Sunday, 27 May 2012

Whitsun: reconciliation and love

On Friday, the two bishops and I were in Coventry Cathedral where we were once all canons residentiary.  We went for the celebration of the Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee. When I went there as Precentor in May 1987, my first big service was the Silver Jubilee.  So it was good to be back to mark the first 50 years of this great 20th century church building.  

When the Cathedral was built in 1962, thousands queued to get in and see it.  I was among them: my parents thought we should make the journey.  For me as a boy, driving up the newly opened M1 was the real excitement of the day.  Yet I vividly remember going into the Cathedral, taking in its light-filled space, gazing at Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory and at John Piper’s kaleidoscopic baptistery window, and seeing my reflection staring up at me in the jet-black polished marble floor. I recall that I sat in the centre of the nave on my own while the crowds swirled round the periphery. I felt as though I had the Cathedral to myself.  Ever since, I’ve reckoned that large naves are the best places to sit, ponder and pray in.

Coventry is one cathedral in two buildings.  The shell of the old cathedral bombed in 1940 is as eloquent as any ruins in England.  It speaks poignantly of ‘war and the pity of war’, Wilfred Owen’s words quoted by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, commissioned for the Cathedral and first performed there 50 years ago this week.  But the ruins don’t only speak of sacrifice and death.  They speak powerfully of life.  At open-air eucharists in the early morning on Easter Day and Whit Sunday, it was as if the skeleton of that beautiful 15th century church reached for the sky, a striking metaphor of resurrection as if we were in some great empty tomb.  It reminded me of Ezekiel’s dry bones: arid, dead, lifeless things which the Spirit brings back to life again. 

The focus of Coventry’s ministry ever since the war has been reconciliation.  Beginning with the rebuilding of friendship with Germany, this work has spread to many places of conflict across the world.  On Friday the Archbishop of Canterbury preached about it. He began with John Cosin’s hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ which children from a local school had danced to while it was sung.  Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.  Reconciliation, he said, always involves seeing the other person or community in a new way. The Cathedral building helps us do this. You walk up the nave towards the image of Christ on the tapestry. Then you turn round and see the array of colour in the aisle windows that were concealed from you as you walked towards the high altar. At the west end you are aware of the Hutton glass screen with its angels and saints.  Beyond that you see the ruins, symbol of the wreckage and pain of humanity. This, he said, is how Christ on the tapestry sees the world: not as a lost and hopeless place but transfigured by God’s mercy symbolised in the coloured windows and the angels and saints on the screen. He drew attention to the diminutive figure of the human being held between Christ’s feet. From that safe place, held by Christ’s love, that figure is also looking out on the ruins, seeing it as Jesus sees it. This is you and me. If we see the world like this, reconciliation happens.

One of the meanings of Pentecost is that it promises the transformation of the whole of life, even in its darkest, most broken passages. The face of Christ has a gaze that seems to know you in a profound way, draw you upwards, put to you God’s questions, speak compellingly about grace and truth. Above him a shaft of light streams down on his head as if he were being baptised by a glow that pours over him from a window in the sky.  And right at the top is the origin of that light: a dove.  She is descending on that sunbeam towards Christ and towards us: the Holy Spirit of Christ the risen Head who animates the body of his church, the community of the baptised, the faithful of every age and the faithful of today. Us. 

The tapestry gives us an image of our reading from St John. There, the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit happen on the same Easter Day.  For John, the Spirit is the clue to Jesus’s public ministry.  At his baptism, John the Baptist quotes Jesus: ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’  In the temple he invites all who thirst to ‘come to me and drink… Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ and John adds that he says this of the Spirit which believers would receive.  And at the end of gospel, the risen Christ announces peace to his disciples and confers on them the gift of the new creation: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.  But we must not miss what comes next.  ‘If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’  He is saying that the Spirit comes into the world to do work, God’s work.  We heard last week in St Luke how Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…’  For what?  ‘To bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.’  It is his calling and ours: the Spirit anoints the church so that we can continue God’s work of re-making the world, bringing justice, reconciliation and hope to all humanity. This is part of what John means by his language of forgiving and retaining sins: making real in human lives the grace and truth of Jesus and putting to the world the inescapable demand and invitation that the truth presents us with.  ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

Let me go back to Coventry. I have a memory I cherish. In 1990 the city marked the 50th anniversary of the Luftwaffe air-raids codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’ when incendiaries rained down on the city and burned its heart out, destroying the cathedral with it. One day an elderly man came into the ruins, and walked slowly up the length of the nave to the stone altar in the apse, tentative as though he was not sure if he should be there.  He stood for a long time gazing at the charred cross and at the inscription on the wall behind it, ‘Father, forgive’.  And then he began to sob: not in a self-dramatizing way, but with the honesty of a child who has been confronted with some personal truth that is too overwhelming for words. The Provost embraced him and they held on to each other for some considerable time.  That man had been a Luftwaffe pilot on that terrible bombing raid of 14 November.  In 50 years he had never been able to bring himself to visit the city.  But now he wanted to come before he died, and face the truth of what he and his comrades had done so many years before, the truth of ‘war and the pity of war’.  It felt like a moment of life-changing forgiveness and reconciliation. 

On Whit Sunday, white with the brilliance of God’s light and love, we should ask ourselves if we are genuinely Pentecostal Christians.  Not that we speak with tongues, or prophesy, or understand mysteries, or give away all that we own or even have faith to move mountains. St Paul tells us that there is one first-fruit of the Spirit’s harvest that we must covet above all others. Caritas is that fruit. Love is the only thing that matters: love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love that never ends.  It is love makes us Pentecostal as we are illuminated by the Spirit, brought back to life by the Spirit, as we join in God’s mission to bring reconciliation to his world. The dove descending on that sunbeam on the tapestry reminds me why I am here: to learn how to see in a new way, and then to act on what I see. And then I know that in the power of God’s risen Son and his life-giving Spirit, anything is possible. 

Durham, Whit Sunday 2012
(Ezekiel 36.22-28; John 20.19-23)

My book on Graham Sutherland's tapestry: A Picture of Faith: a meditation on the imagery of Christ in Glory (Kevin Mayhew, 1995)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine'

‘Concerning Judas…’ says our reading.  The lectionary spares our feelings.  We heard in the Acts about the vacancy among the apostles to fill the gap left by Judas Iscariot, but the verses describing his death were cut out.  You do not want too much detail on a Sunday morning: this is family viewing and it is not a nice story. 

