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?”.
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.
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.