Easter Monday: the Mission of the Women

It is curious how often the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are put into a kind of hierarchy of importance. The women going to the tomb to anoint his dead body are mentioned because they are, according to Matthew, chronologically the first to see the stone rolled away. Their meeting with the Risen Christ is noted (Matthew 28. 8–15), but the evangelist quickly passes on to the way in which the authorities of the day ‘squared’ the guards with a little judicious bribery. Tomorrow, when we read John’s account, we shall linger over Mary Magdalene’s meeting and its poignant detail, but not for long. By Wednesday we are on the road to Emmaus and an ambiguous encounter that reveals its full meaning only later; and by Thursday we are back with the men and their mission. From then on, women are less evident, appearing from time to time in the Acts or the Letters, but definitely in much more elusive roles.

It is unfortunate that this increasing invisibility of women has become a source of contention within the Church. It has led to anger and frustration and some very silly things being said and done on both sides. The fact that I write of ‘sides’ is an indication of how often the ministry of women has led to a loss of focus on Christ himself. Partly, I think that may be because a lot of preaching in the Catholic Church is done by men who are awkward around women. Personally, if I hear one more homily telling me that Mary is the model of holiness for women, I shall shriek. Male or female, Christ is our model. There can be no other. The Resurrection means that there is now no male, no female, no slave, no free, no Jew, no gentile, we are all one in Christ, as St Paul says. That is why the appearances to the women are important. It is not that they are incidental to the real business of the early Church and the evolving ministry of men. They are part of the mission of the whole Church to proclaim Christ, the whole Christ.

This morning, as we think about those women meeting Jesus as they come away from the tomb, it may be helpful to consider the obvious. They did not find Jesus where they expected to find him. They found him — or rather, he found them — where they did not expect, as they were coming away, disappointed at not being able to fulfil the task they had laid upon themselves. Sometimes we have to learn that what we think is important isn’t; that what God wills is ultimately best for us all; and that we shall meet God at a time and place of his choosing, not ours. We just have to be ready — and that is undoubtedly the hardest task of all.

Audio version

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Lent Has Not Been Cancelled

Almost the only topic of conversation online or off seems to be COVID-19 and its implications. Every day we hear of more restrictions being imposed, more curtailments of what we like to think of as ‘normal life’. Amid so much gloom, it is easy to forget that we are in Lent and that Lent is the springtime of the soul, preparing us for the most important event of all time: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Latterly, I think the sunshine here in England has helped lift our mood. Flowers have graced our gardens and window boxes, while the hushing of roads and streets means we can hear the birdsong often drowned out by the noise of cars and lorries. But what has been going on interiorly? Has the Lenten springtime really touched our souls?

Many clergy and communities have rushed to put their services online or to offer reflections designed to encourage their congregations in a time of stress and anxiety. Individuals have been generous in offering practical help and moral support to those in need. But what of the inner journey each of us is called to make during Lent, the journey from death to life? Today would be a good day to pause for a moment and consider where we are. How have prayer, fasting and almsgiving characterised our Lent so far? Do we need to reassess what we are doing or not doing in the light of our present circumstances? One of the great temptations of Lent, as of the Christian life in general, is what we in the monastery call Elijah Sickness. Just as Elijah was tempted to sit down under a tree and give up, so are we. We begin well, then we become distracted, bored or weary. Let’s remember that the Lord’s mercies never cease, they are new every morning (Lamentations 3.22–23). We still have some way to go till Easter, but He will be with us every step of the way. Be encouraged!

Audio Version

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Easter Saturday 2019

Strong winds are rocking the garden this morning, twisting and turning the willows and propelling little bursts of fruit blossom this way and that. It is such a contrast to the calm beauty of Easter Sunday. In the course of a few days we have moved through so many different emotions — pity, fear, horror, rejoicing — that we need today and Mark’s brief summary of the events following the Resurrection before we can celebrate the fulfilment of the Octave tomorrow (Mark 16. 9-15). This is a day for taking stock, for quiet prayer and reflection if we can, for allowing the reality of Easter to take root in us and renewing the hope and faith we and the world badly need.

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Easter Friday 2019

It is breakfast on the beach time again. The disciples have been night-fishing: they were at a loose end and needed to occupy their time to distract themselves from their darker thoughts, but they have had no success. Then that mysterious figure appears on the shore, gives an odd instruction which nets a huge catch, and Peter does his best to escape. It is all very human and understandable. The difficulty comes when we begin to notice the more explicitly theological elements in the narrative (John 21.1–14) — the 153 fish (the square of the Trinity plus the square of the apostles according to some medieval commentators); the meal of bread and fish (recalling the passover meal as a symbol of the Eucharist as well as the miracle of the loaves and fishes) and so on and so forth.

I find particularly interesting the way in which the disciples react to what they see. ‘None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”; they knew quite well it was the Lord.’ Once again we seem to have some doubt, some newness about the Risen Christ which confuses the disciples, who are nevertheless confirmed in their faith by what they experience. And there is Peter, poor hot-headed Peter, who has no doubts at all but simply wants to get away and hide his shame. He, at least, seems to recognize the person on the shore; but even though he knows who he is, he doesn’t fully understand the new relationsip of love and forgiveness that now exists between them. It will take the threefold question and commission of the next few verses to make that clear.

One of the difficulties many of us experience is believing that we are fogiven. We forget that God always takes the initiative. From the first moment of our becoming conscious of sin, of our wanting to repent, grace is at work in us. We don’t often feel any different after we have confessed and been absolved from our sins; but we are different. We are in a new relationship with the Lord, and no matter how often we fall, how often we sin again, his grace is always waiting for us. That is all very well in theory, but it is actually quite difficult to live by because it reminds us that we are not in control. And we do so love to be in charge! Today’s gospel teaches us that all our so-called certainties can be over-turned by God in a moment; that his abundance is never limited by our imagining.

This morning we see the disciples struggling to understand, and we struggle with them. Breakfast on the beach is never effortless.

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Easter Thursday 2019

Last night’s rain has scattered cherry blossom on the lawn, where it lies in great drifts of creamy loveliness. The Black Mountains are hidden behind a watery greyness while the air holds a kind of electric thrill of birdsong and raindrops. On just such a day, on just such an evening in spring, surely, Jesus came and stood among his disciples and showed them his wounds. And their reaction was very like our own when we are ‘hoping against hope’ but are finally allowed to see and hear what we have been longing for — the sight of someone we love whom we never expected to see again, the sound of their voice, perhaps the touch of their hand.

I love the fact that Jesus convinces the disciples that he is no ghost by eating a piece of grilled fish. There is something so human and natural about eating and a piece of grilled fish — cold, no doubt — is about as unappetizing to the imagination as it is possible to be. It suggests to me that our Lord was indeed a young man when he died and still retained a young man’s iron constitution and boundless appetite!

Be that as it may, there is a more important point here. We tend to think that everyone should have realised who the Risen Christ was. The empty tomb, the opening of the scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, the breaking of bread, weren’t these enough to show who he was? Apparently not. The empty tomb proclaimed the Resurrection, as Peter and John allowed, but actually meeting Jesus and recognizing him was beset with difficulty. Mary had to hear the sound of his voice before she truly knew him; the disciples had to see him eat before their eyes.

We too can be dumbfounded when we meet the Lord; we too can disbelieve for joy. The problem is not so much that we have failed to see him as that we have predetermined what our meeting should be like; sometimes, alas, we miss him even as we look for him because we do not recognize the reality before us. Something there to ponder, I suggest.

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Seeing Through Tears: Easter Tuesday 2019

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.

This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.

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