Yours Are The Hands

It’s all over.

The light of the world has gone out. For all of us who loved him and lost him and stayed with him, we stand at the foot of the cross and all I want to do on Friday afternoon is scream into the wind about the unfairness of it all. The great temptation today is to think that, in the end, there was no point to any of it. To bury our grief. To pretend that he never existed. To shuffle our feet awkwardly and avoid conversation, but, when pressed at cocktail parties and around our relatives’ dinner tables, to agree that that bloke who was executed in the foothills of Jerusalem today probably was a bit of a nutter and then to change the subject in a hurry.

I am not one of them, said Peter.

And no doubt that would be the easier path to choose, the way of least resistance.

If he’s gone — and I can’t, in these dark hours that stretch from Friday into Saturday, I can’t believe that that’s not true. If he’s gone, then what good does it to anyone to keep banging on about him?

Except, it does. Somehow. It can.

My soundtrack for the last forty days and nights has been Christ Has No Body Now But Yours, the anthem by David Ogden, based on the words of St Teresa of Avila, who is the patron saint of, among other things, people in need of grace and people ridiculed for their piety. A saint who has been with us on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem these last few days.

One of the Evensongs early in Lent, the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral singing it in my ear. It surely wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it was the first time it had penetrated like that, and I sat, spellbound, as suddenly it wasn’t the choir singing it the words into my ear at all but God whispering them to a place deep in my soul.

They have remained there for the last six weeks: a motet, a whisper, a shibboleth, a howl into the vast unrelenting wilderness.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on Earth but yours.

There is no light today and nothing good in the world. Standing in the middle of a place that was holy and well beloved and now rings in its emptiness, I keep thinking of WH Auden, too. The stars are not wanted now, put out every one. But a new day will dawn, for it always does. The sun will rise again, and when it does we will need to decide who we are now. To decide if, after all, the measure of our experience was something meaningful.

If I can find inspiration anywhere in these three days, it’s in a belief in a God who came to change the world and did, and a belief in his people, in the body of Christ left on Earth, who will carry on changing it even now that the man we knew is dead and buried and gone.

Even if that is the end of the story.

The world is a cold and dark and inhospitable place.

In these days, just as much as it was then, it is a revolutionary act to be a people who say that we love everyone, and that we welcome everyone, and that we will care for everyone. In these days it is the talk of radicals to say that everyone should have enough to eat, that everyone should have access to healthcare and education and clean water, and that no one should go to bed at night afraid that bombs will fall on their house while they sleep. In these days, if you defend the rights of the oppressed, work to raise up the downtrodden, and speak out loud of peace and justice and inclusion and radical Christian hospitality, they call you a socialist and a liberal and a radical.

In our liturgy on Maundy Thursday, we are reminded, every year, that if the world hates us, it hated him first.

The God who I believe in was a socialist and a liberal and a radical.

And today, they crucify him for it.

But that doesn’t mean his truths are not truths worth telling.

From his cross, he leaves behind a legacy and he trusts to us a world that is broken and bleeding and crying out to be turned upside down.

I do not find God in the slamming closed of borders. I do not find God in a society that lets the poor become poorer and the hungry become hungrier. I do not find God in power and greed and violent retaliation. And I do not find Christ in the actions of Christians who wish harm to God’s people and claim that it is in His name. God is not in those things, but those actions are in His world, and here he is too. I’ve found Christ in amongst the lawyers gathered on the floor at JFK Airport through a long cold night working to bring people home. I’ve found Christ in the footsteps of people who have risen up in their thousands to protest the rise of brutal and fascist politics. I saw Christ on Westminster Bridge when emergency service and healthcare workers ran without hesitation towards danger because people needed help. I find Christ in the work of a church that welcomes everyone, that loves everyone, that cares for everyone, even as the world screams hate and anger to us for daring to.

Today, he is gone.

But here we still are.

And if this was the end, the truth of Good Friday is that it is up to us to make the promised truth of the Gospel a reality for the whole Earth.

