One day earlier this month, my walk took me through Canterbury cemetery once again. This time I saluted a few familiar names, since I passed near the Catholic corner, but then wandered into an older section I’d not visited before and found two passion flower crosses to add to our collection. One was covered in multicoloured lichen and not suitable for reproduction, but then there was this, erected in the first years of the XX Century.
It combines the Celtic Cross, the Greek Letters IHS – short for Jesus – at its centre, with the halo of passion vine leaves around it, and the passion vine itself, bringing the Cross to flowering splendour.
The passion flower represents the saving death of Jesus. There are ten petals for the ten apostles who did not deny him – leaving out Peter and Judas. There are five stamens representing the five wounds; three stigma for the nails, and the fringe of filaments around the flower stands for the crown of thorns. The beauty of the flower proclaims the resurrection.
By carving this flower over their dear ones’ graves, the family were indeed proclaiming that the dead would rise again with Christ. When you see a passion flower let it remind you that Jesus is real, his death was real, as indeed will ours be – but so, too, will our rising. And when you see a passion flower on a gravestone, pray for those lying there.
Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets, But gold that’s put to use more gold begets.
From “Venus and Adonis” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare echoes the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which shows gold becoming fertile in its own way, and also languishing useless underground. This happened to treasure that my brothers and I hid once when on holiday in Wales. Perhaps we felt that this hidden treasure was a sacrifice that would draw us back to the little resort where we had enjoyed a week of happiness with both our parents available. Our treasure was a hoard of beer bottle tops from the Border Brewery, which came in different colours according to the brew in each bottle, and carried a picture of a Welsh dragon. Our source was not our Dad’s empties, but a nearby pub’s backyard. We thought we’d marked the spot where we’d hidden them, 12 inches from the telegraph pole near the holiday house, but the next year we failed to find it.
If only we’d had a metal detector! I think the spot is covered by the North Wales Expressway now, so we can forget about looking for our treasure, and decades later, the tops will surely be fretted away, though I do know someone who would be very grateful for a set of tops from a long defunct brewery.
A more generally exciting buried treasure was discovered in Staffordshire a few years ago. Being largely of gold, it has survived, though battered at the time of burial and in the 13 or 14 centuries since. If you have an hour between trains in Birmingham, you should be able to get to the museum and admire what’s on show – if you can get yourself past the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and the other treasures there.
The processional crosses and other liturgical objects were saved from destruction, but whoever hid them may have been killed in battle before retrieving them, or like us boys, may have misremembered the clues. We can admire the art while regretting that this gold will never again be put to its original use. Not that that should stop us from offering a silent prayer of wonder and gratitude. These gloriously playful designs speak of artists at ease in their faith, bringing their joyfulness to their work, as Hopkins did in his poetry.
We walked to Elham on the recommendation of our daughter; we were not disappointed. Firstly, to find the King’s Arms open and ready to sell us good beer which we enjoyed in the square in the full Spring sunshine. And then there was the church, also open, ready to sell us good second-hand books, and ready to give us plenty to reflect upon.
These Easter Lilies were placed before a Madonna and child, but a very Paschal, Easter-minded Madonna and child. Two years ago we looked at a portrait of Mary and baby Jesus in a pieta-like pose, and I urge you to revisit that post now, to complement this one.
That old post considered two paintings from the studio of Rogier van de Weyden, of the mid-XV Century, the Madonna and a Pieta. In each Mary is tenderly holding her son, whose pose as a baby matches that of his lifeless corpse. This is not what our artist in Elham has in view. Jesus may be four years old here, a boy, not a baby, but still dependent on Mary and Joseph for everything.
The boy is very much alive, yet he is standing as if practising for his work on the Cross. He is lightly supported by his mother; at this age he can walk for himself, but that gentle uplift is reassuring. As for Mary, not for the last time she ponders these things in her heart, the heart pierced by the sword of sorrow.