I want to say something about Judas, this man whom the gospel turns its face against.  In St John, ‘Judas went out; and it was night’. That says it all. He is the dark face of apostleship, the shadow over that happy band of pilgrims. He deserves his place in his icy pit at the centre of Dante’s hell with the other two arch-traducers of antiquity, Brutus and Cassius where he keeps company with Satan himself.  One of the excised verses in our Acts reading quotes the psalm that elaborates on the fate of those who betray their friends.  ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’. That is not the worst of the catalogue of disasters the psalm brings down on the reprobate.  In Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, there is a memorable scene following Henchard’s downfall.  He goes into a tavern where the choir has gathered after church (an honourable custom still observed here at Durham). Out of the window he sees his arch-rival Donald Farfrae.  He orders the singers to perform the metrical version of Psalm 109 to curse his enemy.  The bandmaster is horrified. ‘Twasn’t made for singing. Whatever Servant David were thinking about when he made a Psalm that nobody can sing without disgracing himself, I can’t fathom.’

Who was this figure whom the tradition makes the object of the psalm’s fierce curse?  One of the puzzles in biblical scholarship is why Judas should have handed Jesus over to his persecutors. The modest price of 30 pieces of silver doesn’t seem to explain it. For when he had succeeded in having Jesus arrested, he did not hold on to his gains but threw them down in a burst of self-recrimination.  So what did he want to achieve by this elaborately hatched plot with its night-time encounter in the garden and a treacherous kiss?  For twenty centuries writers have speculated.  An early gnostic codex in Coptic, The Gospel of Judas portrays him as Jesus’s closest friend and ally. He secretly asks Judas to betray him so that through his death, his spirit can be released and the world be saved.  So Judas, far from being the traitor, is the willing midwife of salvation, an idea taken up in a great novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, later made into a less great film by Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ. More credible is the idea that Judas was indeed a fervent follower and friend, perhaps a zealot who believed that Jesus had become diverted from his true vocation which was to free Judea from the Romans by leading a violent uprising. His arrest would drive Jesus to orchestrate an insurrection, or else his death would force God’s hand into a spectacular intervention that would herald the kingdom of the saints. Or perhaps he was simply a disappointed man, disillusioned at the apparent failure of Jesus’ mission.  In Jesus Christ Superstar he is the real hero of the musical who concludes that sadly, Jesus is after all ‘just a man’.  Judas doesn’t want Jesus to risk attracting Roman persecution that will result in a Jewish massacre. Or he comes to think that he is a false messiah.  So he hands him over, as he believes he must.

What do we do with this enigmatic figure who has come to symbolise all that is ambivalent, treacherous or just plain bad? Well, for one thing, we should remind ourselves that whoever we are and whatever we do, human motive is a complex thing, hard to be sure about even in ourselves let alone in other people. Why on earth did I do that?  What got into me? It would take a lifetime of analysis to uncover and understand the ambivalences deep within us. One of Shakespeare’s most opaque villains, Iago, finds that his burning jealousy of Othello leads him into acts of betrayal that even he himself does not understand, let alone his victim. ‘Why hath he thus ensnared my soul and body?’ asks the wounded Othello. ‘O my people, what have I done to you?’

Our story in Acts tells of how the ‘bad’ Judas is replaced by the ‘good’ Matthias. After the ascension, all seems set fair for a new paradise-era when the Spirit of truth is given.  Yet Luke’s does not paint the first generation of Christians as untainted by human deceit: think of the story of how Ananias and Sapphira played false to the faith hard on the heels of Pentecost.  In the earliest New Testament documents, Paul’s first letters, we see the shadow that lies across the primitive Christian communities like a cancer dispersing secondaries into every member of the Body of Christ.  Dissent, division, pride, greed, the lust for power, ‘envy, malice and all uncharitableness’, the things we pray to be delivered from in the Litany – these are among the ways in which the church has continued to betray Christ through its entire history.  They come from the very heart of Jesus’ own society of followers and friends. And they are still among us to this day.   

One aspect of this malevolent capacity for evil that has dominated the 20th century and still casts a long shadow over the 21st goes back to Judas’ name, ‘the Jew’. An early, ugly, reading of the gospels identified Judas as the chief culprit of Jesus’s crucifixion. So history has demonised him and often the people whose name he carried, ‘the Jews’ who cried to have Jesus put to death.  Anti-semitism originates in the blame ascribed to Judas who took money to betray the Son of God. ‘Blood-guilt’ has coloured some Christian readings of the gospel; some scholars even find it in the New Testament itself. Once established, it spawns a thousand other evils: the Nazi holocaust is only one of them.  However compromised Judas was personally or politically, he was flesh and blood like us, as capable of good and bad like us, in need of forgiveness and redemption like us. As Paul says, there is no distinction: ‘all have sinned’. 

If we put ourselves inside Judas’ skin for a while, we may emerge with new insights about ourselves. Our betrayals of Christ are a way of talking about our sins: ‘our great refusals’ Dante calls them.  What evil might we be capable of if time and circumstance were different?  If we had lived as respectable German citizens in the Nazi era, what might we have found ourselves colluding with?  Yet however bad or mixed our motives may be, providence can do redemptive things with them.  ‘You meant it for evil but the Lord meant it for good’ says Joseph to his brothers after that story of betrayal and capture leads tortuously to its marvellous outcome of forgiveness and reconciliation.  O felix culpa!  Where life was lost, there life has been restored.  At the end of The Tempest Prospero has a marvellous line as he renounces his magic arts.  He turns to his rebellious, misshapen slave Caliban who had tried to displace him, and says: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’.

This is what we need to do with the lost, dark side of ourselves that is capable of doing harm; and with the lost, dark side of the church, and with the lost, dark side of humanity. We need to acknowledge it, embrace it rather than banish it, as the father did his errant prodigal son, and Joseph his wayward brothers.  For this is how the risen and ascended Jesus always is.  He embraces us and acknowledges these things of darkness as his, whoever we are and whatever shame we carry.  He pleads the glorious wounds in his hands and side for the lost souls of humanity.  God has infinite time to complete his wise and loving project for creation.  And he gives us these pledges of love in the eucharist to persuade us that it is true.   

Durham, Sunday of the Ascension, 20 May 2012
(Acts 1.15-17, 21-26)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The St Cuthbert Gospel Book

Before I begin, I want on behalf of all of us to congratulate the British Library on a spectacularly successful fundraising campaign to save the Cuthbert Gospel for the nation.  This quintessentially Anglo-Saxon book belongs in England.  And we in the north owe a particular debt of gratitude to all who have helped bring the ‘little book of St Cuthbert’ to this point in its history.


I have been asked to speak about the significance of this wonderful book.  I want to do this at two levels.  First, there is its cultural significance for the part of England I come from, the north-east, and specifically, Durham.  Secondly, there is its spiritual significance as an icon in its own right, which I believe transcends the region or even the nation of its provenance.

