When many years ago I stopped being a research mathematician and began to study theology, one of my few regrets was that my new discipline was much poorer than my previous in handling contradictions. For mathematicians to discover a contradiction is a delight; it sends us off in a fresh direction; makes us examine our underlying axioms; leads us to a deeper understanding. By contrast I have found theology sees contradictions as difficulties to be explained away, tests (like the queen in Alice) to prove our ability to place faith above fact, or embarrassments to ignore.
At the heart of the accounts of Holy Week in the Four Gospels lies just such a contradiction. Whilst the common account in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has Jesus sharing the Passover Meal tonight with his disciples, St John has tomorrow’s crucifixion taking place at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered. Even a longstanding vegetarian like me knows that if you are going to eat meat you kill it beforehand, not the day after. I’ve read some bizarre suggestions that maybe for some long lost liturgical reason Israel celebrated a double Passover that year, but mostly, this bare-faced contradiction at the heart of the central narrative of Christianity has been ignored; and by ignoring it theology fails to ask the vital question of what our Gospel writers were doing that led them to offer such irreconcilable narratives.
To Matthew, Mark and Luke this is the Passover meal that inaugurates a new Exodus. The journey will take Jesus and the disciples not through the waters of the Red Sea, but the deep waters of death itself on their way to the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed as their new Promised Land. Written at a time when Church and Synagogue were finally and irrevocably splitting from each other they want to make the point that God’s new covenant is with the Church, the whole Church and nothing but the Church. It all fits with the theology in which Jesus adds to, and completes, what the Old Testament began.
John is scarcely on the same planet.
The whole of his Gospel to this point has been about what he calls “signs”. Signs are things that point towards Jesus, so that looking in the direction to which they point we see the one who, raised up high on the cross, brings salvation to all who look upon him. In John’s theology the big stories of the Old Testament are themselves no more and no less than earlier signs pointing to the same, single central focus. The great Old Testament covenants, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, are (some implicitly, some explicitly) subjected to this overreaching theme — all point to Christ on the cross. What neither the sacrifice of Isaac nor the yearly sacrifice of Passover lambs could achieve is now being accomplished through the sacrifice of God’s own son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John’s church is not the sign of a new covenant but the sign of the only covenant, to which all that appeared before was no more than pointing towards.
All that follows, to the end of time, points equally to the only place where salvation is to be found, Christ lifted on a cross. And all church practice: liturgy; ethics; liberating engagement; pastoral ministry stands or falls by whether it lifts up the eyes of the people to the crucified Christ.
In the mathematical world we have learned to live with contradictions such as the perplexing behaviour of light — which sometimes acts as a particle and sometimes as a wave — recognising that each formulation carries an essential part of the whole truth; a truth that our limited imagery cannot fully capture in one form. The Passover story alerts us to the fact that faith contains its own integral contradictions. Explaining, enjoying and learning from them is the way to a deeper and fully balanced faith; a faith that will then be equipped to manage contradictions in moral teaching and ecclesiology as well as in doctrine. And so guard us against the fundamentalisms that are the all too often consequence of pursuing a single logical and consistent system.