Martyn Percy: Testing Trials and Egregious Errors: Some Good Friday ReflectionsApril 15, 2022
We long for peace – clumsilyApril 29, 2022
In a landmark study published in 1960, Isabel E. P. Menzies looked at the symbiotic relationship between nurses and their patients in a hospital. A Case-Study in the Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence against Anxiety: A Report on a Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital drew on Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Eliot Jaques and Wilfrid Bion, amongst others. The writers shared a broadly similar social and psychological worldview. Namely, institutions were structures and bodies of containment, there to manage anxieties and (hopefully) prevent chaos.
This is more of an epiphany than it may at first appear. The law courts, prisons, hospitals, churches and even museums share in resolutions. They make order out of chaos; make some sense out the past; and they hold society together at the points of its historical identity, transitional crises or existential angst. Yes, they deal with different matters and people, but they share the same DNA that is common to all institutions. As Philip Selznick noted in his writings, institutions exist to perpetuate values from one generation to the next for the wider public and society, quite independent of any regard people may have for them currently, or even their apparent lack of popularity. Thus, hospitals must care for patients, no matter what. Churches worship God, no matter what. Museums cherish artefacts, no matter what. Prisons protect society and the criminal from each other, no matter what.
There is always a difficulty, then, when an institution struggles for resources or survival. In the church, fewer clergy usually means less pastoral care for society. No matter how much one promotes lay-leadership and expertise (I am all for that), for many people there cannot be a substitute for a priest. The clergy, working for a resource-starved and cash-strapped church find that their own support becomes thinner. Under acute personal stress, six free sessions of counselling/therapy might seem fair. But who would ration chemotherapy to three sessions, or seek to limit the offer of physiotherapy after life-changing injuries to three months’ worth. Cutbacks in care devalue most institutions, and cause its actual core values to be undermined, leading to an erosion of moral, social, spiritual and public capital.
This Easter, the Church does what it has done every year since AD33 (circa). It faces death. It is no use clinging to the past however. Because the Easter message is that whilst we must continue to live alongside the suffering of the world, we are meant to understand and live by the revolutionary freedom of the resurrection.
To be sure, our job is pain: living alongside it, sitting in the dark with people, offering hope just by being there and listening. If these same sufferers are alive on the cross, we are to be at the foot. The Church is called to be a field hospital where, sometimes, the vocation dies but – as in a garden – rises to something new. We are witnesses and need to tell our brothers and sisters what we have seen.
Easter only makes sense if you understand the desolation and loss of Good Friday. Jesus, teacher, healer, leader…is dead. Stone cold dead. He is laid in a tomb. And his followers and family do what normal people do: they grieve. Deeply. So no-one expects to see anything strange. Mary does not see Jesus at the tomb – she sees a man, ‘supposing him to be the gardener’.
In the same way, the disciples on the road to Emmaus do not ‘see’ Jesus until the breaking of the bread. The gospels, then, are all saying the same thing in the resurrection stories. All look; but not all see.
The resurrection breaks all frames of reference, bursting our perceptual boundaries, leaving the gospel writers with the huge task of trying to piece together shards of information that exceed any sense of reality. An appearance here, a disappearance there; a sighting then, but a vanishing now; one minute you can touch Jesus; the next, he’s like an apparition.
We should see Easter not so much as the Feast that puts the broken back together, as the Feast of Total Transformation. It fundamentally offers us a sense of re-creation. And the Easter stories are a narrative of light. Not just because the darkness of Good Friday is dispersed and destroyed by the shattering light of the resurrection. But also because Jesus, now he has been raised, is recognised as the new light. A light so dazzling indeed, that it cannot be comprehended. As the poet Emily Dickinson has it:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
[Emily Dickinson, Tell All The Truth]
So this light returns us to the first light of creation. This is a new dawn. God’s light now shines – a sign of the realm of heaven, where there is neither day nor night, but one light of equal brightness. This is a light beyond the sun, moon and stars. The light of the resurrection is the light of a whole new creation; a revelation of radiance that can barely be expressed.
Easter is the festival of fire, light, dawn – a new age dawns the moment the stone is rolled away, and the Son of God bursts forth in a radiant splendour that is blinding, yet also illuminating. It is in this light that we are all now transformed – in our awe, wonder and worship.
How shall we live in this light? One way of understanding our new place in the world is to grasp that the scriptures are bookended and pivot in gardens. The Christian scriptures begin with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The centre takes us not just to a Garden of Gethsemane (abandonment and betrayal), but also to the Easter Garden of resurrection. The Christian scriptures end with flowing rivers in Revelation, and leaves on trees for the healing of nations. One eternal light, and no more darkness.
One might also say that the resurrection plants a seed in us each year, and asks us to permit the Spirit to water it and produce the growth God seeks. St. Basil says: “a tree is known by its fruit; a person by their deeds. A good deed is never lost; those who sow courtesy reap friendship, and those who plant kindness gather love.”