If you ask the people of the north-east what historic book they most associate with their region, they will almost all reply, the Lindisfarne Gospel Book.  They may go on to remind you that the Gospel was written ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’ which unambiguously marks it as an emblem of the north.  When the campaign to save the Cuthbert Gospel for the nation was launched in 2011, some in the north were confused, thinking that the book in question was Lindisfarne.  We realised that we would need to raise awareness about the Cuthbert Gospel if we were to achieve a successful fundraising result. In the past year in the north-east, there has been a lot of interest in this little-known volume that was lovingly interred with St Cuthbert in his coffin and after 1104 became a cherished treasure of Durham Cathedral Priory. That the book apparently originated in the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow has served to strengthen that sense of connection.  The willingness of the British Library to exhibit the book in Durham for a 6 monthly period every two years has been warmly welcomed across the region. 

When the body of Cuthbert arrived on the peninsula of Dun Holme in 995, Durham inherited a saint who was already a distant memory.  That memory was coloured by a long history after his death that was as extraordinary as his career while he was still alive.  Most saints are left alone in their resting places when they die as no doubt Cuthbert was intended to and indeed wished: Bede tells us that he hoped to rest in peace on the Inner Farne but he suspected he would not be allowed to.  And chance, circumstance, providence, call it what you will, did indeed decree otherwise. Cuthbert travelled further when dead than he did in his lifetime.  Three centuries after his death he reached his final resting place at Durham.  So by the time he arrived there, a vast quantity of collective memory, reverential myth, legend and folk tale had coalesced around the three primary sources for his life, the anonymous Life of about 700, and the two Lives by Bede, one in prose and one in poetry.  And once installed in Durham, in a context so different from his origins, his presence came to acquire yet more layers of meaning that are both intriguing in themselves, and paradoxical for the way they represent a rather different vision from the one he himself had embraced. The Cuthbert of history stands in some tension with the Cuthbert of faith.  I shall come back to this point later. 

As we know, the book travelled with him when his community left Lindisfarne for fear of the Vikings.  The places where the saint’s body and his book rested on its long journey became indelibly associated with his memory.  Already, the community had acquired estates across the north of England through the donations of kings and noblemen.  The churches built on these sites were obvious safe stopping points on the pilgrimage, and the recollection that Cuthbert had lain in these places often provided the impetus to found small monastic cells there and enlarge their churches.  Norham on the Tweed, Bedlington in Northumberland, and Crayke in North Yorkshire are among many places that were part of what came to be known as the Patrimony of St Cuthbert.  Wherever you find a pre-Conquest church dedicated to St Cuthbert, you can usually assume a link to the Patrimony and often to this period of wandering.  Even today, the memory of this defining époque is perpetuated in the fact that most of these parish churches dedicated to Cuthbert remain within the patronage of Durham Cathedral, the lineal successor to the ancient community of Lindisfarne. 

The memory of how Cuthbert’s body had travelled around and rested at these stopping-places created a strong sense of what we might call ‘sacred geography’ in the north of England.  It reinforced the notion of ‘Northumbria’ as not simply a political entity but a ‘kingdom of the mind’ with a cultural, emotional and spiritual dimension.  This built on the connections already established in his lifetime between Cuthbert and the northern part of Northumbria, the kingdom of Bernicia. By the time of the Norman Conquest, the inhabitants of the far north were known as haliwerfolk, the people of the saint. Here, the memory of Cuthbert provided a kind of ‘glue’ that 1300 years later is perhaps still able to affirm something like a common history and set of values that coalesce around the saint of Lindisfarne.  So the significance of the Cuthbert Gospel for the north is inseparable from the significance of the saint himself.

If we pursue this story into the era of Durham Cathedral Priory, we encounter the paradox I have mentioned.  Durham Cathedral is not a cathedral with a shrine inside it.  It is a shrine with a cathedral built around it.  That the Normans should have adopted the Cuthbert cult and built their great Romanesque cathedral in honour of the Saxon saint is worth pondering.  Is this pietas or Realpolitik?  For his career was profoundly counter-cultural to all that the Norman Conquest stood for and we know how much trouble the Saxons gave King William, for which he cruelly harried the north.  As for Cuthbert, he would have been much troubled at the thought that his body would be imprisoned beneath the heavy stone vaults of a place so compromised by the principalities and powers of this world.  His holiness and simplicity were fundamentally at odds with the sophisticated complexities of Anglo-Norman life, with the Priory’s accumulation of wealth, status and power, and with the violent history of conquest and harrying with which it was associated. The sense of permanence that the Cathedral evokes, its confidence that it will last for ever, exude a spirit very different from the lowly wooden churches and monasteries that Cuthbert and his peers inhabited. 

As we know, the elaborate shrine became the focal point of pilgrimage across England, at least until the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170 when the Chancellor turned turbulent priest began to overtake Cuthbert in popularity.  The paradox of 12th century Durham is that its way of remembering Cuthbert strikingly fulfils his own forebodings about his burial place.  Far from resting in humble, obscure solitude, he found himself interred at the climactic point of a building that would later be dubbed ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’.  Nothing could be further from the spirit or the spirituality of Cuthbert, although the simplicity of the feretory as it has been since the Reformation with its gaunt black slab bearing only the saint’s name is probably more in keeping with the lived life of the man himself.  But we can recognise that this process of ‘reinventing’ the saints was precisely what the Normans were doing with Cuthbert by placing his shrine at the heart of Durham Cathedral.  We can see that this was not only inevitable but necessary. For as I have already said, Cuthbert had already become a distant memory by the time the Cathedral was built.  Placing him within the frame of a Benedictine Cathedral Priory was a way of ‘claiming’ his universal significance for times and challenges utterly different from his own day.

As for his book, its career followed a similar trajectory to that of the saint’s relics. Reginald of Durham, the colourful 12th century author of the ‘Little Book’ or Libellus about the Wonderful Miracles of Blessed Cuthbert which were Performed in Recent Times recalls another ‘little book’, the Gospel.  He describes how it was carefully looked after in its reliquary, and was worn as a pendant round the necks of honoured guests of the Priory.  Anyone coming near to touch it had to put on an alb and fast.  One monk, John, had the audacity to ignore these instructions and hold it with unwashed hands: he was struck down with an unpleasant affliction. So here again, memory, hagiography and devotion combined to make the book itself an object of veneration that needed to be protected from any defiling contact, a long way from the intimate bodily connection it had had with Cuthbert when it was laid to rest in his coffin. 

So I think we can say that this book is emblematic of the significance of Cuthbert both before and after his death.  Unlike the sophisticated Lindisfarne Gospel Book, this little volume breathes an air of winsome simplicity.  That it was interred with him is surely a mark of his own devotion to the scriptures, and especially, in common with others of that era, St John’s Gospel in particular. In his prose Life of Cuthbert, Bede tells how the dying abbot of Melrose, Boisil, determined to spend the last week of his life with the young Cuthbert whom he was training up in the ways of the monastery.  Cuthbert wanted to know which book of the Bible they should study during this all-important week. Boisil replied: “The evangelist John.  I have a book consisting of seven gatherings of which we can get through one every day, with the Lord’s help, reading it and discussing it between ourselves.’  For Bede, this would no doubt be a poignant memory when, on his own death bed, he bequeathed to a different Abbot Cuthbert a translation of St John’s Gospel.  (It would be nice to think that the Cuthbert Gospel is none other than Boisil’s book, cherished by the pupil in memory of the teacher, but this is unlikely as Boisil’s seven gatherings or quires do not correspond to the Cuthbert Gospel’s eleven.)

