First Light

In this poem and reflection, Rev’d Vicky Barrett considers the paradox of the women’s silence after visiting the tomb and meeting Jesus, and the experience of reading in Mark’s Gospel, two thousand years later, of a resurrection which refuses to be silenced.

 

First Light

(a poem based on Mark 16:1-8)

 

They must do what they can
now the Sabbath is over.
Back to work.
Their oils are sharp and pungent,
Stripping dawn’s thin grey curtain.
Their steps, directed, urgent,
to soothe the scarred body,
move the lovely limbs
lying wound up and wounded
in the dank dark of a borrowed grave.

 

How? How? the doves cry,
an echo of their anxious words,
the weight of the stone
wedged between them and their love.
Pounding hearts:
as the oils glow like slow amber pools,
spices tease their nostrils.
Tick, tick. Birds shrill the alarm.

 

Breath snags on a barb.
Surprise? Confusion? Hope? Jealousy?
Has someone come ahead of them
to offer the rituals which are theirs?
Has someone stolen the precious freight
from this stony barque?

 

Who is this man in white?
What is his news?
Not here.
Their eyes trace the outline of the tomb.
Not here.
Not there, where they laid him,
Escaped, unbound, fetterless.

 

The sun rinses the mouth of the tomb,
A widening ‘O’ of light.
The spices fall to the ground.
Oil finds a new course.
The earth gleams and is fragrant.

 

They turn and feet flutter a fleeting path
like sparrows’ feathers.
Breath unravels in rags,
muscles shriek with exertion.
The burden of their news
lurches and sways and batters them
mad-eyed with joyous fear.
Teeth chatter riddling messages.
But who would believe these harpies
who say they have seen an angel?

 

Better to roll the stone back again,
be safe, familiar, silent.
Let the men
wrap the words like oilcloth round the carpenter’s tools,
stitch up the fishing nets
and not
dare to believe
in the terrifying mystery
who comes in majesty
to greet them.

 

Vicky Barrett Easter 2018

 

Reflection

 

Mark’s Gospel is full of silences, no more so than that of Chapter 16, verse 8:

 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

How is it then, that out of the women’s paralysis of terror and amazement, we find ourselves responding to the good news of the risen Christ today?

 

We may find ourselves silent, paralysed also by terror, amazement; scepticism or apathy too, perhaps. But the wonderful good news is that Jesus has done this thing anyway; that’s how much he loves us. Our Creator God is able to bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world in spite of us. As Luke puts it when the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to be quiet, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

Mark’s Gospel account gives us the encouragement to explore our response, to fill in the narrative gaps and colour them in, to play in the shadows of this amazing message.

 

I found myself doing this as I prepared for Easter morning and ended up writing a poem.

 

How can you find your way of expressing a response to this Easter story?

 

empty tomb

The Two Trees

The Rev’d. Dr. Joanna Collicutt reflects on the stark visual juxtaposition of Christ crucified next to the hanging Judas, depicted in the Fifth Century Maskell Ivory. 

 

 

On 7th February I was part of a panel invited to reflect on an image from the Imagining the Divine exhibition currently taking place at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition contains artefacts from what it refers to as the ‘Five great world religions plus paganism’ (a contentious notion in itself, but not the subject of this blog piece).

 

Maskell Ivory

The Maskell Ivory (c.420-30 CE), probably originating in Rome.

Ivory, Height 7.5 cm, British Museum.

 

I chose this tiny and exquisitely carved panel that was originally part of a box whose sides depict incidents from the life of Christ. This has a claim to be the earliest surviving depiction of the crucifixion and is therefore hugely significant in the history of Christian art. In fact there are very few surviving depictions of the crucifixion from the first millennium at all, and we should ask ourselves why this is. For an intriguing account take a look at Rita Nakashima Brock, and Rebecca Ann Parker’s 2008 book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.

 

Perhaps the first thing one notices is that this is not the crucified Christ with whom we are so familiar from mediaeval art – an agonised, contorted, dying or – more usually – already dead victim full of pathos. Instead we are faced with a victorious Christ, very much alive, even perhaps smiling, standing erect with eyes and arms wide open as if to welcome all comers, ready to fly off the cross.

 

There is lots here that is reminiscent of John’s account of the death of Christ; the emphasis on glory, the presence of the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, and the Roman Soldier (known in later tradition as Longinus) who inserts a spear into Jesus’ side. Yet, like a Gospel harmony, we also find Judas’ suicide as told by Matthew, complete with the thirty silver pieces, and the completely charming detail of the birds of the air nesting in the branches of the tree from which he hangs, surely alluding to the story of the mustard seed from Mark and Matthew.

