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.
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.
The events of Holy Week are shown with the Crucified at the centre, full of vigour as he stares death out. Above, the Risen Lord leads his first parents into Paradise, above that again the Ascension.
We have received the link to this Easter reflection by our old friend, Brother Austin, a link we gladly share.
Jesus understood his mission to be, to make his Father known; not by talking about him, but by being himself with other people, his Father’s Son – and that still remains the mission of the Church – go out and spread the Good News – what it means to be beloved of Abba, share your experience, not your knowledge, of who Jesus, the beloved of Abba, is for you.
At this time there were no defined doctrines, creeds or codes – so what were they expected to do when they were told to go out and spread the Good News? Was it to teach and preach? It was something much simpler and much more profound – they were asked to go and share what it was like to live with Jesus, after the Resurrection – share their experiences of being with him.
The Resurrection brought new insights – something Jesus had before his Passion and death; when he told them you do not understand now but you will… He spoke of God in an entirely new way, one which proved threatening to the Guardians of the Law, to Temple worship, Sabbath observances and ritual prescriptions. The last straw was calling God his father. The disciples after Good Friday, must have thought, maybe the authorities were right after all, that Jesus was not from God. Death was final, and put an end to dissent.
Two of them were walking to Emmaus with hopes shattered [we had hoped]. His death seemed to vindicate that Jesus must have been a sinner for this to happen –he who hangs on a tree is cursed – Deuteronomy 21.23; Galatians 3.13. But when he rose from the dead and appeared to them the whole system leading to his death is called into question. Jesus had been right; God is the way Jesus spoke of God; nothing like the description of his accusers. The reasons for getting rid of him were part of the sinful mechanism of getting rid of troublesome people – with nothing whatever to do with God. This leads to questioning the Law as not reflecting the true God. The Resurrection did not simply reveal Jesus’ innocence, not only was he right about God; it exposed the mechanism by which innocent victims are created by those who believe that in doing so they are doing God’s will.
It is true that the Law was given by God – but the interpretations of it are of human origin; and so, for example, keeping the Sabbath holy, came to mean observing all the restrictions imposed – not by God. The point of Sabbath is so as to enjoy the wonderful things God is doing through creation.
We can now imagine the innocence of the victim and see the complicity in violence of the perpetrators. If we see things as the disciples first did, feeling uncomfortable that Jesus may not have been up to what he promised – and then see him back, how would we talk about it? Our stories have beginnings and endings, and, so they had thought, did Jesus’ story – but now: how do we tell a story that has no ending? They tried telling this story which had no room for death – death happens to everyone – and they didn’t know how to do it.
Resurrection has now burst into our storytelling. They couldn’t tell the story in the old way, the new way they were inspired with we call the New Testament. It was not a question of eliminating death, but showing how death has its part in the story, but not as the ending. Jesus did not appear as someone who had been dead and is now better – like Lazarus. The risen Jesus is simultaneously dead and alive – as the five wounds testify – death as lost its power. He is at once dead and alive. His whole life, including death is present in its fullness. He has conquered death, not just for himself, but for all who share common humanity with him; death and its whole system by which all were held in fear, is not necessary. Whatever death is, and it happens to all of us, it is not what dictates or shapes the pattern of life. It is an empty shell, a bark without a bite. We will die, but death cannot separate us from the source of the fullness of life.
Because each one of us is unique [God doesn’t create copies], every sharing will reflect what is ours only, and wouldn’t happen without us – differences [not division] unity without uniformity – which we are able to do by sharing in his Spirit freely given in our Baptism.
This goes alongside today’s Gospel reading, and last year’s Easter walks.
We walked the fields and woods on Easter day,
Considering the flowers: bluebell, gorse for Edward Thomas,
Campion for the martyr, David’s daffodils; and for
Christ’s Mother, Lady’s Smock, a blue-white garment.
For himself? I see him rising, feeling each rib, gingerly
Easing the circle of thorns from his brow to spin it
High and higher out of his ken, to Paris:
Disputed relic but reverenced for his sake.
His feet have stopped bleeding. He can walk
Across the grass without pain. Almost.
‘Mary, Please, please; do not touch me; not just yet,
But tell them all, I’m going North to Galilee.
‘Oh, and Mary: just a dab of your oil on my brow.
The scratches sting, but I find I’m healing like a babe,
As Lazarus did last month when he came forth.
Time now to take a walk, to find my legs and feet again.
‘My feet are fine, thank you Mary. Go to Peter now,
Give him my message, tell him what you’ve seen
And rub his brow too with oil to firm his courage.