Benedicta Ward, in an essay on the spirituality of St Cuthbert, explores the significance of the Fourth Gospel in Saxon Christianity.  She points to the traditional symbols of the four evangelists that we know from the Lindisfarne Gospel Book: the winged man of St Matthew, the lion of St Mark, the ox of St Luke and the eagle of St John.  St Jerome, a commentator much followed in the 7th and 8th centuries, says that eagle symbolises the transcendence of Christ, that is to say, his divinity. Bede no doubt wants us to understand that Boisil was instructing Cuthbert not only simply scriptural reading, but in theological understanding. Bede represents Cuthbert as an unquestionably orthodox prior and bishop, so his immersion in the Gospel of the incarnate Word under Boisil’s tutelage is perhaps an important pointer.  The seven days of their study together may also be symbolically important, for they recall the six days of creation and the Sabbath rest, as if in the same way, Cuthbert was led through a ‘week’ of soul-making, spiritual formation that would equip him for his life task.  In St John, the holy week of Jesus’ passion and death is followed by the first day of a new week, where the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalen in a garden, intended as a recapitulation of the first paradisal garden in Eden where history began.  So Boisil’s 8th day, the beginning of his heavenly life, corresponded to Cuthbert’s 8th, the beginning of his new life and public ministry in the church.  If we think it is strange to approach biblical texts in this way, we can be sure that it was natural among biblical commentators of late antiquity and the middle ages.  

But I want to go beyond Benedicta Ward in suggesting that there is a further aspect of John’s portrayal of Jesus that may have influenced Cuthbert as he set about realising his vocation as a leader in the church. In the Gospel, the first sign of Jesus’ divinity is his turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana in Galilee. This is one of miracles Bede ascribes to Cuthbert in the Prose Life.  Cuthbert drinks from some water, then passes it to a priest who declares that he tastes wine. It is passed in turn to another brother, and the verdict is that they have never tasted better wine.  It is hard not to see this as directly referencing the Fourth Gospel. 

If we ask ourselves, what was it about Cuthbert that so impressed Bede, we can say: his devotion to God, his compassion for human beings, his humility, his simplicity, his skill as a teacher and spiritual guide, his care for all living things, his sense that the world and his own soul was a battleground between God’s goodness and the ever-present threat of evil, his willing embrace of death. All four gospels depict Jesus as embodying these qualities, but it is the Fourth Gospel that especially portrays him as the humble slave who washed the feet of his disciples and taught them that this was an enacted parable of life laid down in self-giving, humility and death.

The Prose Life gives a detailed account of Cuthbert’s death which, Bede says, he owes to the testimony of Herefrith. Before he dies, Cuthbert delivers a discourse on peace and humility, urging the brothers to live in the light of divine love, to be of one mind, to be generous and hospitable to all who are in need of kindness, and to imitate the example that they have seen in him.  The themes of this address are strikingly similar to those in the great farewell discourses of St John’s Gospel where, having washed his disciples’ feet, he teaches them the meaning of true love and service.  It is St John who elaborates this theme of love more than any of the other evangelists. ‘This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.’  Bede wants us to understand that Cuthbert’s entire career was driven by this principle.  As prior, and then as bishop, it was his duty to preside over a community that must always aspire to, and at its best live out, this divinely ordained way of life for those whom the Lord called, not servants but friends.  The category of friendship is one way of reading Bede’s lives: Cuthbert the friend of nature, the friend of human beings, the friend of God.  And at the moment of his death, Cuthbert raises his eyes heavenwards and stretches his arms aloft in prayer, reminiscent again of Jesus’ last great prayer in St John where, says the Gospel, he looks up to heaven and prays for the disciples he has loved. 

I am suggesting that in important ways, it is possible that consciously or not, Bede was giving a reading of Cuthbert’s life and death that conformed him to Jesus as portrayed in St John’s Gospel.  And this helps us see how, as I said earlier for the north of England, the significance of the Cuthbert Gospel Book of St John is inseparable from the way we today read the saint’s life and career.  The Cuthbert Gospel is the eloquent symbol of the man whom the text of that book helped to form and shape. In historical terms, it suggests how the saint was understood and cherished by those who laid a humble gospel book in this coffin on Lindisfarne, perhaps at his own request.  Perhaps – who can say? -it may even give us a glimpse of how he understood himself and his vocation?   The Benedictines who created his shrine in Anglo-Norman Durham and honoured his book in the Cathedral that bore his name were distanced from this more primitive vision: the ordered, hierarchical, institutional lens through which they saw things, the ritual and ceremonial world they inhabited were far removed from that of the Saxon community they had displaced in 1083. And yet the Cuthbert Gospel, this eloquent symbol of a distant, simpler, more innocent past prevented it from being altogether forgotten.  

Since the Reformation, the symbol-system that once inextricably connected the saint’s relics in their Cathedral shrine with both his ‘little book’ and the Lindisfarne Gospel Book written in his honour is broken up.  But not irretrievably.  To bring them all together once again, as we look forward to doing in the summer of 2013, will be a matter of great celebration in Durham and the north-east.  I can’t help thinking that Cuthbert will be pleased. 

The British Library, May 2012   


Bach's St John Passion: a very short introduction

Let me speak personally.  Bach’s St John Passion was the first choral work I sang as a schoolboy in the early 1960s.  Singing the treble line gave me a lifelong love of Bach’s music.  More than that, it sowed the seeds of religious faith.  I look back on that spring half a century ago as a life-changing time that defined the course of my entire life.  What I have since learned is that Bach is one of the great commentators on the Bible.  His music is art, not analysis, poetry rather than prose.  Yet the insights of his sacred music make him a true theologian. 

The heart of St John’s Gospel is the passion story.  Bach’s St John Passion sets the last part of this story to music.  These are the chapters that tell of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and burial that are read at the Good Friday liturgy.  All the great themes of St John’s Gospel feature here: love as sacrifice, glory as life laid down, the majesty of the suffering Christ whose crucifixion is exaltation and whose cross is a royal throne.  All this Bach understands with a profoundly theological and spiritual perspective.