Jesus is about to step forth from her lap. Any parent will know the excitement and trepidation of following a small child, where are they going, what dangers can we perceive that they do not? But letting them lead us is part of growth for the child and also for the parent who is offered the chance to see the world through fresh eyes.
Mary could not prevent the death of Jesus on the Cross but she was there to welcome him on the third day. Isaiah tells us that a little child shall lead them: may we follow him through all life’s trials to our resurrection in his Kingdom.
These prayers from the Catholic Greek Melkite Church open a different way of seeing Mary for Westerners like me. Please take this opportunity to pray for all the people of Lebanon, where many Melkite Christians live alongside other Christians, Muslims and Druze, all of whom would earnestly desire to live in peace.
The mystery hidden from all eternity that the angels could not know was revealed to those on earth through you, O Mother of God, when God became incarnate without mixing (of the two natures) and accepted the Cross out of obedience for our sakes and Adam was raised and our souls saved from death.
You gave birth without a father on earth to him who was born without a mother in heaven, a birth beyond understanding and hearing, So intercede, O Mother of God, for our souls.
Two prayers from the Melkite Liturgy, Theotokion for Saturday, 4th mode, and Tuesday morning Theotokion, 1st mode, translated by Kenneth Mortimer and published on The Pelicans website.
Moses set the laver between the tent of the congregation and the altar, and put water there, to wash withal. And Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet thereat: When they went into the tent of the congregation, and when they came near unto the altar, they washed; as the Lord commanded Moses.
And he reared up the court round about the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the hanging of the court gate. So Moses finished the work.
Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.
There is a connection between the picture and the reading from Exodus! The passage comes at the end of a long, detailed description of how the Tabernacle (the mobile Temple of the Lord) was to be designed and built, according to a divine blueprint. When almost all the construction was complete, Moses finished the work by hanging a veil over the gateway. With all the other hangings and curtains, nobody could see inside and very few people were allowed inside.
Yesterday we looked at the Cross as the gate to Heaven; today we take that idea forward a step. Matthew tells of the veil of the Temple torn from top to bottom, and an earthquake – another dreadful night in that dreadful place – and the appearance ‘of the saints that had slept’, surely good news to those who loved them, to see them alive.
This happened, Matthew tells us, after Jesus’s resurrection; he is setting the scene for Easter morning, and Mary Magdalene and the other women making their way to the tomb, realising there that the stone is rolled away, the veil is irrevocably torn, Jacob’s seed has opened the gate of Heaven.
Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent.
And the graves were opened: and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose, And coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, came into the holy city, and appeared to many. Now the centurion and they that were with him watching Jesus, having seen the earthquake, and the things that were done, were sore afraid, saying: Indeed this was the Son of God.
And there were there many women afar off, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
From God’s presence with Samuel Johnson in a dreadful storm to his presence in a ‘dreadful place’. Jacob called it Beth-el, the House-of-God, after the dream of the ladder, or staircase, between Heaven and Earth. William Blake has shown Jacob with arms outstretched, feet crossed, head to one side, reminiscent of the Crucified One, his descendant. So the Cross, our daily cross, is the Gate of Heaven, as shown in the weather vane of the former Holy Cross Church in Canterbury (now the Guildhall). Certainly the hill of Calvary was a dreadful place, but the opening of the Tomb completed its work and opened the Gate of Heaven.
And when Jacob was come to a certain place, and would rest in it after sunset, he took of the stones that lay there, and putting under his head, slept in the same place.And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed.And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and IN THEE and thy seed all the tribes of the earth SHALL BE BLESSED. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said.
And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
And Jacob, arising in the morning, took the stone, which he had laid under his head, and set it up for a title, pouring oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of the city Bethel, which before was called Luza. And he made a vow, saying: If God shall be with me, and shall keep me in the way by which I walk, and shall give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, And I shall return prosperously to my father’s house: the Lord shall be my God: And this stone, which I have set up for a title, shall be called the house of God: and of all things that thou shalt give to me, I will offer tithes to thee.
