be ready and able to be surprised by the light of healing.

So, today I need to stay with the pain. Resist the temptation to run away or distract myself as some sort of psychological or spiritual anaesthetic. Stay at the tomb. Feel the confusion – it wasn’t supposed to end this way. Live with the questions and face the horror.

And wait. Wait. Wait.

Good Friday. Darkness. Loss. Suffering. Death.

When I was a vicar we used to start at the church door on Good Friday and walk around the building, re-telling the story of God and his people, Jesus and his friends, and end up leaving in silence to the sound of a nail being hammered into wood. It was visceral. This year we accompany Jesus and his friends as they experience distance, fear, disorientation, dispersal and aloneness. I think it is a gift to go beyond mere imagination and into the experience itself.

Most of Jesus’s friends deserted him. They ran away and hid. And Jesus, to whom some of them had pledged total loyalty and allegiance, went to his gallows alone, naked and abused. (Although the women seem to have stuck with him all the way.)

So, where is God in all of this? And isn’t this precisely the question many people are asking during these days of viral death and debilitation? It is the question – not always articulated – that always arises when life gets a bit (or a lot) rubbish.

The trouble is that the question assumes that God is somewhere else when things are bad. Yet, the biblical narrative tells a different story. It is a story rooted in the real world of material substance, physical existence, uncontrollable events in a contingent cosmos. Christians who think discipleship is about mere spirituality, somehow divorced from the real world, are simply missing the point. Disembodied spirituality can easily become a sort of self-orientating fantasy.

The biblical story recognises the reality of being human in this contingent world. Suffering, pain, injustice and death. “What did I do to deserve the death of my loved one?” Nothing. It has nothing to do with merit or desert. If we live as mortal beings in the world, then we are subject to all that this world can throw at us. No exemptions. And being Christian means plunging into this world and not trying to escape from it.

The point here is that it is God who keeps opting in. In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve mess it all up, it is God who comes walking in the garden in the cool of the day, asking that eternal searching question: “Adam (mortal being), where are you?” God doesn’t wait for them to come looking for him. They hide, fearing that they can now be seen through (‘naked’) and finding that to be a threat rather than a liberation. But, God takes the initiative. As he does again in the prophets. And then, Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of his people, by coming among us as one of us. He gives himself for the sake of the world and then calls those who bear his name to live out what was fulfilled in him in the first place.

In other words, God opts into the world – with all its violence, death and destruction – and does not exempt himself from it. So, our response when life is rubbish is to know that we pray – baring our heart and soul and grief and anger and confusion – to one who has no illusions about what we experience. Faithfulness is not an opt out; it is a commitment into. And it is there we find God.

So, our response is to scream and shout and weep and grieve – to complain and lament and stare into the abyss of loss. Not to avoid it, but to know that through this we will find that death does not ultimately have the final word.

Today I will contemplate the cross, entering imaginatively into the aloneness of the hunted Jesus of Nazareth. I will ask myself where I stand in this story: with Jesus as he suffers and dies? with his mother as she watches helplessly? with the friends who have run away and despise themselves for their cowardice and bewilderment? with the onlookers who wonder why someone might not do everything to stay alive rather than walk openly to their death?

I am not sure where I belong in this. but, I do know I have to stay with the emptiness for as long as the darkness persists.

Maundy Thursday. It’s all closing in. Jerusalem welcomed Jesus and his friends when he rode in on Palm Sunday. But, the tension is growing, the drama heightening.

In my diocese we would normally be joining together in one of my cathedrals – Wakefield this year. The clergy would re-affirm their ordination vows and all of us – clergy and lay – would recommit ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. We would bless the oils and celebrate Communion, then being sent out to journey through Good Friday, Empty Saturday and Resurrection Day. Not this year. There will be an online ‘service’ from the cathedral, but physically we will be separated, distant, dispersed.

While not welcome, this experience of disorientation and dispersal might just help us enter imaginatively into the experience of Jesus and his friends – particularly his friends. They come together to celebrate the Passover, the foundational story of God’s liberation, but Jesus re-signifies the whole business for them. And it seems they don’t quite comprehend it.

To make it worse, Jesus says some strange things about betrayal and desertion, rejection and death. And, while doing all this, he kneels in front of his friends and washes their feet. In this simple and costly action he overturns their expectations of status, leadership, sacrifice and service. Remember, he kneels at the feet of Peter, Thomas, James & John, and Judas.