Two examples from the Passion show how Bach the theologian inspires Bach the musician.  The first is the great opening chorus.  Lord, our Sovereign, your glory fills the whole earth! Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are glorified even in the deepest humiliation.  This is a prayer to the Christ of the cross.  The key word is Herrlichkeit, ‘glory’.  It’s the clue to the music of the chorus and to the whole work.  ‘Glory’ is St John’s most distinctive word.  ‘We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’ John says at the beginning:  a word picked up frequently as the Gospel unfolds, where it specifically means the glory of the crucified Jesus.  So the chorus sets the scene in which Bach conveys the paradox of glory revealed through suffering.  The restless string semiquavers and the woodwind dissonances create a disturbing, almost wild, sense of disorientation and unease.  Yet underneath the turmoil are the long pedal points in the bass that stabilise the music and ground it; while the cries of the chorus rising above the chaos establish who is in control of the sufferer’s destiny.  The answer is: Christ himself who, says St John, does not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own will.  So the chorus acclaims his kingship even in his passion. 

My second example is the work’s climax, the moment of Jesus’ death.  The four gospels each depict his death in distinctive ways.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with a cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  In St Luke he dies as the obedient servant with a goodnight prayer on his lips: ‘into thy hands I commend my spirit’.  But in John, the last word from the cross is a single word in Greek: tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’.  That word is the clue to the entire Passion and indeed to the Fourth Gospel.  What does it mean?

Bach sets the words Es ist vollbracht to a motif that seems to fall to the ground and die, echoing the bow of the head with which John says Jesus ‘gives up his spirit’.  Does Bach mean it to die away into nothing, as if it stands for resigned acceptance of an inevitable, tragic destiny with the overtones of defeat: ‘it’s all over’?  I doubt that.  We must read his meaning in the light of the movement that immediately follows it.  Es ist vollbracht begins as one of those poignantly beautiful contralto arias where the soul meditates on the mystery of death.  But he suddenly interrupts this serene atmosphere with a stirring victory song: ‘the hero of Judah wins with triumph and ends the fight’.  His message is that while death is indeed ‘the last enemy’, this death marks the beginning of the great reversal through which life is given back to the world: not defeat but victory.  This means that the singer of Christus who takes his leave of the work with these all-important couple of bars somehow has to marry the fall of the 6 note musical phrase to the rise of spiritual hope and the expectation of triumph. It calls for musicianship of the highest order. 

And Bach will not let the word vollbracht go.  After the briefest of recitatives telling how Jesus ‘bowed his head and died’ comes one of the great surprises of the Passion.  Precisely where we would expect another sombre meditation on mortality, Bach instead launches into a radiant D major aria for bass and chorus. Here the soul converses with the departed Christ about how the gate of heaven is opened through his suffering.  ‘My beloved Saviour, let me ask you, as you are nailed to the cross and have yourself said it is accomplished: am I released from death?’  So this time es ist vollbracht features in a dance of joy and release.  Golgotha is a place not only of pain but of transfiguration. 

The artistry with which Bach works recitatives and choruses, arias and chorales into a seamless work of art is his great achievement.  John’s passion narrative is skilfully constructed as a series of scenes in which the action shifts between personal encounters on the one hand and public activity on the other.  Now we are in the high priest’s house, or Pilate’s chamber, or with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Their inner complex worlds are explored with acute psychological awareness.  But then we find ourselves abruptly thrust into the large arenas where history is forged: the garden of the arrest, the praetorium, the via dolorosa, Golgotha.  The interplay of private and public, intimacy and empire Bach exploits to the full.  He understands how the inward drama of individual hearts is played out as games of politics and power in front of an entire world.  He knows that the passion is a story that works on many different levels.  This is reflected in the colouring and texture of the music, the symbolism of its motifs, and a finely judged pace that respects the hectic energy that drives the narrative, yet provides spaces for meditation at the critical points that allow the drama, and us, to draw breath. 

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar, liturgical historian or musicologist to appreciate the depth of this work. Its greatness and its poignancy do not derive from any self-conscious artifice on Bach’s part, nor simply from his technical skill.  It comes from the direct appeal it makes to us to both mind but heart.  And that is what Holy Week is for. 

Durham, Holy Week 2012








Touch and Healing: A sermon for nurses

It is a great honour to be preaching to you at the beginning of your annual congress.  I come to you not just with generalised good will towards the nursing profession which everybody shares.  Nursing is part of my family: my mother was a nurse and one of my daughters is.  I have personal reasons for being grateful to the nurses whose paths I have crossed in recent weeks. It is when you are a patient that you recognise the conscientiousness and care with which you are looked after in our hospitals and surgeries.  As a patient you are ‘done to’ by many others.  Your dignity and personhood are at risk amid the interventions of modern medicine and its technology.  Last week in the University Hospital of North Durham, I had reason to be thankful for the nurses who are the front end of healthcare.  It was not only for their skill or even their care that I appreciated.  It was because they were the human face of our beloved National Health Service. Every institution, if it is not to become depersonalised, needs to be recalled to the values at the heart of humane life and service. This is part of what nursing represents.

Yesterday was International Nurses Day, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth in 1820. Who am I to tell you anything about her?  I remember as a child having a much treasured book of story-biographies called Heroes for our Time.  There were two nurses in that book: Florence, of course, and Edith Cavell.  I would go back to those two great women again and again.  I would read how Florence Nightingale was so loved by the pitiably injured soldiers of Balaclava that they would kiss her shadow on the wall as she passed by.  For her, famously, ‘the first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm.’  She died in 1910.  Five years later Edith Cavell faced her executioners and said, unforgettably: ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough.  I must have no envy or bitterness towards anyone.’ My perception of nursing was always going to be coloured by these heroic women of courage and perseverance whose watchword was to care. 

In preparing this address I have visited the RCN website and read some of the posts there.  As a layman speaking to professionals, what picture of nursing today do I gain? What comes across is the immense pride you take in your work, your sheer love of what you do.  I recognise from my own path in life the language of calling, vocation: you believe you were meant for this: it is part of what you are and aspire to be.  Perhaps there are not some for whom it is simply a job: that too has its own dignity. But the parallels between nursing and ordained ministry only begin here. Our common role is to give ourselves in the care of others, or as the literature says, to be ‘skilled companions’ alongside people in their need, suffering or pain. One nurse in the RCN bulletin says:  ‘we don’t just heal with our hands.  We heal with our hearts also.  That’s where our care comes from.’  That is a deeply theological way of seeing it.  And another, on Facebook, perhaps burdened by the pressures and difficulties that beset all caring roles at present, says: ‘I suspect that nurses are just as frustrated, aggravated, annoyed, disappointed and concerned by poor care as anyone else, if not more so.’ When your purpose in life is compassion, you are grieved when unsympathetic politicians, squeezed finances, poor allocation of resources and especially your own sense of inadequacy, let you down. 