Yours are the eyes with which he sees. Yours are the feet with which he walks. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. 

Advertisements

How The Light Gets In

Today, we will step onto a road that will lead, painfully and inevitably, to a hill just outside Jerusalem and to the witness of a political execution that we do not understand.

There is a busy week ahead. There are feet to be washed, and a mob coming, and a church to be made gleaming, and I am actually working all seven days of it, too, and if I were to look closely around the cathedral I’m sure I’d find that all manner of loveliness has been stashed away, in case, in a week’s time, just in case, we might wake up early and find that an impossible thing has happened.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 00.16.47

Photo: Gordon Smith

I can’t think about all of that too hard. This is a week where at least trying to take things one day at a time is the only way I can keep from going mad. One of the qualities that I least understand but most admire in my clergy friends is their ability to write an Easter sermon before the Easter Vigil.

I was told nine years ago that if I kept Holy Week and the Triduum at St Mary’s Cathedral, it would change my life and it would change the way I experienced my faith.

And I didn’t believe it.

Easter Day is Easter Day, a festival filled with joy and light and wonder, and, where I celebrate it, Prosecco. The events that led up to it were just something that happened — they happened two thousand years ago, and I knew the story and I understood generally what had gone on and I truly saw no reason to get mixed up in it any more than that. I knew what had happened, and my dwelling on it was hardly going to change that, or me, or the world.

But the following year I was around and I was a server by that time, anyway, and I thought I might as well see what this Holy Week business was all about.

“If you keep Holy Week and the Triduum in this place, it will change your life and it will change your faith,” he said, again.

Still, I didn’t believe him.

Imagine how taken aback I was four days later to taste the hot salt of tears streaming down my face as I sat on the cold tile by the Garden, as the foot traffic of a bank holiday weekend in the west end of Glasgow clattered by outside the walls and his friends all ran away and left him. And to taste them again in the empty echoing hollowness of a sanctuary that come Friday morning has been desecrated. The pain of realising that I hadn’t understood anything — and that I still don’t, not really.

The events of the next eight days are raw and real to me, every single time. The thing I didn’t understand, back then, was that the story of the events leading up to Easter Day were a story of the world we live in and of right here and right now. The thing I still don’t understand is how we keep ending up back here. That’s what I keep asking myself. That’s what I’ll spend long hours over this week thinking about: how the world keeps ending up here, and how we can make the world a better place.

And as for that thing about Easter Day and its joy and light and wonder?

It turns out I hadn’t understood that either.

That the ecstasy is nothing without the agony. That the Hallelujah Chorus is only notes on a page unless its set against the backdrop of the wail of the blues. That you can’t properly savour the Prosecco until it’s washing away the bitter taste of hyssop. And that the crack in everything is how the light gets in.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 00.22.16

Photo: Gordon Smith

That promise was true. It has continued to be true. It will be true again this week, and its truth will be in ways that I cannot possibly begin to know yet.

It did change the story, and it did change me, and, yes, if we let it, it can change the world too.

Love, Which Is Always Stronger Than Death

Of the many things I have learned over the last year, one that I consider the most important is that I can now say with authority that the pain of waking up on Easter Monday morning is every little bit as bad as the pain of waking up the day after running an actual marathon. 

The trade-off for both things is that they are worth every creak of every muscle that pulls in new and interesting ways.

In the middle of Holy Week, I had dinner with a friend who is not a Christian but who has been around for the last decade of me slipping further and further into Jerusalem and knows how that goes. She asked me what it is that we do in the Triduum, exactly, and, because she is a good and generous person, sat without interruption through what I am sure was a longer explanation than she had been counting on. The way I talk about this week in the Christian year and the length at which I talk about it is because even at the end of that explanation, I hadn’t done it justice — and the point is that you can’t, not by describing it, which clearly doesn’t mean I stop trying. And because there was a time, in the not too distant past, in a lifetime that included at least a couple of years when I was worshipping at my cathedral, when I was a Palm Sunday and Easter Day sort of Christian.