 

This would have been an image used for personal devotion and, like the texts and traditions that inspired it, it is not simply telling a story; it makes demands on the viewer. These are intensified, literally thrown into relief, by the three dimensional nature of this artefact that dissolves the threshold between the world of the viewer and the scene depicted. The figures move out towards towards the viewer, who in turn is drawn towards them.

 

And what does she find?  The juxtaposition of the death of Judas and the death of Jesus is highly unusual in Christian art and it should tell us something. It reminded me of the opening verses of that early Christian text, the Didache: ‘There are two ways: one of life and one of death.’ The cross is the tree of life in which all may come and find a place, but it is the tree of death for those who, like Judas, don’t ‘get’ Jesus. Judas is dead, defeated, flaccid, and crucially alone. Jesus is alive, victorious, erect, and crucially surrounded by his loved ones (Jews) and one who in the tradition becomes a faithful witness to his death (a gentile).

 

The viewer is faced with the fact that the cross presents a moral and existential demand to make a life and death choice, a repeated choice that must be made daily.

 

Personally, I find yet more in this image. I find a visual way of making sense and making real that very difficult but important verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. There is something here about God’s transformation of guilt, shame, and death in Christ that is communicated better visually than in words.

 

But there is also hope. Is Christ reaching out to that tragic figure on the tree? Is this the moment that the gibbet is brought to life? Is Jesus’ touch transforming even this, the loneliest and most desperate of places?

 

God of Restoration and Repair

Rev’d. Caitlin Carmichael-Davis reflects on the resurrection life in Christ through the poetry of Philip Larkin, the scripture of Isaiah, the prose of Marilynne Robinson, and the paintings of Stanley Spencer. 

 

I was once told that you don’t get back what you lose. Lost is lost. Your childhood, your children’s childhood, those who have died, those long summer days of happy completeness before the photographs become pain.  Life is a process of learning how to lose, as life shrinks and reduces and more and more is lost and disappears.

 

Truly, though our element is time,

We are not suited to the long perspectives

Open at each instant of our lives.

They link us to our losses: worse,

They show us what we have as it once was,

Blindingly undiminished, just as though

By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Phillip Larkin, Reference Back

 

If this is the lesson life teaches us, it seems unlikely that the afterlife will be about getting things back. Lost is lost. Our resurrection, our heaven, will be something new.

 

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?.

Isaiah 43.19

 

Yes, I thought, that seems true. Christianity cannot be about making those holiday photographs complete again, those Christmas tables whole. If being ordained has taught me anything it is this — sorrow is weaved into the very fabric of our lives. Under the cheerful ordinariness of Sunday morning coffee, grief lurks unspoken. That wish could easily become the whole of one’s religion. Some sort of destructive spiritualism, a religion of the dead.

 

So I lived for many years with a sketchy, figurative, amorphous vision of the afterlife, a non-interventionist God, an ephemeral Jesus. Christianity was difficult to grasp, I said. Part of its very strength is its shifting oddness.

 

And then I read this:

 

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him — a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like. He is known to have walked upon water, but He was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad — such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

 

There is an oddness, of course, to all these stories. Those distant words “Talitha koum!”, the Jesus who passes through walls and disappears at will. And yet, distracted by strangeness, I’d missed the consistency and the domesticity. While Jesus was on Earth he mended families, resurrected he returned to eat supper with his friends.

 

Memory is part of resurrection — part of a God who is greatly moved, greatly troubled, groaning inside at our grief for those we have lost. Restoration of our relationships is part of resurrection — Thomas’s doubts and Peter’s denials healed by the energy of God’s love. In so many of the stories, incomplete tables are made whole —Jesus returns to eat, to fill the space and the loss and the memory he had left.

 

And if the raising of the widow’s son, the centurion’s daughter, Martha’s brother describes Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus’s resurrection describes our own, then this will be a resurrection of domesticity and relationship. These are stories which endow the small importance of our homes, lives and memories with all the power and wonder and oddness of this God of undefeatable life. Judaism had always understood the power of memory to create reality, that memory and loss have a creative as well as a destructive power. In these stories that intimation reaches its fulfilment. For out of memory and death God brings into being wholeness and life.

 

spencer - reunion

Stanley Spencer, Reunion of Families

This is what Stanley Spencer showed in his Resurrection paintings. There is a physicality of joy and hope and reunion, Jairus’s daughter become real for all creation. The promise of that distant, chaotic, heat filled day is heard in the familiar greenness of the Oxfordshire countryside, “Talitha koum!”. The beautiful strangeness and physical domesticity of resurrection suddenly visible.

 

As I stand, hand resting on a coffin, commending the departed to God, I believe “That memory will fulfill itself, that the missing, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long”. That our God is a God of restoration and repair. That the lost will be found.

 

 

The Gypsy Nun

A translation of Federico García Lorca’s ‘La Monja Gitana’ and reflection by Lyndon Webb

La Monja Gitana

Silencio de cal y mirto.
Malvas en las hierbas finas.
La monja borda alhelíes
sobre una tela pajiza.
Vuelan en la araña gris,
siete pájaros del prisma.
La iglesia gruñe a lo lejos
como un oso panza arriba.
¡Qué bien borda! ¡Con qué gracia!
Sobre la tela pajiza,
ella quisiera bordar
flores de su fantasía.
¡Qué girasol! ¡Qué magnolia
de lentejuelas y cintas!
¡Qué azafranes y qué lunas,
en el mantel de la misa!
Cinco toronjas se endulzan
en la cercana cocina.
Las cinco llagas de Cristo
cortadas en Almería.
Por los ojos de la monja
galopan dos caballistas.
Un rumor último y sordo
le despega la camisa,
y al mirar nubes y montes
en las yertas lejanías,
se quiebra su corazón
de azúcar y yerbaluisa.
¡Oh!, qué llanura empinada
con veinte soles arriba.
¡Qué ríos puestos de pie
vislumbra su fantasía!
Pero sigue con sus flores,
mientras que de pie, en la brisa,
la luz juega el ajedrez
alto de la celosía.

The Gypsy Nun

Silence of lime-wash and myrtle.
Mallows among the culinary herbs.
The nun embroiders wallflowers
on cloth the colour of straw.
Within the grey spider soar
seven birds of the prism.
The church groans in the distance
like a bear, paunch to the sky.
How well she sews! Such grace!
Across the straw-coloured web,
she longs to embroider
the flowers from her dreams.
O sunflower! O magnolia
of sequins and ribbons!
O crocuses and moons,
for the altar cloth!
Five grapefruits are ripening
in the nearby kitchen.
The five wounds of Christ
cut in Almería.
Before the nun’s eyes
two horsemen gallop by.
A soft and final whisper
slips off her blouse,
and seeing clouds and mountains
in the rigid distance,
it breaks her heart
of sugar and lemon verbena.
Oh! the soaring plains
with twenty suns overhead.
What rivers begin to run
in her dreams!
But she continues with her flowers,
whilst standing overhead, in the breeze,
the light plays the high
chess of the trellis.

Federico García Lorca, 1928
from the ‘Romancero Gitano’ (Gypsy Ballads)

 

Training for ordination during LBGT history month and the current political climate, Lorca’s voice speaks with a particular freshness, and an unsettling urgency. His nun is unaware of the nationalism which will sweep over Spain in the coming decade, drawing the country as tightly behind the Pyrenees as she is drawn behind the lime-washed walls of the monastery. Already she feels the repression of her gypsy heritage, a common mallow among the ‘fines herbes’ of the other nuns. That repression will tighten and tighten under Franco, whose regime will murder Lorca in less than ten years for being too colourful himself. He was executed in 1936 at the ‘Great Spring’ for ‘homosexual and abnormal practices’.

 

As he stood in that final place, I wonder whether Lorca thought of the rivers which sprung up at his gypsy nun’s feet as she too dreamt of a more colourful world; I wonder whether some church stood idle nearby, paunch to the sky; I wonder whether he thought of the outrageous cerise of grapefruits, and the wounds of Christ, another man too colourful for his climate. I hope the church of the day had not whitewashed Christ into one more oppressive figure at that moment; I hope in the crucified and risen one, Lorca saw a friend for the seven bright birds of his indecent imagination, which dared to remind Spain about the earth and sex and the strength of women – who invariably take centre stage in his works, alongside men of the fields and the road, in protest against the fragile masculinities of Francoist Spain.

 

I look forward to being sent out of this place, in the name of the indecent Christ, Son of the Creator who dared to embroider the flowers of Her dreams across the straw-coloured earth; I can’t wait to call out the colours in other people’s lives.

 

gypsy