‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.

This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?

We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.

I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?

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Easter Wednesday 2021

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus: Provenance unknown, possibly from York

There are a number of dream-like elements in Luke”s account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). A stranger suddenly joins the disciples as they trudge wearily along. Something stops them recognizing him, just as something stopped Mary Magdalene recognizing him in yesterday’s gospel. Even Jesus’ questions and explanations of scripture leave them unable to make the connection. At table the stranger takes on the role of host, breaks bread and shares it with them. The evangelist goes on to say

And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’  They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.

The disciples are not permitted to linger in the presence of the Lord, any more than Mary was, but must proclaim the resurrection. Jesus, too, is not to linger with the disciples, though his mission is more hidden and will not be complete until he has returned to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit (cf John 16.5-16). That is clear enough, but why this mystery, what I have called the dream-like elements in the story?

I think myself it is not only extremely good story-telling, which makes a profound impact on the listener, it is also a way of making us aware of the change the resurrection has wrought. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The newness of life we celebrate takes us where we have never been before. It transforms everything, even the old and familiar. In other words, what the disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus and at table with their mysterious guest is an experience every Christian shares: an invitation to share in the life of God himself. As the priest prays whenever Mass is celebrated, ‘May we become sharers in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Amen. Alleluia.

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Easter Tuesday 2021

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

Every Easter Tuesday I try to say something new about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the Risen Christ, and every year I fail. The failure is not because there is nothing new to say but because, like Mary, I find myself falling to my knees, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The meeting between Jesus and Mary is one in which we all share — the moment our souls are touched by grace and we recognize him as our Saviour.

It is no accident that Mary sees her Lord through a mist of tears. The human heart must be washed clean if it is to see clearly, and it tends not to be the big, dramatic sins that obscure our vision so much as the little faults and infidelities we allow to become habitual. Mary’s gaze has the simplicity and freshness of the garden in which Jesus stands. For us, that may be more difficult to achieve but the great privilege of monastic life is to do our theology on our knees. It keeps us grounded, and I think it enables us to see what otherwise we might miss. The wounds in Christ’s feet, now channels of grace and healing, hold our gaze as they held Mary’s, and they make sense of what could easily be baffling: we have a God who is near, not one afar off; one who has shared with us the human experience of birth and death and now shares with us the divine gift of resurrection. Mary’s privilege will one day be ours, too. But there is more.

The post-resurrection gospels are full of women whom the Lord comes to meet. They have no need to climb mountains or prepare elaborate sacrifices to find him. He surprises them as they go about their ordinary tasks. This morning Mary is lingering by the tomb when she encounters Christ. There is that momentary lack of recognition characteristic of all the post-resurrection appearances, but then everything changes. Jesus is the same, but different, but how is he different? For Fra Angelico, there is no ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ to suggest a gardener, but Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. When he recognizes her, she is able to recognize him. There is something to ponder there. We think we must go in search of God and sometimes become sad and angry when we feel we have failed to find him, not realising that the initiative always remains his. He finds us; he names us; he calls us.

One further point. Look at the garden and what is beyond the garden. The trees outside are fairly uniform but within, what a variety! Where Christ is, there is always abundance. It was to restore the fullness of life to the world that God gave his only Son. This morning Mary experiences what that means, and she is charged with telling the Church in every generation. We have been redeemed by one who knows us by name and lives for evermore.

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New Beginnings: Easter 2021

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia! Easter is not, as many tend to think, the end of Lent but a new beginning, indeed, the true beginning of everything. With Christ’s resurrection, we too rise to newness of life — not the old one, somehow given a gloss of fresh beauty and truth, but a new life, completely and utterly transformed by his victory over sin and death. The solemn tones of the Triple Alleluia with which we greet the resurrection gospel, or the sober joy of the introit for today’s day Mass, Resurrexi, capture the wonder of what has occurred. The ‘happy fault’ of Adam has given us a Redeemer, a Saviour. All is changed, for ever.

While I was thinking about a suitable image to accompany today’s post, I naturally thought of Piero della Francesca and was delighted to find this photo. The fresco has an unusual history and was only saved from destruction during World War II by Tony Clarke, a British Artillery officer, who disobeyed orders to raze the city of Sansepulcro. This is how the fresco is to be seen nowadays, rather more awkwardly than we are accustomed to seeing it in art books or on screen. I like the fact that Piero’s work was commissioned not for a church but for a civic hall, and that one can ‘read’ a few political details into its imagery. Easter, and the mystery it proclaims, is not just for the ‘religious’ moments of our lives but for every moment.

The next eight days of the Octave are all equally Easter Day when we shall have the opportunity to look at the resurrection from many different angles. This morning, however, it is the hiddenness of the resurrection that we focus on. Mary finds the empty tomb and tells Peter and John that the Lord is not there. Silently, while the world slept, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and will never die again. Our life too is now hidden with his in God — and it is life, not death (cf Romans 6.3-11). Alleluia.

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Silence and Stillness: Holy Saturday 2021

Today is a strange day. The drama of the crucifixion is over and we are left, tired, empty, devoid of the sacraments and the conventional rhythms of church life, to ponder what we do not see: the coming of the light, Christ’s harrowing of hell, and the promise of the resurrection. It is a day when we do nothing because God does everything. An early Christian writer captured the essence of this time by speaking of its silence and stillness:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

It is hard for us to do nothing. We seem to think everything depends on us, and life would certainly come to an end were we to fold our hands and expect food, shelter and everything else to fall into our laps. The kind of nothingness I am talking about is a recognition of God’s supremacy. It requires the silence of humility, the stillness of love, but we find both difficult. We tend to fill the universe with our noisy chatter and busy plans for this and that. One of the lessons of Holy Saturday is to let all that go, to allow God to be God in our lives, to own the mystery. Only then can we embrace the resurrection.

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Empty: Good Friday 2021

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

Today, just before 3.00 p.m., we shall go into the oratory and either prostrate or kneel before the altar for a minute or two before celebrating the Solemn Liturgy. That silence, that abandonment of our usual posture, expresses what could never be put into words: the utter transcendence of God and our complete reliance upon him. Today, of all days, that is brought home to us by our reverting to a primitive form of liturgy made up of long readings from scripture and prayers in which we pray for all the world’s needs. For us, there will be no Communion of the Presanctified. With the death of Christ on the cross we enter a world devoid of sacraments, a time of waiting, of radical emptiness.

And then? More emptiness. There is only the soft soughing of the wind as it passes over Calvary to remind us of the epic duel between good and evil we have witnessed, the unadorned cross in the oratory and a lassitude of spirit that goes beyond the ordinary. We are numb with shock and horror, yet even at this moment, we know that this is not the end of the story. As day passes into night, a great change is being worked but we are as yet unaware of it and its consequences. For us, there is only the waiting, and the emptiness.

Last year, I was drawn to write about the mothers of Jesus and Judas and their experience of the crucifixion. It may be worth re-visiting. If so, please click the link below (opens in new tab). There is an audio version at the end.

Lovely Tear from Lovely Eye: the Mothers of Jesus and Judas

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A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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Lost: Wednesday of Holy Week 2021

Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash 

Many call today ‘Spy Wednesday’, the day when Judas finally betrayed Jesus and went in search of those who wanted him dead. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26.14-25 ) is a familiar narrative, but I wonder whether it is not a little too simple, too inclined to portray Judas as the arch-traitor beyond redemption. We know that despite the deal made earlier with the Chief Priests, there was still time for a change of heart, for a renewal of the old love and friendship between Judas and his Lord. But it didn’t happen, not then, at any rate, and we are left pondering the dynamic of what did occur. How we interpret that says as much about us as it does about Judas.

For generations, Christians have taken delight in placing Judas firmly in hell. We have off-loaded onto him all the betrayals and broken trust that has afflicted the world throughout the ages, and we feel safe doing so because what could be more villainous than to betray our Saviour for a paltry 30 pieces of silver? It is vicarious justification for actions that would otherwise seem harsh and unforgiving. But notice the image that stands at the head of this post. It is a lost toy, a sad little bear. It wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. 

To me the photo is a reminder that Jesus and Judas were friends, and Jesus never stopped loving him. What might that mean? There is an innocence, a playfulness, about friendship we often forget when we think of Jesus and the disciples. Judas, himself possibly a Zealot, may have been disappointed in Jesus’ failure to become the political leader he hoped for, but was Jesus disappointed in Judas? Did Judas’s company bring him joy right up to the end and that painful parting of ways? Was Judas a friend still, lost in some ways, but always close to his heart? In other words, is it possible that we see the relationship between Jesus and Judas in ways that fit our own narrative rather than what truly occurred between them?