Not that I had failed to realise that there was a crucifixion, but that I just didn’t really see any need for me to dwell on that.

I mean, there was always going to be a resurrection. Right? It didn’t matter whether I sat through all the unpleasantness in the middle. Did it?

Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous.

In my own defence, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that without living the terrible reality of that crucifixion, the glory of the resurrection is no resurrection at all.

That there is more wonder in the lights rising during the singing of an Exsultet when I have sat by and wept as the light of the world went out.

That the moderately hysterical giggles around the reluctantly lighting Easter fire would be less joyful in a world where the Paschal candle never smashed to the ground.

The relief of the first communion after the pain of that last one.

That the voices crying Alleluia are more glorious when those same voices have wailed their lamentations.

That being asked, at half past six in the morning on Easter Day, to manufacture a confetti cannon is probably always funny, but funnier when it is part of misery and grief finally slipping away.

That the joy of the high holy razzmatazz of a church full of loveliness glitters less brightly in a place that was never seen to be stripped of all its loveliness. That the sound of a popping champagne cork and a clanging bell is less wonderful if you have never contemplated a dark, silent, empty place that you have loved and tried to remember what it was like before all the happiness went out of it.

And that the resurrection was never ever a sure thing.

Into this world, morning is breaking,
All of God’s people lift up your voice,
Sing out with joy, tell out the story,
All of the Earth rejoice.

My experience of the Triduum is a living Passion. A tragedy, and screams of grief that pierce the festivities of a Passover, the revelry of a Bank Holiday weekend, and the indifference of a world that seems as if it’s forgotten. A crucifixion that is real, as real for us today as it was for the people of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Late on Holy Saturday, I posted this video on my social media feeds. That’s how I feel on Holy Saturday. Is there going to be a resurrection? I have no idea. This is being posted two days after Easter Day because it feels too much like jinxing it to write anything about Easter in advance of it actually happening, because, well, what if it doesn’t? My experience of the Triduum is a resurrection that is an actual miracle, every time, and that kind of joy only comes from having first gone to the most appalling depths of grief. The darkness and the light. The joy and the sorrow. The sitting in a bare church where God is not, and the glory breaking from the tomb as the truth dawns that he whom we had loved and lost is with us now in every place and forever.

The reason I talk about it the way I do is because I was once promised that if I kept Holy Week and Easter the way I now do, it would change my life and it would change the way I lived my faith. It is six years ago since the first time I decided to test that promise, and it keeps being true. And therein lies that miracle.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 00.04.33

Photo: Stewart Macfarlane

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

The Place Where They Buried Him

Then he took down the body of Jesus, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.

*

We keep the body of Christ here on the high altar, day by day, through the year, marked by a burning candle. It was in darkness tonight. He wasn’t there.

And so we found that after everything that had happened today, there was something left for us to do.

We went back tonight, like Joseph of Arimathea went back. We were all tired, and sore, and grieving. We were still trying to make sense of what had happened in the last twenty four hours. But we weren’t quite done yet. Just like Joseph wasn’t quite done.

In my work, sometimes I am the person who is asked to go into a room where a person has recently died and to formally confirm that they are gone. I try to wake them up. I do the things that you do to confirm that this person is not here anymore; that this is just their body. And it is just their body, but I sit with them for a couple of minutes and I try to make sure that they’re comfortable. I understand the impulse that made Joseph come back.

In this church, we receive those who have died into the sanctuary on the night before their funerals. We bring them back to this place where they belong, and here they stay, safe with God. And on All Souls Day, when we remember all our dead, we name them and we bring their names to this place, to this altar, where they stay throughout the year, safe in this beloved place, safe with God. We understand the impulse that made Joseph come back.

It’s about wanting to do right by our loved ones who have died.

And that was what we did for Jesus.

We took the empty ciborium that used to hold the essence of everything that we believed him to be and took it to the High Altar, where we keep the names of our dead safe. We lit a candle, a flicker of light in the darkness of a cavernous empty building. We left him there, with them, safe in the sanctuary of the place where we have witnessed the reality of his passion and crucifixion.

We remember Christ who at this hour lies in his tomb, and with him we remember all those who have died. We remember particularly those who have died in violence, those who have died in pain, those who have died alone, those who have died and have no one else to name them, and all those who will die tonight.

Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord.

The Unknown

We believe that Christ died and that Christ rises and that Christ will come again.

Right?

I don’t, not today. I believe that he died — except, no, I don’t; I know that he died, because I sat there and I watched it. I sat at the foot of the cross with hundreds of people, all people who had loved him and who had come back to be with him at the end. It happened. The man who travelled and worked and ate with us is dead and buried. Today, I do not believe priest or prophet or any power in heaven or on Earth who tells me that they know what will happen tomorrow.

I keep hearing the unholy screams that you sometimes hear at the news of a sudden death. It is a sound that rips through you like a knife, and once heard it is never forgotten.

Our grief is very very real.

And I wonder: if Christ does not rise, will we still gather here?

After all, he’s dead and yet here we all still are cleaning up his church and setting things to rights. That means something.

He was the speaker of justice and truth and love, the Son of God, teacher and friend and redeemer, who in the end loved all of us so much that he died for us. If tomorrow there is no resurrection, will any of that stop being true? I don’t think it will. I think we might be here anyway, a people whose faith in who this man was and what he did for the world is strong enough to surpass even death.

In our religion the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation, but that wasn’t the measure of the experience. That was just the way it ended.

Confession

I am writing this on a piece of paper which I have found in my pocket. I am writing it so that after the end of all things, someone might realise what it was like to live this life and might understand what happened tonight and two thousand years ago and on all the nights to come. As I write, people are coming and going. Some of them I know well, some I have never seen before. They all look just as confused and frightened as I feel.

I still do not understand what happened tonight.

It was never supposed to be like this.

The sun was out today. There was spring in the air. It carried the smell of good food and the noise of young voices making joyful music. We were decked out in gold and glitter and tassels. The city is in holiday mood.

I was there when they destroyed the temple. It’ll be in tomorrow’s papers, no doubt, blamed on kids or yobs or perhaps even terrorists. As precious things were broken to pieces around about me, I heard footsteps coming from behind. I looked around — I thought there was a fire, or an accident, or perhaps the police coming. And as I looked, one of them flew down the centre, eyes wild, elbowing bystanders out of the way, up the steps, and leaping into the most holy of holies, destroying it. In that split second, I saw something that wasn’t for drama or for show but was someone hell-bent on destroying that which he had once loved most. I stopped what I was doing, frozen, with everything around chaos and darkness. I thought: “God, what have we done?” And as suddenly as I’d stopped, I went back into action. It had gone too far to take it back, and dashing through seats and around tables all I could do now was make sure there was no trace left of us. This is what fear tastes like.

As I left, I looked back. It is a dark and desolate place now. There is no love left there.

And now I find myself in this garden. I can see him, here with three of them. I’m hiding in the shadows. I’m not sure I’d be welcome. I want to throw myself down and beg forgiveness for the great evil I’ve helped to do, but I am frightened. I am frightened that he would turn me away and that he would be right to. I am not worthy to be forgiven; why would he forgive me?

Beyond the gates, I can hear traffic and music and people laughing. I want to shake them. My world has ended tonight. They do not care.

I call myself friend, but what sort of friend does this? I call myself an activist, but this time I am too afraid to speak out. I call myself a healer, but look at the destruction I have wrought. I call myself beloved, but what good has loving me done him?

Should you forget everything else I’ve told you, remember this and tell this to your children and your grandchildren: he was a good man who deserved better.

They were followed here by dozens of people. The people are beginning to leave; gathering their things and whispering to each other as they leave the perimeter. I should leave, too. I should take my stiff legs and my hungry belly and my tear-dirty face and my guilt that’s no good to anyone, and I should go home. I won’t, though. Because something is happening tonight, something that I don’t understand and that I’m scared by and that I can’t see ending well. I am too much of a coward to stop it, but I’ll stay here with my cold patch of floor and my thin blanket to at least see it through to the end.

Return To The Lord Your God

A number of years ago, I was asked by a friend from a different faith tradition to talk about Holy Week. He said that he knew what Easter was about and he understood why we made a big fuss over that, but that no one had ever told him what this week leading up to it was really about. He asked if I could explain.

I couldn’t.

Oh, I told him the names of the festivals — which he already knew. And probably I could have offered a historical account of the events of the week according to Mark, if I had been moved to do so. And while stumbling over my own incompetence I may have slipped in a, “… and then on Holy Saturday we clean everything.” 

We ended dinner with him more baffled than he had been and wishing he hadn’t asked, and the reputation of informed intelligent Christians in tatters on the plates before us.

You must understand that I used to avoid Holy Week. I knew the story of the Passion, but I didn’t live it; and I had a theoretical knowledge of what each of the services was supposed to be re-enacting, but I didn’t really get what it was about. I slipped into a back pew for the big festival service on Easter Day, when the flowers were in bloom and the place had been polished to within an inch of its life and, so I was told, a miracle had happened. I hadn’t been a guest at that very particular Eucharist. I had never witnessed the tearing apart of the temple, or been the friend who fled when they came out to arrest him, or wept at the foot of his cross. I had never crept out of my house in the dark and stillness of a Sunday morning to visit a tomb, not knowing whether there had been a resurrection.

I had not yet taken seriously the promise that had been made to me that if I kept Holy Week in the place where I now keep it, that it would change my life and change my faith.

And so I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what it was like to have incense in my nose and cold tile against my face and adrenaline in the back of my throat, and to lie there silent and terrified and furious.

Or about the love and the joy and the betrayal and the fear and the anger, and that I would experience all of those things in a few short hours.

Or why Judas betrayed him, or why Peter denied him, or why Thomas doubted him. I didn’t know why he didn’t just run when he had the chance. I didn’t know that they were all just as human as I am.

I didn’t understand why it was important.

That it might be about something that happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but it’s about things that have happened in Germany and Rwanda and Bosnia and the Sudan. It’s about what happens in Jerusalem today and in Syria and the Ukraine and in Glasgow too.

I didn’t know that it’s about being willing to live it.

I didn’t know that it’s about being broken up into a thousand pieces and hanging onto the faith that tells us that in the dark and stillness of a Sunday dawn, we will be put back together.

And I didn’t know that I would never ever be the same.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness;
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

One More Miracle

Now, there’s one more thing, just one thing, one more miracle, for me.

Don’t. Be. Dead.

That.

That is what we prayed for in those terrible dark hours on Friday, and what we asked for in the strange emptiness of Saturday. In our grief and our heartbreak, we’ve been looking for that miracle. We watched as He died. We saw His broken body. But in the first light of Sunday, we go out to the place where the dead are buried and we hope that He might not be among them.

I asked you to stop being dead.

Stir up in us, O Lord, courage that we might live, compassion that we might love, strength that we might mourn, audacity that we might dare to believe, and joy in the glory of resurrection.

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia.

On This Night

I will walk in the wind
to meet you, Jesus;
to let you wash my feet.
I don’t want to.
I would rather stay here in the warm,
away from your towels and your water
and offers of forgiveness.
For I know what you mean,
what you ask,
what you give.

But I will come,
for I cannot stay here alone,
and I cannot run elsewhere,
for I know that you are waiting,
welcoming,
and I know that only you
can heal me and hold me.

So I will come
with empty hands to your supper,
empty hands and dirty feet.
I will come as your guest
and with water, bread, and wine
you will make me whole
and set me free to serve you.

Ruth Burgess, taken from Eggs and Ashes.