Those who claim to follow this Jesus must be people who kneel at the feet of their friends and enemies, their deniers and betrayers and doubters, and serve them. In other words, as in the story of God and his people from the beginning of the biblical narrative, godliness means giving yourself away. Sacrifice. Cost. Really hard.

What strikes me this year is the question: what does it mean for me to love my neighbour – to wash their feet – in a context where I cannot see or touch them in a common act of worship and commitment?

I think the answer is deceptively simple, but very costly. Foot-washing this year means not washing feet, keeping distance, prioritising the needs of vulnerable people by staying at home, not going into church, playing my part in ensuring that no transmission of any virus can happen through me. It is strange, but loving my neighbour means keeping away from him or her. And this takes priority over my yearning for worship, familiar sacred place or spiritual encouragement.

This year I have to ask how those most vulnerable can be served through a church that takes this Jesus seriously. It means that our churches who are doing amazing work with foodbanks, community care, keeping local people connected, are doing some serious foot washing. Not denial of Jesus, but denial of our own comfort for the sake of others.

And the question for me today is this: whose feet do I find it too hard to contemplate washing? And who are the people who, for reasons for which I am responsible, will find it difficult to wash mine?

Wednesday of Holy Week. One of the friends of Jesus is Judas Iscariot. I have sympathy for him.

I grew up with the notion that Judas deserved what he got. He betrayed his friend with a kiss – death by intimacy. If he then went off and hanged himself, then it was only a measure of the depth of his lostness.

But, I never found this enough. Judas haunts the imagination as guilt lingers in the aftermath of pleasure. It can’t be as simple as this: Jesus good, Judas bad. Was he really the one bad apple that any group, any organisation, has?

Why did. Judas betray his friend? He had been the group’s treasurer, so knew what had kept Jesus and his friends going for those couple of years. He also had a deep political, moral concern for what we would now call social injustice – the fate of the poor under the jackboot of the military occupiers and the local collaborators. His heart beat for justice and and end to oppression.

So, why betray Jesus to the ‘powers’ he despised?

Judas is known simply as the man who betrayed his friend with a kiss. I wonder if he did so because he himself felt betrayed by that friend. After all, he had heard Jesus talking about a new kingdom, he had witnessed sick people being made whole, lost people being found, despised people having their dignity and identity restored. He had caught the vision of a different world in which the ‘powers’ would serve the interests of the people under God and not dominate or exploit them for the sake of their own security or profit.

And, yet, here, today, as the people celebrate at Passover the foundational story of liberation, the Exodus, Jesus appears to be missing the point – or, at least, the moment. I wonder if, driven by his impatient sense that now has to be the time for Jesus to declare himself, show his hand, turn over the powers and bring in his messianic rule, Judas now tries to force his hand. The failure of Jesus to save himself, to overturn the times, leads Judas to the despair of a disillusionment rooted in a sense of betrayal.

This Judas whose feet Jesus knelt before and washed at their final meal together.

There is much to identify with in Judas. Amos Oz wrote a wonderful book simply called Judas and followed it up with a lecture (which I think is only available in German, but I might be wrong) called Jesus and Judas in which he explores these themes. I find myself having been committed to a way of seeing or acting, only later to see it in its wider context and contingency and feel embarrassed.

But, I look at Judas and hold a mirror up to my own convictions and commitments. Do I see Jesus as there to serve me and my ends? Is Jesus there to make my life fulfilled? Or to deliver my political views? Is he there to vindicate me and endorse convictions that arise elsewhere but get coloured with his words? Do I get impatient when the world doesn’t get reshaped in my direction at what I think is the right time?

Do I shape Jesus in my image, or, in following him in the company of others he has also called, do I allow myself, my convictions and commitments, my thinking and seeing, to be re-shaped in his image? That is the question.

Tuesday of Holy Week. Why does Jesus have to make it so complicated?

As he walks towards what will become his place of execution, he keeps talking to his friends in terms that need a bit of unpacking. Read John 12:20-36 and you’ll see what I mean.

One issue is that his friends don’t seem to have a mental or theological slot for an outcome that involves death and an end to their adventure. They’re not being deliberately blind or resistant; it just doesn’t hit their radar.

So, when Jesus tells them “to walk while you have the light” and that a “grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies”, they might well wonder what he is on about. No wonder he concludes: “My soul is troubled.” But, Jesus knows that there are some things that will pass them by now, but later will be recalled in hindsight with greater clarity. Not everything in life (or church) has to be immediately accessible.