Traherne is addressing Christ directly in this passage, acknowledging and rejoicing in his closeness to Christ, accepting that suffering unites Men – he of course means men and women – and Christ, now suffering on the cross for me.
What shall I do for Thee, O Thou preserver of Men?
Live, Love, and Admire; and learn to become such unto Thee as Thou unto me. O Glorious Soul; whose comprehensive understanding at once contains all Kingdoms and Ages! O Glorious Mind! Whose love extendeth to all creatures! O miraculous and eternal Godhead, now suffering on the cross for me: As Abraham saw thy Day and was glad, so didst Thou see me and this Day from all Eternity, and seeing me wast Gracious and Compassionate towards me. (All transient things are permanent in God.) Thou settest me before Thy face forever. O let me this day see Thee, and be united to Thee in Thy Holy Sufferings. Let me learn, O God, such lessons from Thee, as may make me wise, and blessed as an Angel of GOD!
More Eastertide reflections from Thomas Traherne, Who makes the bold claim, ‘he was the son of God as you are’, but he was heir of the whole world’, meaning the whole of creation. As with all of Traherne, the passage repays slow, repeated reading.
The Cross of Christ is the Jacob’s ladder by which we ascend into the highest heavens.
There we see joyful Patriarchs, expecting Saints, Prophets ministering, Apostles publishing, and Doctors teaching, all Nations concentering, and Angels praising. That Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame, that Illuminateth all the world. The flame is Love: the Love in His bosom who died on it. In the light of which we see how to possess all the things in Heaven and Earth after His similitude. For He that suffered on it was the Son of God as you are: tho’ He seemed only a mortal man. He had acquaintance and relations as you have, but He was a lover of Men and Angels. Was he not the Son of God; and Heir of the whole world?
To this poor, bleeding, naked Man did all the corn and wine, and oil, and gold and silver in the world minister in an invisible manner, even as He was exposed lying and dying upon the Cross.
The Cross is the abyss of wonders,
the centre of desires,
the school of virtues,
the house of wisdom,
the throne of love,
the theatre of joys,
and the place of sorrows;
It is the root of happiness,
and the gate of Heaven.
The weathervane on the former Holy Cross church in Canterbury shows the Cross as the gate to heaven.
Thomas Traherne invites us to live eternal life now through reading the Bible and regarding all of creation with all our faculties, including the imagination, a faculty, he would argue, of the soul.
The contemplation of Eternity maketh the Soul immortal. It can see before and after its existence into endless spaces. O what glorious creatures should we be could we be present in spirit with all Eternity! How wise, would we esteem this presence of the understanding, to be more real than that of our bodies! When my soul is in Eden with our first parents, I myself am there in a blessed manner. When I walk with Enoch*, and see his translation, I am transported with him.
The present age is too little to contain [my soul]. I can visit Noah in his ark, and swim upon the waters of the deluge. I can see Moses with his rod, and the children of Israel passing through the sea; I can enter into Aaron’s Tabernacle, and admire the mysteries of the holy place. I can travel over the Land of Canaan, and see it overflowing with milk and honey; I can visit Solomon in his glory, and go into his temple, and view the sitting of his servants, and admire the magnificence and glory of his kingdom.
No creature but one like unto the Holy Angels can see into all ages. Sure this power was not given in vain, but for some wonderful purpose; worthy of itself to enjoy and fathom. Would men consider what God hath done, they would be ravished in spirit with the glory of His doings. For Heaven and Earth are full of the majesty of His glory. And how happy would men be could they see and enjoy it! But above all these our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God.
* Enoch ‘walked with God’ and was taken, or translated, into heaven and seen no more on earth, see Genesis 5:21-24.
+ Ark from Shrewsbury Cathedral, Margaret Rope. = The Tree of Life: Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge.