My illustrious predecessor as Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, used to always say that ‘the devil has fun in Holy Week’. It was often true. Things went wrong, people fell out, the stress levels rose and what could be dealt with ordinarily, somehow, in the hothouse of the week, became a real problem. I’m not sure it’s the devil but certainly gremlins have been at work today. The computers seemed to be on a go-slow this morning and then basically stopped. Two of the hard disks had failed and we were unable, as a consequence to do anything. It’s remarkable how much we depend on the computer. everything is done via it. There’s no physical diary to book things into. Emails contain so much vital information. Service booklets are not typed by a typist with correcting fluid and a Gestetner anymore. We are totally dependent on the keyboard, attached to the box and the screen and its worldwide connections. Take that away and as one member of staff said to me in desperation – or was it exasperation – ‘I suppose we could talk to each other!’
I saw a great deal of filing and desk clearing going on and when the disks didn’t arrive as quickly as we had hoped people began to make their way home. If this was the devil’s work then Colin was right.
Of course he was right in a deeper sense. Holy Week is the devil’s playground. That always comes home to me whenever I sing – and that isn’t often nowadays – Sydney Carter’s hymn ‘Lord of the Dance’. One verse says
I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black –
It’s hard to dance
With the devil on your back.
It’s almost playful, given the tone of the song, but the reality of evil in the accounts of the Passion is obvious. The devil is at play and Jesus is the playground victim and I suppose, the church as the body of Christ is the next target.
Fortunately, whilst there was no access to the computer I had somethings to do that didn’t need that kind of technology. Rather than meetings in the diary, in Holy Week there are people booked in to make their confession and I was also due to go to my confessor to make my confession. It is one of the privileges of priestly ministry to be able to hear confessions and to speak those words of release, the absolution that undoes the devil’s work and make’s the salvific work of Jesus on the cross real for the person to whom I’m ministering, real for me as I am ministered to.
‘By his authority committed unto me, I absolve you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
These are powerful words to say and hear, words to make the devil shudder. Of course it was on Easter Day that this gift was given to the church. As Jesus appears in the Upper Room and shows them his wounds of love he then says to the apostles
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.22-23)
The hard truth that a priest has to hold in mind is that the authority to forgive sin is also the authority to retain sin. The Seal forbids me to say how it was resolved today for my penitent or for me – but as I approach the cross through the devil’s playground I give thanks that in Jesus there is always the opportunity, the offer, of the new beginning.
I’m reminded to pray that great prayer from the Indian tradition, the Christaraksha.
May the cross of the Son of God,
which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan,
and more glorious than all the hosts of heaven,
abide with me in my going out and my coming in.
By day and by night, at morning and at evening,
at all times and in all places may it protect and defend me.
From the wrath of evildoers, from the assaults of evil spirits,
from foes visible and invisible, from the snares of the devil,
from all passions that beguile the soul and body:
may it guard, protect and deliver me. Amen.