When Jesus tells his friends to “walk while you have the light”, I wonder if he is also suggesting to them that something painful is on its way. For the light doesn’t just offer warmth and visibility, it also exposes all the rubbish. All the stuff we would prefer to keep hidden. And his friends are going to discover what they really believe, what they are really made of. For example, the big men will soon find out that they are not as brave as they had thought.

If Holy Week works well, it invites us to expose ourselves to the searching light of love and grace, that is unafraid of the darkness and unintimidated by the threat of reality.

Monday of Holy Week. We continue the walk with Jesus and his friends, thinking about what all this stuff means in a pandemic-shaped western society.

One of the elements of the narrative that can easily get missed is the nature of the disciples themselves. Jesus’s friends form the sort of group no one would have chosen if the aim was to change the world. They are people like Simon who is impetuous and doesn’t always get the right end of the stick; James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, the big boys who think themselves entitled to positions of prestige; Judas who is socially aware and prioritises those who are poor, impatient to see Jesus work his magic and bring in his kingdom now. Thomas the evidence-seeker.

Simon will deny knowing Jesus and then abandon him at his end. James and John run away. Judas betrays his friend to those who know they have finally nailed him. Thomas will want a bit more proof before believing.

 

Read their stories in the gospels and we find that these friends of Jesus are people like us. We put a plate around their head, call them ‘saint’, then remove them from the real world we all experience. But, the friends of Jesus are just like the people we know or are. Fickle, indecisive, misunderstanding, inconsistent, theologically stubborn, shortsighted.

This should be encouraging to those of us who need no persuasion to see our failings and failures. It is people like me and us whom Jesus called to walk with him. What’s more, it is Jesus who calls them and we whose job it is to walk with him together. That is, the job of the followers of Jesus is to get on with the common job of discipleship with those whom Jesus has also called – whether we like them or agree with them or not.

This is why the church is to be a company of people whose sole claim is not to unanimity, but unity. We get in with it anyway. And we cannot be a church in which we tell Jesus who he should call to come with us.

Palm Sunday. Normally Christians would be walking through the streets with a bemused donkey before beginning Holy Week in church. Not this year. This year we have the unwelcome and uninvited gift of stepping back and re-focusing on what Christian faith – rooted in this Jesus who enters Jerusalem with us friends – says to us while the church is being the church differently.

When Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem he knew what might await him there. You don’t challenge religious authority or the military powers of the Roman Empire without considering the likely cost. Messiahs were popping up all over the place (see ‘The Life of Brian’) – all offering ultimate solutions to those who ‘believe’, but all ending up on crosses. Jesus was, like the Old Testament prophets, open-eyed about power and resistance and cost.

The trouble is that his friends don’t get it. They have invested their hopes in the Galilean carpenter being the best chance of messianic liberation. When the crowds come out and cheer, they think they are on to a winner. Jesus suspects differently. This always makes me recall Cromwell’s remark to Fairfax when riding through cheering crowds, that they would equally have shown up to see him hanged. Crowds are fickle; affections and convictions can be turned over in seconds; people who think acclaim has the final word are usually shortsighted.

I can only imagine the loneliness of Jesus – accompanied by friends who just don’t get what is going on here … in the words of the great Crowded House song, ‘Together Alone’. It is often harder to be lonely in a crowd when you see what no one else sees.

So, Jesus is alone in company. His friends don’t spot this aloneness and read the ‘now’ as the end. And the crowds will soon turn when the wind blows in a different direction.

Jesus is going to challenge power – social, political, military, religious – right at its heart. But, he is not going to do it in the way anyone might suppose. He will look feeble and ridiculous. He will look like he has lost the argument. The crowds – even some of his friends – will suspect he’ll has been a fraud all along. And Jesus knows they won’t even begin to understand all this until much, much later.

I think Palm Sunday opens up the space to re-think who Jesus is and what he is about. If I think he really is the messiah, then is this because he simply confirms to an image (an assumption?) of what messiahship looks like? Is it because I find it convenient to my theological preferences? Or am I as open as his friends ultimately needed to be to re-think, re-imagine, re-conceive what hope, freedom and commitment look like through the eyes of this Jesus?

Am I with the crowd – Jesus to offer quick entertainment and easy solutions; with his friends – hopeful, but stuck with a prejudice of what Jesus ought to be, do and say; or with Jesus himself – prepared to stare even my own convictions in the eye and examine them afresh under the silent gaze of the man heading toward a cross?