I’ll see you by the lake, if not before. Now for my
'Walk. I feel my legs can take me far, without
Tiring. Those scars are not pretty but who looks
At feet, except a salesman selling shoes,
Or serving man with water, soap and towel? Or you.’
. . .
Who is that ahead? I should know the gait of
Clopas and his friend, red Isaac, expecting a kingdom by the sword.
‘What are you saying on your way? Now, listen
With your eyes and heart. Consider the flowers of the field.
Do they toil and spin? No, all they have is gift of sun, and rain,
And red-tailed bumble bee, loving them into growth
And fruition. The grain of wheat has fallen. Stay with me
My friends. Take and eat my given body. Stay with me.
Our church is smallish, homely, as it should be,
A rectangular box
Light-filled by generous windows.
Spirit-filled by generations of plain-speaking villagers.
A second-hand, twice-loved,
No-nonsense northern chapel in the hills
Complete with gallery and organ of course!
No room for side chapels
No nooks and crannies in which to construct an Altar of Repose.
Needing to take over from Saint Joseph
His small shrine to the left of the Sanctuary.
We can move over,
Those who stay on
To keep company with the Lord
On the night road from the room to the garden,
From the garden to the High Priest
In the midst of rabble,
Torches, weapons, noise,
While our church, now stripped,
Leaves us a few hours more
In his presence.
But tomorrow, when all we have remembered
In ritual, prayer and song,
When we have reverenced his image,
Received his Gift …
Then is it empty.
And helpless, what can we do?
In this emptiness
That echoes with the sound of his leaving?
The door left open,
The table bare
The light extinguished,
The fire gone out.
Come and see,
Just come and see!
Remember how it was
Before it became Good Friday.
The comfortable familiarity,
His everpresence …
Withdrawn now into pain,
For in the darkness we have abandoned him.
Oh how is our church empty!
Now … We gather in the darkness,
Knowing our loss
And drawn to the emptiness,
Relight the fire,
Set the table,
Restore the light.
Christ, our light!
Thanks be to God!
Hearts renewed in hope
Reach for the light.
Christ our light!
Our church in the hills!
Sheila writes that this piece is ‘Pre-Covid, by several years – Is this how we will date things in future?’ The previous two poems were new ones. Her little church in the hills is as she describes it, is it not? A light-filled, Spirit-filled box, where the Lord can camp for a while – who are we, even Yorkshire folk, to build Him a house? But he will fill the space when we set the table.
The church had imposing monuments, emphasising the worldly wealth that was Venice’s, but what struck me was this carving of Christ on Easter Morning, watched over by a Guardian Angel, a serenely happy angel indeed. But Jesus maybe does need an eye kept on him, He looks as though he is not at all used to his risen body, see how he’s feeling the wound in his side; it’s bleeding as though he were alive.
The English Easter gardens, from a village in Northumberland, Canterbury Cathedral, and Saint Mildred’s Church nearby, are unpopulated so far as we can see, but just as with Doctor Johnson the other day, we can feel God’s presence.
When I helped at Children’s Masses, some of them enacted Mary, John and Peter going to the tomb, and finding no-one. We then unrolled a poster saying ‘Jesus is nowhere’, because they did not find him. The priest had to take a pair of scissors to it, so that it read, ‘Jesus is now here’. Our daily challenge for mission is to live as though that’s true. Which it is!
It’s that in-between day. The day when fresh linen is spread over the stripped altar, when church dusting is done, the floor and brass polished, the flowers gathered in and arranged. Christina Rossetti invites us to Consider the lilies of the field; her message, one we have been reminded of more than once this week, is HOPE. Jesus found Mary in the garden, after all. Consider that one small seed that was laid in the garden tomb.
CONSIDER THE LILIES OF THE FIELD.
Flowers preach to us if we will hear:– The rose saith in the dewy morn, I am most fair; Yet all my loveliness is born Upon a thorn. The poppy saith amid the corn: Let but my scarlet head appear And I am held in scorn; Yet juice of subtle virtue lies Within my cup of curious dyes. The lilies say: Behold how we Preach without words of purity. The violets whisper from the shade Which their own leaves have made: Men scent our fragrance on the air, Yet take no heed Of humble lessons we would read.
But not alone the fairest flowers: The merest grass Along the roadside where we pass, Lichen and moss and sturdy weed, Tell of His love who sends the dew, The rain and sunshine too, To nourish one small seed.”
