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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo: Stewart Macfarlane

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

Something’s Coming

Pipes! Drums! The King of Glory! Pipes!

I was as giddy as a schoolgirl during the Palm Sunday procession this morning. The congregation had been promised something special. It was to be not donkey nor unicorn nor panda, not fireworks nor explosions nor the borrowing of the great thurible from Santiago de Compostella (I confess to being somewhat disappointed at the latter), but instead the wonderful wonderful lads from Clanadonia piping and drumming the holy rabble in procession.

This video of the procession was taken by the Provost. I am the one right behind the pipers, going, “AMAZING! AMAZING! THIS IS JUST LIKE MAGIC!”

 

For the fact of Holy Week is not long-ago legend or glorious myth, but living history and living our story.

As the Lord rode into Jerusalem on his donkey two thousand years ago so did he today enter in glory into all places in all corners of the earth, and in this place, in our city, how else would a holy rabble in Glasgow greet their Messiah but with our music and our joy?

The same rabble that on Thursday…

But no.

We aren’t there yet.

The thing about this week is that one doesn’t ever know quite what will happen. Just like the disciples, we aren’t sure what’s coming. There will be joy, of course, and feasting, oh, yes, for Passover is coming, and then, well, something big, people are uneasy and there are rumblings, but, really, anything might happen. For who is that man and what has he come here to do? A promise is made at St Mary’s Cathedral every year to those who keep the Triduum with us, those who live the experiences of Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday. A promise is made that if you do that, you will never be the same again. I was told that the first year I kept it and truer words have never been spoken.

This is our story. This is our song.

Hosanna to the Son of David.

And now something’s coming.

And whatever that something is, we will never be the same again.