It was bound to be hard, right? A year out, a priest without altar. No liturgies to prepare, no stresses at all, past the self-inflicted choice of a week of prayer-book eucharists to attend (chosen not for language, but for timing). I’ve sensed it coming for weeks, as my body kept trying to gear up for the great week, and I had to slow it down saying ‘no, not this time…’
I knew it would be hard — but I didn’t know what, or how.
Until, that is, they began reading the passion.
The story will always catch us if we let it. And that was part of what happened. But this time the shock and pain came at realising that I could take no part in it — that I would not be reading it aloud for the first time since I was ordained deacon.
Reading the passion aloud in worship is an odd and difficult thing. It is physically demanding. It is emotionally demanding. And — for me at least — it is one of the formative acts of ordained life.
It’s not the sort of thing I anticipated as an ordinand, of course. I cannot remember a single conversation in which it was mentioned as an essential part of priesthood. So it was a surprise to realise how crucial it is, how much it forms you.
That first year as a deacon, I was given it to read four times: as the narrator on Palm Sunday, at the Roman Catholic ecumenical service (a hugely generous gift), at the Gospel of the Watch, and in the Good Friday liturgy. I’ve read it at least twice every year since. It gets harder each time, as it seeps deeper and deeper into my bones, and draws down every last drop of energy.
The narrator stumbled at one point yesterday. I heard the odd ‘tut’. But that was precisely the moment my heart leapt for him, because I could feel that it was the moment the reading had taken over. He began in control, a priest and liturgist, tending pace and timing. But at some point he just gave in. The story took over, and he was subsumed. Who can say what someone else is experiencing, really, but this is how it seemed. And I remembered the doing of it — the strain of yielding, and yet retaining enough poise and presence to go on, to proclaim, to speak and breathe and stand still. It is harder than one might think. And the absence of it tore through me.
I know this is not uniquely a preist’s task. I remember powerful readings done without priests at all. I don’t think it matters who reads it, or who reads which role, so long as it is read well. But I do think it matters for the priest — to be able to read this, to have to read it, over and over again.
The physical act of reading the passion changes us. It cannot be ignored, it cannot be tossed off or resented, and heaven help the priest who fails to realise this. We are given this great task and privilege — to stand at the intersection of anguish and love, degradation and glory — and to find our identity there.
I will miss reading it this week. Desperately.
And I pray for all those who are charged with the task of it: that they will live well through the doing of it — allowing themselves to be drained, and loved, and changed.