They did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions (Luke 20:40). This sentence from the Gospel of St. Luke comes at the end of a passage that tells of an exchange between Jesus and some Sadducees. As usual, the Sadducees have an agenda. They were not keen on this upstart travelling rabbi, Jesus, and were looking for ways to up-end him. They decide that a theological debate might be a good way to do it. Therefore, they think up a rather implausible tale of a woman who outlives not only her first husband but her seven subsequent husbands (all brothers of her first husband, obliged under the Law to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for the brother’ if the previous union had been childless). Finally the widow dies. And the Saducees’s question for Jesus is: ‘At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’
The Sadducees did not accept the notion of the resurrection from the dead. The hypothetical scenario they invented is meant to illustrate how ridiculous resurrection from the dead is. They seem pretty sure of themselves here, convinced that they have articulated an unsolvable problem. They expected to stump Jesus and to make him withdraw from the conversation, a disgraced loser.
As I reread and ponder this passage of Luke’s gospel, I can see the Sadducees gathered around, the speaker feigning seriousness, while secretly flicking supercilious glances at the others. They are subtly mocking Jesus. In typical adolescent fashion, they completely overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Jesus’; they are unprepared for his skill in theological debate, unprepared for a mind and personality like his.
I would love to have been there. St Luke shows that Jesus, with consummate courtesy and intelligence, not only pays the Sadducees the compliment of taking their question seriously, but answers it on such a deep level as to leave them amazed (Luke 20:34-38). When Jesus crafts his answer, his listeners were given the privilege of observing the workings of a truly beautiful mind. Anyone who has ever been in the class of a teacher who is a brilliant and deep thinker knows how exciting it can be to witness that teacher’s handling of difficult and subtle questions – off the cuff. There is always a moment after the question is posed when everyone wonders how the teacher will deal with the problem. Then, all the students share in the moments of unexpected enlightenment that break through as the teacher unravels easily and eloquently what, to everyone else, was a very tangled knot. It is an impressive event. Even those who are prejudiced against the teacher cannot avoid, if they are honest with themselves, being impressed . They may defend against it, as did the Sadducees here, but for the moment, even they must be quietly gob-smacked.
If you want to study Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, I refer you to the text of Luke 20: 27-40. But the word-for-word answer is not actually what I want to linger over right now. What is amazing to me is that when Jesus finishes his answer to the Sadducees’s question, the whole pack of them ‘do not dare’ to ask him any other questions. This is a major achievement on Jesus’ part. The verbal cut and thrust of debate was what the professional religious thrived on, and practised daily. They were good at it and knew it. But Jesus was better. He could not be wrong-footed by them. They are, unusually, reduced to silence.
Most encounters that Jesus has in the gospels can tell us something about prayer. Can this one? At first this seems unlikely, but further reflection has made me change my mind.
There are some questions I think I need to answer honestly first. One, I wonder how prepared I am to experience a mind like Jesus’? Do I expect to be surprised by the depth of his penetration into my difficulties? Or do I want to reduce his mind to a smaller size – do I want, with at least a little part of myself, to outwit him? Two, do I realise that I am not always mature? Jesus will expose my immaturity – am I willing to accept what he may show me in that area? Three, on the other hand, I may be sincerely stumped, sincerely at the end of my endurance because of what life has thrown at me. I may ask for enlightenment, and Jesus may seem silent. In the event recounted by Luke, the Sadducees receive their answer immediately. I am, seemingly, not always so fortunate. But, what this story teaches me is that Jesus’ answer is probably going deeper than I expected. I may be right out of my depth, and that is why it seems that he has not answered. In reality, the answer is there, but I need to become deeper myself, to ‘grow into’ Jesus’ answer.
I seek, through prayer, a real encounter with Jesus, Lord and God. Like the Sadducees, I too may reach points when I do not dare to ask Jesus any more questions because of the depth of Jesus’ response to me. The Sadducees went away, however, only to continue to plot and scheme against Jesus. What do I do after I finish my prayer?
Lent is a time of prayer, a real encounter with Jesus. I’ve been saving this post from Sister Johanna till the right moment, and the beginning of Lent is a time of silence, as Our Lord experienced in the desert. It’s been something of a desert time for us all of late; let us use Lent to learn the depths of our love for those we are missing.
Standing in a queue, I got talking to a Sister, and by the time we reached the canteen counter I had established that she belonged to the same Franciscan congregation as some other Sisters I had known, including Sister Anne. ‘But Anne is with Jesus’, she said.
I did not know she had died, but from when I worked with Anne, I’ve no doubt at all that she is with Jesus. Her Sister’s faith is not afraid to say so out loud, gently asserting the resurrection and the life, the communion of saints, yes, and the forgiveness of Anne’s sins, and of our own.