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.
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.
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.
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.
As I was posting this morning’s prayer tweet, news came in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. Churches and hotels have been bombed and at least 137* are known to be dead. It was a bloody and brutal act, and there are fears that there is more to come. Yet we continue to sing ‘Alleluia’, to proclaim Christ’s triumph over sin and death, to assert that love and forgiveness are better than hatred and cruelty. Are we fools, living in a cosy world of make-believe; or are we clear-sighted, conscious of the reality of things and refusing to be daunted by evil or the lack of humanity we discover in ourselves and in others?
Note, I say in ourselves as well as others. If our pilgrimage to Easter has taught us anything, it must be that we are each capable of the most horrific evil. We are sinners in need of redemption; weak and fallible beings in need of a Saviour. This morning, as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, we pray for all Christian people, that we may have not only the courage of our faith but its compassion and forgiveness, too. So we can sing our ‘alleluias’, confident that the Risen Christ continues to be the source of our unity and peace, for he has shed his own blood for us and lives now to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. May he do so now, that the Father of all goodness may see and love in those dead and injured Sri Lankans ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his.’
Once again we have reached Holy Saturday, that day out of time, when in silence and stillness earth awaits the Resurrection. Our churches are empty of colur and warmth; no sacraments are celebrated; we know only the bleakness of the tomb and what it is to be without Christ. But God is working powerfully. The ancient tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ went down among the dead and preached to those who had had no opportunity of hearing the gospel while alive, reminds us that this is a day of mercy, a day when we do nothing because God does everything.
Monastic life is always lived in what I call ‘Holy Saturday mode’ — that is to say, by the mercy of God, suspended between heaven and hell, his grace leading us ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery. We do not see the way ahead clearly; we trust to his guidance. But we know that tonight, with the kindling of the new fire, his glory will blaze across heaven and earth; death will be destroyed for ever; and Christ will be revealed as our Saviour and Redeemer.
Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.
At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.
Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?
sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.
The Sacred Triduum begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the monastery we anticipate the Triduum with a day of special silence and prayer. At noon we have a solemn meal that recalls (but does not replicate) the kind of meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples while our reading of the Last Discourse as the final act of the day ensures we do not lose our focus as Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday. The liturgical celebration we begin tonight does not end until Easter morning. It is all one, as you can see from the fact that no dismissal is uttered from the end of Mass tonight until the end of the Easter Vigil. This is the high-point of the Christian year, and it is not a merely historical commemoration, a kind of play-acting that we engage in. By means of the liturgy we enter into the events we recall: we are one with what we are celebrating. What does that mean for us today on Maundy Thursday?
First and foremost, I think it means that we are each bound to scrutinize our own fidelity or lack of it to the commandment to love one another. Unless we are unusually complacent, I daresay most of us feel a little shame-faced when we consider how often we have missed opportunities to serve or done so in a way that was distinctly unloving and ungracious. Some of us may even have made consciousness of our own rectitude — in our own eyes at least — a source of boasting. How many, for example, have noisily turned their backs on the Church, saying they can have no part in her because of the terrible scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up? Then we read of Père Fournier going into the blazing heart of Notre Dame to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and know we are on firm ground again. That is what we expect of our priests! And tonight we recall the giving of that great treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. We give thanks and try to express our love and devotion in those precious hours at the Altar of Repose where we bring all the world’s sin and sorrow and our own pain and confusion.
Maundy Thursday is intense in its movement from Judas’s betrayal to the Agony in the Garden. It is intense in both its joy and its sorrow. We cannot live all our lives with such intensity but tonight we can and must. It is our entry into Christ’s Passion.
To be betrayed by those we love, to be let down by those in whom we have placed our trust, is agonizing. It is also agonizing to know that we have betrayed others, let them down, been the cause of their suffering. For Judas, as for Jesus, there was a price to pay for what followed after he went out into the night.
Judas is such an equivocal figure but there is something of Judas in all of us. We see in him the type of everyman (or woman); and his fate and ours are bound up together. On the one hand he has been demonised as the arch-betrayer; on the other he is seen as playing a necessary role in redemption. Holy Week, and Spy Wednesday in particular, bring this ambiguity into sharp focus. Once again we must decide where we stand.
I must admit to worrying about Judas and his ultimate fate, mainly because of all that bad press he has had through the centuries. I like best the answer the Lord gave Catherine of Siena in the Dialogues: she was told that mercy was possible even for Judas. Which means that mercy is possible even for you and me and those we find difficult to love. Wonderful thought!
The Tuesday of Holy Week dawns grim and grey. One of the most celebrated buildings of western Christendom has been gutted by fire. Anyone with a feeling for history, for beauty, for cultural significance must feel sadness at the loss of so much that has formed a backdrop to our lives. The cathedral has always been there. The role it has played in the life of the people of France and of Europe as a whole is incalculable. Inevitably, the media are busy capturing sound-bites from eye-witnesses and politicians, and it is good to see and hear acknowledgement of the courage of the firefighters and those who did their best to ensure that more was not lost; but we in England, at least, have heard nothing from those who are most deeply affected — the canons and parishioners who worship day by day at its altars, for whom the cathedral is a spiritual home rather than a glorious monument. Is it stretching things too far to say that something analogous can happen with Holy Week?
It is easy to make Holy Week a time of sharp contrasts, to spill a Caravaggio-like spotlight on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and the anguished dialogue between Peter and his Lord that follows, for example, in today’s gospel (John 13.21–33, 36–38). Easy, but perhaps not quite right. Holy Week concentrates our attention on the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection; but we remember those events liturgically every day at Mass. What we bring to Holy Week is really the result of our fidelity and reflection at other times. Holy Week intensifies our experience, so to say, but it is not a substitute for the rest of the liturgical year.
The poignant images of Notre Dame de Paris in flames will not quickly be forgotten, even as the work of rebuilding begins. In the same way, we do not forget the betrayals and brutality of Holy Week during the rest of the year but use them as a spur to greater devotion to the central mysteries of our Faith and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.