‘In the early morning,’ ‘before the sun had risen,’ ‘while it was still dark’: these phrases capture something of the mystery of the Resurrection. In the half-light only the eyes of faith see clearly. Is it any wonder, then, that St Mary Magdalene is the ‘apostle to the apostles’, that, through eyes washed clean with tears, she saw the Lord? Throughout Holy Week our attention has been focused on the terrible duel between good and evil and on those who surround Jesus with menace or sheer misunderstanding: Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, Peter. It has been a very male business, but now the women edge into the picture. They stood by the Cross, they anointed Jesus’ dead body and now they proclaim the Resurrection. Peter’s momentary failure will be forgiven; the disciples will be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit; and all our own sin and failure will be swallowed up by the empty tomb. Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!
Anyone who has read my Universe column on the subject will know that I am not an enthusiast for Hallowe’en as it is now celebrated in this country. Happily, however, once we have sung First Vespers of the Solemnity of All Saints at five o’clock this evening, we shall be safely on the other side, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin and death and the prospect of eternal life. All will be light and gladness, and anyone who comes to our door ‘trick or treating’ will be sent away with a blessing and a sentence or two about the wonder of the Resurrection (sure to put them off trying it again next year). We don’t do ghosts and ghouls; we do saints instead; and I think we might all be happier and healthier if more of us did saints, especially on this night of the year.
Why the fascination with horror and the celebration of death and destruction which now accounts for £300 million of spending in the U.K.? Surely, it is something to do with getting in touch with our inner caveman, the pleasurable thrill of being slightly scared by things that go bump in the night, knowing that at any moment we can switch on the light and not be scared any longer. Only, it has gone rather further than that, hasn’t it? We have gone beyond the thrill of the horror story to sheer terror instead. I don’t want to go over ground I have already covered, but in my view many of today’s Hallowe’en artefacts are quite sinister and open the way to the occult. Those who have never had to confront evil will laugh dismissively and say it is ridiculous to get worked up over plastic skeletons or ouija boards, tarot cards and the like. Plastic skeletons are a matter of taste, but the ouija boards and tarot cards are a much more serious matter. Ignorance is not bliss: it is dangerous.
I am all for conviviality and hope many of you will be enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, but I hope it will be a celebration of light and life you share, not a celebration of darkness and destruction. There is so much tragedy in the world, we do not need to fabricate horror. There is so much evil, we do not need to manufacture feelings of shock or revulsion. Those 87 people found dead of thirst in the Sahara are a reminder of the reality of suffering and death. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls affirm the unity of the living and the dead, so tonight let us pray for all those whose experience of moral darkness — in Niger, Syria, the DRC, to name just three — is so much more intense and terrible than anything we can produce with our broomsticks and plastic cobwebs. Let’s hallow Hallowe’en again.
This morning, as I was praying vigils, I was struck by a thought that connects with what I was saying yesterday, although it approaches the subject from a different angle. Have you noticed how, in the gospels, Jesus never refers to himself as a victim, never refers to his woundedness after the Resurrection? It is always, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’. The wounds are there, etched into his flesh for all eternity, but the victory over sin and death has transformed them. It is as though he anticipates that transformation, that victory, while never denying the reality of the present situation. When we grumble, we tend to take on the role of victim: ‘poor me’. I wonder whether it would help to see ourselves as sharing in victory more often. Not so much ‘poor me’ as ‘blessed me’. That is not pretending, more a case of seeing things as they really are: transformed by grace and redeemed.
Monday morning, and I am thinking about white space. What does it mean to you? To me it means, first of all, the space on the page which sets off text, gives words shape and impact and allows meaning to flow from the jumble of letters and words. It is a necessary adjunct to thoughtful composition and close reading. White space is what makes poetry poetic and architecture architectural; it is the silence between musical notes; the inner form of sculpture; the hidden essence of the painted image; the heart enthralled by prayer.
Space does not mean the absence of colour or form, anymore than the air we breathe implies an absence just because we cannot see it. It has nothing to do with size, but the fact that it is white is important. White reflects light and warmth, increases our sense of spaciousness and confers a sense of freedom. It is the colour of the Resurrection and Ascension, of joy and triumph, of a transformation wrought by grace which reveals the mystery within. Pentecost will clothe us in red, the colour of blood and flame, but for now we are surrounded by white. It ‘unclutters’ us. White space helps us know ourselves, and knowing ourselves is a step towards knowing God.