‘Ministry’ means ‘serving’, and this lies at the heart of both our professions. In our reading from a famous passage in St John’s Gospel, we see Jesus kneeling down to wash the feet of his disciples and friends.  They are in the upper room just a few hours away from his betrayal, suffering and death.  They think they are there to serve him, for is he not their Master and their Lord?  Yet he lays aside his robe, takes the towel, stoops in front of them, and does for them what only the lowliest of slaves would do in ancient society. It is a powerful and evocative picture of what true service means.  It means taking up the task of abasing ourselves by getting close enough to another person to attend to their needs.  It means touching soiled, malodorous bodies in ways that no-one else would wish to do or be able to do.  It means applying the cleansing, soothing unguents that a broken or corroded or diseased body craves.  Foot-washing is symbolic of all these things as water is symbolic of all that refreshes, renews, heals, gives us back our life. Nurses do all these things both literally and figuratively.   

The New Testament has a word to describe this kind of service.  St Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn that speaks of how the Lord of glory ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’.  That word, kenosis, tells us what underlies the best and truest forms of caring.  ‘Self-emptying’ means being ready to act sacrificially, renouncing the self for the sake of others.  And in the account of the foot-washing, St John has an all-important introduction that makes sense of this otherwise inconceivable act of self-emptying. He says that ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’  That is what service ultimately means.  It goes beyond mere duty, for it answers the question ‘what would I not do to care for the people I am given to serve and show compassion towards?’  Remember what that nurse said so beautifully: ‘we don’t just heal with our hands.  We heal with our hearts also’.  In your calling as nurses, you know what it means to love to the end, often to the end of a patient’s life: your touch and your voice may be the last memory that man or woman or child has in this life.  And you know what it means to love to the end of your resources, your capacity to give and cure and care.  When you have done all you could, when you are spent and your arms ache with the pain you have borne for others, that is when you have loved to the end. 

There is something deeply Christ-like in all caring roles, because all of them in different ways involve this quality of self-emptying, self-giving, renunciation.  But perhaps nursing embodies them in a uniquely focused and beautiful way.  In St John, the act of serving and caring and loving to the end is linked to intimate touching.  No other profession is marked by this privileged touching of another person’s body with, or especially without their permission.  To me, it is as sacred as foot-washing: we are on holy ground where we tread with awe and respect. And this is what we should celebrate as we gather here for this annual congress.  Healthcare faces big challenges, and nursing will not be exempt from the difficulties and struggles that undoubtedly lie ahead.  But I hope that you never lose heart, never lose the sense that what you do is cherished and honoured by all of us who come within the orbit of your care.

Elizabeth Jennings has a poem, ‘Night Sister’, that captures what I am trying to say. 

You have a memory for everyone;
None is anonymous and so you cure
What few with such compassion could endure.
I never met a calling quite so pure.
My fears are silenced by the things you’ve done. 

I have to face hospitalisation in the next few weeks.  I won’t pretend that I am not anxious about it.  But that last line of the poem speaks for me too.  My fears will be silenced by the compassionate touch that I know I shall receive.  And I also know that in the nurse who reaches out to touch, I shall see the face of Christ.  

The Royal College of Nursing Annual Congress, Harrogate, 13 May 2012
John 13. 1-17

The Book of Common Prayer

This year we are celebrating 350 years of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  It is good to be a guest of the Prayer Book Society at this service today, and especially here in Warwickshire in this diocese where we spent eight good years at Coventry Cathedral where we hope to be next week for the Golden Jubilee service. 
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To lovers of literature, Warwickshire means not only Shakespeare but George Eliot, one of the great wordsmiths of the 19th century. In her novel Adam Bede there is a beautiful tribute to the Prayer Book that shaped and influenced her so profoundly in her youth as a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry.

Ad­am's tho­ughts of Hetty did not de­afen him to the service; they rat­her ble­nded with all the other deep fee­lings for which the ch­urch service was a ch­annel to him this after­noon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibility. And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearn­ing and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help, with outbursts of faith and praise - its recur­rent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done.

As we know, the contrast the author is drawing is between the excesses of nonconformist ‘enthusiasm’ as it was called at that time, and the more sober liturgy of the established church. For myself, the contrast was not between one style of worship and another, but between any worship and no worship at all. I first attended a church service as a teenager. It was 1962, so I have my own anniversary this year. It was evensong, Book of Common Prayer. I had hardly stepped foot inside a church before. My parents had little time for religion. But they did love music. To help me develop musically, I was drafted into one of the best church choirs in London that sang to cathedral standard. No-one took much notice of probationers in those days. I was left to make what sense of it I could. All of it was utterly new to me. The canticles that evening were sung to Walmisley in D minor. I have had a soft spot for that setting ever since. I remember feeling awed and moved by what I was experiencing, this tapestry of words and music that seemed to envelope me. It was strange, and yet familiar, as if I had known it all along, but had not known that I knew, like an old friend I had met for the first time. It was somehow familiar and reassuring at the same time as it was unknown and new. I realised that in an important way I had come home.

I come to you from a cathedral that has a particular interest in the Prayer Book. In our library we have a first edition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and a copy of the Sealed Book of 1662. But our closest connection is through the great Bishop Cosin of Durham who was influential in shaping the 1662 book. The University library has the wonderful Durham Book, his personal copy of the 1559 Elizabethan revision of Cranmer’s two prayer books, painstakingly, and lovingly, annotated with comments and emendations in preparation for the next revision. Some of the best 1662 collects are written by him. And like all English cathedrals, ours is a place where you know that Cranmer's work retains an honoured place in the daily round of prayer.

There is a paradox here. What for Cranmer was a bold experiment in creative vernacular liturgy has become for us the traditional rite. So to honour the Prayer Book is to recognise that that in the 16th century, this was a radical break with tradition. By the 17thcentury this had changed, not least because high church Anglicans like Bishop Cosin recognised Cranmer’s debt to patristic and medieval rites, and how his intense focus on the passion and death of Christ was completely in the spirit of late medieval devotion. Meanwhile, the new liturgies of today have enriched all our churches with fresh insights by taking us more directly back to forms of worship that belonged to the early Christian centuries. We can be glad that we are in the happy position to do as Jesus says, and in our worship bring out of our treasures things old and new.

The Prayer Book is part of our cultural inheritance. It belongs to the legacy of Christian England, like the arcades and monuments of our churches and cathedrals, like the King James version of the Bible whose 400th anniversary we celebrated last year, like the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, like Gibbons and Purcell, like Anglican chant and Hymns Ancient and Modern. Its measured 'rhythms and cadences' as we call them, its unforgettable words and images, its gravity and quiet joy, its undulating landcsapes of contrition and praise, its sense of balance and proportion, these all create a whole that is infinitely greater than the parts. It is something of a miracle, unique to the English speaking world. We are right to cherish it.

But the Prayer Book is more than a treasured part of our heritage. Beauty can remain merely an aesthetic experience, or it can lead us into a more inward place where we find God. For example, the office of evensong speaks at many different levels. It begins by marking the ending of the day: we go to sleep with the memory of having prayed ‘defend us from all perils and dangers of this night’. But that phrase seems to suggest deeper darknesses that need lightening in whatever ordeals we may be going through: sickness, bereavement, sorrow, fearfulness, shame. And then we are led further to reflect on the ultimate sleep that awaits us all, death itself. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ Each Nunc Dimittis we sing or recite is one less until eternity. That thought haunts you, but it gives you courage you as well, for it helps you face your own mortality.

I am saying that the Prayer Book is a rich manual of ‘soul-making’ as John Keats called it. It trains us to become what we will all one day be in heaven: contemplatives. Like the Rule of St Benedict, it offers a school where disciples can be trained for eternal life. By inculcating the virtue of stability, it exercises an enduring pastoral, formative influence on all who take it to their hearts. For we are what we pray, as the old Latin tag has it: lex orandi lex credendi, what you pray is what you believe. The words we say, the texts we sing in worship shape us, whether we like it or not. And in the case of the Prayer Book, the fact that these words are so imbued not only with biblical texts but also with the Bible’s imagery and symbolism is part of what makes it somehow familiar. These words matter. Their repetition when we truly mean them from the heart has a healing, redemptive effect on us. How many times have we prayed the confession at communion, and found that the burden of our sins is indeed intolerable because we have been made to say those tough words and think about their meaning? Or discovered the release that comes when we hear the comfortable words read and are then summoned to lift up our hearts? To be caught up in spiritual dynamics of the Prayer Book is, I think, to experience a kind of catharsis of the soul, a purifying that leads to a more serious sense of purpose in being Christians, and therefore, better human beings.

Finally, this purifying of spiritual motive and intent is a consequence of being required by the Prayer Book to pay attention and listen. Many texts are to be spoken by the priest alone, addressing the congregation or God on our behalf. Take the Prayer of Humble Access. Why does the rubric require the priest to say it on behalf of the worshippers rather than by the congregation itself? Perhaps because here, at this solemn moment in the rite, the text wants us not to be busy with our heads in our books worrying about written words. Instead it invites us to approach the sacrament in a more contemplative way, allowing this great prayer to draw our thoughts and meditations towards the gift of God in the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. It is wrong to say that we do not ‘join in’ just because we­ are silent: on the contrary, we ‘join in’ in a more demanding way: by listening and praying while others perform the liturgy on our behalf. Its carefully calibrated pace slows us down, makes us go deep, something that we need in a world that is often fast and shallow. We learn that liturgy must never be manic and busy. It must make us sit at the feet of Jesus.

To Adam Bede, the Prayer Book service ‘spoke for him as no other form of service could have done’. In the Letter to the Hebrews the author reminds his readers to ‘remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you’. Today we celebrate the 1662 Prayer Book and the leaders who had a part in creating it during the 16th and 17thcenturies. Their labour of love continues to speak the word of God to us today and to testify to Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever.

To him, crucified and risen, be all praise and honour today and all our days, and to eternity.      

Hampton Lucy, 12 May 2012
(Hebrews 13)

Now Voyager

This may not be an anniversary you have noticed. 70 years ago in 1942, a classic film saw the light of day, Now Voyager.  It starred Bette Davis and became one of the top love stories of American cinema. If you want a good weepie for a Saturday night, you can’t do better unless it is Brief Encounter. I showed it to the Bishop’s Staff residential conference last week and it worked its magic.  The last words of the film became one of the most quoted tags in the history of film: ‘O Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars’. But the title is all I need for now.  It comes from a poem called ‘The Untold Want’ by the American poet Walt Whitman:


            The untold want by life and land ne'er granted,
            Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

Those words are about stepping out towards far horizons, leaving behind the known, the familiar and the safe and heading for the unknown region. It involves crossing thresholds, going through an open door and discovering what lies on the other side.  And this is the image we have in today’s second lesson, in the Letter to Philadelphia.  ‘Behold I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.’ 

This beautiful letter is a favourite among the seven letters to the churches that begin the Book of Revelation. That is because unlike all the others, this one finds no fault in the Christian community in that part of Asia Minor.  This little church has been faithful and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ and has earned the delight of him who walks among the golden lampstands.  ‘I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.’ ‘You have kept my word of faithful endurance’.  ‘Hold fast to what you have so that no one may seize your crown.’ These are rich endorsements of a church that has not been deflected in a time of pressure, that has been true to its name Philadelphia, ‘love of the brotherhood’.  And that faithfulness has led to a door that is held wide-open by him who is holy and true, the One who ‘has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open’. 

Open and shut doors, thresholds that can and cannot be crossed: these are in the hands of the Holy One. It is he who disposes, who creates the environment in which a journey can take place, sets its direction and its pace. By implication, this church has garnered the courage and the will to push at that door and cross that threshold.  It would be easier, and more secure, to stay where it is, satisfied with its quality of life, its achievements, its faithfulness.  Yet precisely because of these, the Lord calls them forth to new endeavours of faith, hope and love, to travel new paths and do new things because he, the Lord, with the new name the resurrection gives him, is creating a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, indeed is making all things new.  ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find’: this is the invitation to the church at Philadelphia.  Enfolded in it is a promise: that the God who for his part has been faithful and true will come soon to lead, to guide, to accompany his people as they travel on. 

I want to make a connection between this letter and the position we are in right now as a Cathedral.  As you know, we have embarked on a big development project called Open Treasure, and as we speak, the contractors are on site delivering the first part of its first phase.  I don’t have time to speak about the detailed plans to move the shop into the former Treasury, release the beautiful space that is the Great Kitchen so that we can exhibit our priceless Cuthbert treasures there; develop our marvellous Monks’ Dormitory as an exhibition space as well as a library so that we can show more of our treasured books and manuscripts; and link the two with a gallery that will help us better appreciate the relationship between these buildings that are almost unique in England.

Why are we doing all this?  That goes back to the open door.  We have called the project Open Treasure because we believe we should open up to our guests, pilgrims, visitors and the wider public the treasures that we are privileged to have inherited here.  But ‘treasure’ means more than heritage buildings and artefacts.  In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about how we must bring out of our treasures things old and new.  He says in the Sermon on the Mount that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. So in a deeper sense, heritage is about the lived Christian community of this place: Cuthbert’s community, the Benedictine community, the Anglican community of the Reformation era, and the community that we are today, the people who belong here because we pray here, live here, work here, volunteer here, receive guests here, witness to the gospel here, help the needy here, offer sanctuary and care for others here.  All this belongs to our treasure: it concerns the whole Cathedral’s mission.  It is about all that we do and are, past, present and future.  And as we attract people to enjoy the fruits of the project, their admission fee will help stabilise the finances of the Cathedral, and that in turn will ensure that we do not have to contemplate charging admission to the church itself. 

In this letter there is an intriguing reference to the Philadelphian church being ‘a pillar in the temple of our God’.  In our statement of purpose, we have developed the ‘Six Pillars of Durham Cathedral’ to be an image of what we are: worship and spirituality; welcome and care; learning, nurture and formation; outreach and engagement; buildings, treasures and environment’, and ‘finance and stewardship’.  You can see the complete text in today’s Sunday sheet.  So just like the letter in Revelation, our project links an open door with the image of the pillar, something that is stable and trustworthy and keeps the building standing.  And like the church at Philadelphia, we believe that God has set before us this open door, this wonderful opportunity to make a difference to what our guests can see and enjoy here and help them to understand the gospel of this place. 

What does God ask of us?  The same things he looked for at Philadelphia: faithfulness, courage, hope, holiness, perseverance.  What else could it be in a Christian community pushing at an open door, longing to go through and discover the God-given landscapes on the other side.  Like them, we have already faced difficulties and pressures, and there will be more to come: there always are when we embark on a journey.  But as an African proverb puts it, ‘he who never travels thinks mother is the only cook’.  So I want to encourage us, invite us, urge us, to take the risk of becoming a people on a journey of the spirit, ready to embrace the future that God sets before us. Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.  ‘Behold I have set before you an open door.’ It will be our own fault if we do not seize the day and go through, and on, and up.  

Durham, 6 May 2012
(Revelation 3.7-13.)

Easter with St Mark

There are no Easter bonnets or bunnies in Mark’s story.  How strange, and thin it is.  There is the empty tomb, the young man's message that Jesus is risen, the command to tell the disciples that he has gone ahead to Galilee, and the promise that they will meet him there. And the women fleeing for sheer life.  That is all: there is so much it doesn’t say. There are no appearances like in Paul’s letter, no meetings with the risen Lord, no gift of peace, no restoration of fallen disciples, no shared Easter meal. The music is powerful but is in a minor key. It is true that our Bibles print longer endings to St Mark, but they are not in the best and oldest manuscripts; there is none of the vividness of Mark’s writing. They are inept tidying up jobs with the tendency of well-meaning religious people to spell everything out and tie up loose ends. That makes us suspicious.  And we can see off ideas that Mark died before he could finish his work or that the last page was lost. We can trust the manuscripts: what we have is what Mark intended. 

The spirit of this resurrection story is in keeping with Mark’s portrait of Jesus. The Son of Man has not gone about drawing attention to himself; he has kept people guessing. A few have followed him, but apart from the women even they have abandoned him by the end. There is something enigmatic about him, something hidden: his words and works point to the kingdom but it is not disclosed yet. Only at the cross do things become open to the world so that the centurion looking on can say ‘surely this was God’s Son’. After that there is a great silence and a great mystery. The resurrection happens in secret. No-one sees or knows what takes place inside the sepulchre at night time. 

Public was death, but Power, Might         
But Life again, but Victory,
Were hushed within the dead of night
The shuttered dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone. 

The body is not there.  That is the baffling evidence that confronts the women who come to the tomb at sunrise.  What could it mean?  The young man inside the cave says, in three ways. Death could not hold on to the crucified one. God has vindicated his Son who was put to death. And Jesus belongs not to the past but to the present and the future.  The tomb is empty.  ‘He has been raised’, he reigns as lord and king, and we shall see him.  It is just as he told them.  They don’t yet know the fullness of his risen presence.  But it is promised.  And even if the resurrection plunges them into the heart of a mystery, they are told not to be afraid.  They are given a symbol of the promised meeting: Galilee with its remembered meetings and greetings and beginnings.  It tells them that the empty tomb is not a destination, not the end of the journey.  It’s the dawning of a new day. In Galilee they shall find the risen Jesus and know him.

Faith, says the New Testament, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. Mark’s faith is in the gaps, the silences, the hints. For him, the place of God's power is a void, like the holy of holies at the heart of the temple, like the vacuum of empty space in the first instant of the big bang. Emptiness can be potent, mysterious and explosive.  It can open up huge unimagined of possibilities.  So how do we live Mark’s Easter today?  What has it got to say to our longing for truths and values to live and die for?  How will Carola Elin live it as she is incorporated by baptism into this strange, compelling Easter story today? 

Most of life, the world’s life, ours, is lived on this threshold between emptiness and meeting, in the dawn that is not night but is not yet the full light of day. Sometimes we are nearer the dark: life is too painful or hard for us to do more than hope against hope that there is some good purpose in it all.  But at other times we are nearer sunrise. We are pulled forwards into the promise that our hungers will be met, that stones of death can be rolled away and the tombs that surround us can become empty through the limitless power of the resurrection.  Wherever we are on this journey it is not what we know that counts but having faith and hope. We believe with all our hearts that Easter is true, because the tomb is empty.  And if the full experi­ence of it eludes us, or we are silenced or bewildered at this place that bears God's footprints, ‘Galilee’ stands for our desires and hopes and longings. Hope is what we have; hope is what we live by, hope is what we need if we are to flourish, hope is what the world cries out for, an end to fear, a new reason for living.  Galilee is the symbol. ‘There you will see him, just as he told you.’ 

So there is no closure in St Mark, no happy ending because as every child has to learn, the project of human life is not about neat closures and tidy resolutions. It consists of open doors, journeys to unknown places, crossing thresholds. Easter is for our unfinished lives and unfinished business: we must put ourselves into the story and inhabit it, allow resurrection to become true in ourselves. That is why we need a message as tough as Mark's. It tugs at us, beckons urgently, shakes us out of sleep, shatters our illusions and our false selves, asks to change us, questions us about who we want to be and what we shall live for; summons us to believe in a way that demands everything.  It takes us back to the summons that first rang out by Galilee and that echoes out of the gospel for all time: follow me.  So at Easter we renew our baptismal promise to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.  This is the faith Carola Erin is baptised into today. Because of the empty tomb, what other choice is there for her, for us?  What other way of living can there be than this resurrection way, this Christian way, this human way? 

I find Mark’s story very much in tune with our own times. For his readers, faith was under pressure as it can be for us.  Like the women we bring to the tomb our con­fusion, emptiness, unbelief, pain, despair. We hardly know why we come, but some instinct tells us that here life can begin again. And as we look into the mystery of the tomb, perhaps we find that an angel is rolling away the heavy stone that lies across our heart, opening up space for hope. Ruth Fainlight has a poem: ‘Sometimes the boulder is rolled away/but I cannot move it when/I want to. An angel must.’  And an angel will come to those dark and fearful tombs in us and in our world.  If we don’t run away but dare to stay, dare to listen to the angel telling us not to be afraid, dare to believe the promise and dare to hope, everything will change.  If we dare to stay, we shall glimpse the sunrise and the dissolving shadows and a new, clearer light penetrating the dark.  If we dare to stay, we shall know that God has raised his lost and perished Son, and that he will raise us too. 

Durham, Easter Day 2012
(1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Mark 16.1-8)