We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but those words of Jesus, ‘Better for that man if he had never been born!’, suggest to me not the prospect of eternal punishment but of eternal anguish. If true, Jesus did not approve of what Judas had done but forgave him and grieved at the suffering that lay before him. That is an important point, because it leaves open the question whether Judas is condemned to hell for all eternity in the way we tend to assume. In any case, we must remember it is Judas’s despair of God’s mercy, not his betrayal, that has always been considered the greater sin. We can see why. Such despair is to doubt the very nature of God, his love, mercy and forgiveness.

That thought should make us uncomfortable. The way we see Judas says a great deal about how we ourselves see God and the trust (or lack of it) that we have in his love and forgiveness. God does not approve of sin, anyone’s sin. He does not endorse the wrong we do or pretend it doesn’t matter, but he does forgive — utterly. It is we who hold others (and sometimes ourselves) to account, we who say ‘I cannot forgive X or Y’ as though it were a virtue in us; and we habitually assume God is of the same mind. Perhaps today we might spend a few moments thinking about that. Jesus on the cross suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. How dare we be less merciful than he? How dare we make ourselves, or anyone else, to be lost? We are not discarded toys. We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes, and his desire is that we should be with him for all eternity.

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Betrayal: Tuesday of Holy Week 2021

Today, as we eavesdrop on the dialogue about betrayal between Jesus and Peter (cf John 13) we are confronted with a bleak truth. We all know the pain of being betrayed, but we are less likely to ackowledge the pain of betraying others. Yet that is exactly what we do, all the time! The tragedy is that we do not always recognize the ways in which we let others down, or we impersonalise them so that they remain ‘other’ and never take on an individual, human face. The UK’s reduction in its aid budget, from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP, is not just a scaling down by one of the world’s most generous givers, it is also a betrayal of those who were relying on it to fund healthcare and education projects, for example. Then there are the more obviously personal betrayals: the broken promises, the cheating on relationships, the selfish choice we make.

As we go deeper into Holy Week, it would be good to take stock. Instead of worrying about how others have hurt us, perhaps we could spend a few moments thinking how we have hurt others, asking forgiveness if we can, but at any rate resolving not to fall into old patterns of behaviour. It can be helpful to look at what drives us to betray others. It may be money, the need to appear successful, even laziness. For each of us it will be different, but discovering our own weakness may enable us to understand better the betrayals of Judas and Peter, and the loneliness Christ experienced as a result.

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Jar of Nard: Monday of Holy Week 2021

Alabaster jar photographed by Argie Hernandez

Yesterday we wreathed our processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his ultimate victory over sin and death. Today starts more soberly, with the alabaster jar of nard Mary poured over the feet of Jesus to prepare him for his burial.

None of the disciples demurred at yesterday’s marks of rejoicing. They cost nothing as far as they were concerned, and they may even have felt some reflected glory. It would have been better if their leader had entered the city in a more obviously dignified way, but the applause of the crowd was sweet to their ears. Jesus was, however briefly, undeniably a class act, a celebrity. Today’s more private anointing among friends at Bethany was another matter and Judas, diligent steward that he was, pointed out that a better use might have been made of the money spent: ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’

Poor Judas, he was always getting things wrong. Of course the poor matter; of course we must share with them; but there is also room for that jar of nard, and for the love of which it is a sign. Mary has understood what Judas has not. Her reckless, extravagant act is a response to the love Jesus has shown. It has no other purpose than to delight the Lord — a moment of humanity and care at a bleak and dangerous time. Holy Week will take us into some dark places, will confront us with betrayal and disbelief, torture and death, but we cannot accompany the Lord in his Passion if we do not also accompany him with our love and prayer. Just as that broken jar of nard filled the house at Bethany with its scent, so our prayer should fill the whole world with its fragrance. We too may need to be broken, poured out, pay a great price, but we know an even greater price has been paid for us. ‘To ransom a slave, you gave away a Son.’ (from the Easter Exsultet) There is no greater love than that, and it is that love which draws us today.

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