When I was cook in a large community, I used to think Easter was all about eating. After the Lenten fast, the explosion of festive meals, profession anniversaries and so on taxed the culinary imagination as well as the store cupboard. Scripturally, of course, it was spot on. A feast is precisely that: a feast.
Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus feature eating and drinking, but I think they introduce a new note. It is not merely a matter of rejoicing but more fundamentally of recognizing who Jesus is. Take the barbecue on the beach we recall today (John 21). Peter seems to have been disconcerted by the sight of Jesus on the seashore and jumped into the water to escape him; the other disciples were confused; but eating and drinking with Jesus changed everything. For Peter, strengthened in faith, given a mission and enabled to make good his earlier cowardice with a threefold profession of love, it was a moment of conversion. He saw the Lord and knew him as if for the first time.
I wonder whether our own meals have anything of this conversion quality about them. We are good at celebrating, we make a conscious effort to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ and share with the stranger, but do we expect to encounter the Risen Christ at them? On Twitter this morning I suggested we should each try to share a meal with someone today, even if it is only a shared cup of coffee. For those living alone or constrained by lack of funds, the sharing may have to be in intention rather than actual, but I cannot help recalling that line which assures us we may entertain angels unawares. How much more so the Son of God!
Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus include a showing of the wounds in his body. I used to think that they were intended to elicit or confirm faith. A prime example would be the showing to Thomas, but reading today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35–48, made me think again. Could it be that these showings have another purpose, one that the disciples found even more necessary — an assurance of forgiveness?
You’ll notice that Jesus never finds it necessary to show the women his wounds. As far as we can tell from the gospel narratives, they never abandoned Jesus and were never afraid when they met him again after the Resurrection. When Mary Magdalene met him in the garden she wept, but for her supposed loss rather than consciousness of any sin or betrayal. The men do not get off so lightly, especially when they are gathered together in a group. There is consternation when Jesus appears among them, doubt, disbelief, a whole gamut of emotions, including fear. Jesus reassures them and shows them his wounds. This showing not only demonstrates who he is but also what he has done: ‘God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself’.
Just in case any of my female readers is quietly congratulating herself, I had better point out that we are all among the male disciples now. We are all in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness which come to us through Christ our Lord. Those wounds on his body are there for all eternity as a sign of his love and forgiveness. We are each one of us ‘graven on the palm of his hand’.
An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.
Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.
Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.
The Emmaus story (Luke 24. 13-35) is much loved by Christians. Most of us long to have the scriptures opened to us by Jesus himself and one often hears people commenting along the lines of ‘If only . . . .’ The trouble with that particular ‘if only’ is that it is nonsense. The scriptures are ALWAYS opened to us by Jesus. Whether it be through prayerful reading by ourselves, with the grace of the Holy Spirit to assist us, or through the teaching of those entrusted with authority to do so, we can only make sense of the scriptures because Jesus reveals himself in and through them. He is present, not absent. We seem to find that very difficult to take on board. ‘What would Jesus do?’ we ask, forgetting that the real question is, ‘What is Jesus doing; what does he want to do through you/me/us/them?
I think today’s gospel is particularly encouraging for those of us who might be labelled ‘professionals’ in the religious sphere. We go around with our eyes half-closed sometimes, not expecting to be surprised. We miss the glory that is spread before us. Perhaps today we could open our eyes to the divine light a little more fully, a little more expectantly. The Risen Christ is here and now and walks with us every day.
After the splendour of the Easter Vigil we now have a quiet hour or two when we can reflect on what the Resurrection means for each of us. All three synoptics tell us that it was the women going secretly to anoint Jesus who were the first to hear that ‘He has risen from the dead’. In our very male-dominated Church, it is easy to forget that women were (and are) apostles of the Resurrection, called to ‘tell the disciples and Peter’ what they have seen and heard. To be an apostle in this sense, to witness to the reality of the Resurrection, to proclaim it fearlessly, is indeed to be filled with awe and great joy.
May you have a blessed Easter.