Perhaps like me at this time of year, you think of those whom we love yet see no longer. As I prepare to leave here, I often reflect on my brother-in-law, Chaz, who spent the last six months of his life with us, living in the Deanery, dying of cancer. He was only 49. He was a committed Christian, but perhaps more than anything else I give thanks for and cherish his character. A famous Dean once said “only the gentle can ever be truly strong”. Which Dean was this? No ecclesiastic, alas: it was Dean Martin. He has a point. Chaz’s strength lay in his gentleness.
His other religion, if we may speak in this way, was rugby: and most especially his beloved Saints (Northampton). He and his father John, who passed away several years earlier, were both passionate fans of the Saints. There was a special tribute to Chaz at Franklins Gardens at a home match after he passed away. That would really have touched Chaz – and surely would have embarrassed him too.
At Easter, therefore, we remember that far from having a faith that contains death, we have one that lets it go. The modern poet Stewart Henderson, entitled ‘Death, the Last Enemy’:
And He Who each day
reveals a new masterpiece of sky
and Whose joy
can be seen in the eyelash of a child
Who when He hears of our smug indifference
Can whisper an ocean into lashing fury
and talk tigers into padding roars
This my God
Whose breath is in the wings of eagles
Whose power is etched in the crags of mountains
It is He Whom I will meet
in Whose Presence I will find tulips and clouds
kneeling martyrs and trees
the whole vast praising of His endless creation
And He will grant the uniqueness
that eluded me in my earthly bartering with (life)
That day when He will erase the painful gasps of my (body)
and I will sink my face into the wonder of His glorylove
and I will watch planets converse with sparrows
On that day
when death is finally dead
A new future means letting go of the past. So I take some comfort from my own deep bereavement at leaving here. Kierkegaard tells us in his Fear and Trembling that ‘I can easily forgo what I dislike; but I can only sacrifice what I love’. So these times and seasons are over for me. But the world still turns, and God is faithful. The bravery, balance and beauty of what God does here will continue.
As Kierkegaard also said, echoing the writer of Ecclesiastes, ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’. As Ecclesiastes says, ‘he has set eternity in our hearts and minds’. But we live in the here and now; a time and season for everything. So we press on; not alone, but with God. Leslie Hunter was the Bishop of Sheffield from 1939-62, and in his The Seed and the Fruit (SCM, 1953, p.12), he offers this parable:
As the threats of war and the cries of the dispossessed were sounding in our ears, humanity fell into an uneasy sleep. In our sleep we dreamed that we entered the spacious store in which the gifts of God to humanity are kept, and addressed the angel behind the counter, saying: ‘We have run out of the fruits of the Spirit. Can you restock us?’ When the angel seemed about to say ‘no’, we burst out: ‘In place of violence, terrorism, war, afflictions and injustice, lying and lust, we need love, joy, peace, integrity, discipline. Without these we shall all be lost’. And then the angel behind the counter replied, ‘We do not stock fruits here. Only seeds’.
Easter is the season for planting revolutionary seeds. The Easter Garden will burst with life. The old life is not to be grasped. Death is not to be averted by avoiding the risks that God calls us to. God takes us each in his hands, and leads us through all times and seasons, feasting and famine, birth and death. He does not look for our success. God only seeks our faithfulness. So, there will always be a time for growth, and a time for pruning; times to reap and times to sow; times of weeping and times of dancing; time to welcome; and a time to bid farewell. A time for gardening. Always.
And that is my time, now: a time for farewell. The good thing about letting go is that God is likely to surprise us. Much as he did with Peter in the resurrection too, and with Mary of Magdala. The less we cling the suppler we can become, and the more God can do with us. So, there will be times to be a bit of a rock, and some time to be on a bit of a roll; times to be as steady as a foundation; and times to wander in the desert with only a tent.
So, nothing is settled for Peter or for Mary Magdalene. They are followers. Or for any other witness to the resurrection. Such is the lot of the disciple. But remember, this is God’s story of salvation, and we are but actors in the production. Who do you say Jesus is? To say with the disciples after the resurrection that ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ is to express more than mere opinion. It is to make a commitment to be where God calls us next.
Many endure pain and darkness. But hold fast to that which is good. It has been my deep joy and almost unbearable privilege in being here – to be blessed to serve and work with others, who have provided such company, care and courage. Thank you to all those who have sustained us with such kindness, love and support. May God hold us as we walk forward at Easter – to the future he prepares for us all. Amen.
An Easter Prayer from Oliver Tomkins:
God, you are silence beyond all quietness.
You are brilliance beyond all radiance.
You are tranquillity beyond all peace.
Teach us to listen to your silence; let me glimpse your brightness.
And grant us that tranquillity in which the search for You begins.
None of us could seek if we had not been found
By the Word who interprets the silence,
In the face which reflects your glory,
Through the passion which is our peace…