“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
Today’s Gospel brings us into the reality of another of Christ’s resurrection appearances.
After last week’s Gospel about Thomas’ doubts and being asked by Christ to touch his wounds in order to believe, and Easter 1’s story of the meeting with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, today the third resurrection appearance is to all of the disciples and is the most radical.
They are all together, talking about the witness of the two who met him on the Emmaus road and failed to recognise him until he had explained the Scriptures and then broken bread with them. While they are talking they are aware that Jesus is among them and they are terrified, thinking him to be a ghost.
The Gospel writer is anxious to ensure that the first Christians would understand that Jesus’ resurrection is no mere ghostly appearance but a real person who has suffered and been raised from the dead. The Greek word used by the Gospel writer is pneuma – in Greek it has several meanings including “air in movement, blowing, breathing”, “that which gives life to the body, breath, spirit”,”a part of the human personality”. It’s interesting that this is the same word that would be used to denote the Holy Spirit.
But the early Gospel writers had to deal with early heresies in the Church, one of which was “docetism” which denied Jesus’ humanity and focused only on his divinity. And one of the earliest dogmas of the Church on which all the Church Fathers agreed (and which is incorporated in the creeds) was that Christ was fully human and fully divine.
So it is important that the Gospel writer makes it plain that the Risen Jesus has a physical not a ghostly presence and includes the beautiful little exchange, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And then he asks for something to eat, an echo of another resurrection appearance when the disciples after a night of fishing find him on the shore of the lake cooking their breakfast. And the broiled fish eaten by Christ here and the bread in Emmaus are echoes of the feeding of the five thousand.
Not only Thomas, but also now all of the disciples are invited to place their hands in the open wounds of Christ.
These open wounds are the doors into the Christian interpretation of the Scripture: the Cross is to be experienced everywhere, in all time, from the Old Testament onwards. The open wounds are also the marks of our inability to embrace in love our enemies, to forgive those who have hurt us. And it is only when we touch those that cause us to “recoil” that we touch Christ. For the open wounds of Christ invite us to experience his Risen Life not as some past event, but as an event in which in the present we are fully participating.
Jesus has another objective to fulfil in this meeting with his disciples over and above ensuring they experience and recognise his risen physical body and believe in his mighty resurrection.
On the road to Emmaus Christ talks a great deal to Cleopas and his companion. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus explains to them everything that has happened and how it was foretold in the Scriptures. He put it all into context.
Now in this meeting with them all, Jesus explains the same thing. Opening their minds he shows them how all that has happened to him has been foretold. And they must play their part in the Grand Plan, announced by God in the Scriptures, of bringing forgiveness and reconciliation to the whole world. Even the coming of the Holy Spirit has been promised in advance he tells them in verse 49. He is strengthening them for the mission to spread the news of redemption throughout the world.
Until now the gathered disciples are unable to recognise the holiness that stands among them – they are continuing to live, think and understand in the usual human dimension. They see a separation between spirit and matter, divinity and humanity, heaven and earth. When we make that separation we close our minds, deny ourselves the resurrected life for which Christ died, and we lose the sense of and ability to recognise the holiness in the world, in ourselves and in one another.
With Jesus’ resurrection God shatters human separation of His being from us, our limited understanding of where God’s life and energy are to be found and of how God works in this world. Resurrected life can never be comprehended, contained, or controlled by human thought or understanding. Jesus’ resurrection compels us to step outside our usual human understanding of reality and enter into the divine reality. It’s not enough that the tomb is empty. It’s not enough to proclaim, “Christ is risen!” It’s not enough to believe in the resurrection. We have to move from the event to experiencing the resurrection. We can only experience resurrected life by recognising the risen Christ among us. That is the miracle of Easter in all time – and outside of time.
To some there might seem to be a conflict here between the experience of Christ in the early Church and the role of Scripture in the foundation of the Church. Of course the Anglican Church has always stressed the importance of Scripture, tradition and experience in equal measure. And the Bible keeps challenging the Church to rethink its doctrinal traditions, to ensure a deeper obedience to and experience of Christ.
The resurrected life of Christ is revealed in the created order but is not bound by it. Christ’s resurrected body and life unite the visible and invisible, matter and spirit, humanity and divinity – not one or the other but both.
Then he opened their minds to understand …
It’s tough for the disciples; they are oscillating between joy and confusion, fear and elation, expectation and disbelief. And it is tough for us. Christ’s resurrection alone requires a leap of faith.
But with the leap of faith – touching the wounds, breaking bread and eating with him – we must also be radically open to the deep experience of the living, breathing Resurrection Life in every nook and cranny of our world and our being.
Continuing to experience the risen Christ, hearing his “Peace be with you” deep in our hearts, is our life-long work as Christians, making known that unconditional life, love and forgiveness of the resurrected life of Christ.
We must be ready to hear, see and touch before we can open ourselves to the one who stands in our midst offering us life.
I have planted a number of biblical plants and trees in the church garden. There is a broom tree in honour of Elijah, a row of Olive trees, and a Judas tree in memory of Jesus’ betrayer. The last is a delicate small tree which in the spring produces tiny pink flowers before it comes fully into leaf. It gets its popular name, of course, because of the story, found only in St Matthew’s Gospel, that Judas hung himself from a tree when he realised the magnitude of his betrayal of an innocent man.
But none of the other Gospels mention this tragic end. They all agree what Judas did, but no others mention what happened to him, and all are a bit hazy about his motivation. In St John’s Gospel , the latest to be written in all probability, we are not told any more about what drove Judas to do what he did, but we are told that his role was more significant and are given more of a glimpse into his heart. Judas does not just betray Christ in the garden with a kiss, he leads and directs the soldiers sent to arrest him, and he is revealed to have a jealous heart.
The reading today is set in the house of Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and it is made clear by what is written just before that Jesus is now a semi fugitive. The authorities are seeking his arrest, so it is understandable that he seeks a place of love and safety. Mary bathing his feet in rich perfumed ointment before supper was an extravagant gesture of devotion. Nard, the perfume used was a luxurious and exotic product, which had to be imported from India, and its use in such quantities to bathe the feet of a Galilean holy man would undoubtedly have confounded other spectators apart from Judas had they been present. Judas’ reaction is shown to be crooked. He says he is concerned about the waste- the nard could have been sold profitably and the proceeds given to the destitute. But St John tells us he is more upset because he is concerned that there will be less money in the common pot for him to pilfer.
The contrast between Mary’s generosity and Judas’ calculating bitterness is an example of a kind of spiritual chiaroscuro. A brilliant technique that St John employs again and again, to show the gulf between the revelation of the astounding love of God and the minds and hearts of those who find it too much to take in. Two other examples would be Pilate’s question to Christ, ‘ What is Truth?’ and Jesus’ response to the crowd intent on stoning the women accused of adultery, by silently writing in the sand. I don’t believe that it is an accident that St John’s Gospel ‘s begins with an overture of divine illumination, of God becoming visible, and then records Jesus’ first words as being the question ‘ What do you seek?’ and the invitation, ‘Come and you will see.’
There’s something that I do at least once a day when I’m sitting in front of a computer. I will check the webcam overlooking the bay in Kapsali, Kythera, Greece. The camera is almost above the house where my mother was born nearly a hundred years ago. We’ve been there many times, but never for long enough. The swell of the waves, the buzzing of cicadas, and the smell of oregano and thyme blanketing the hills are so much a part of me that sometimes I’m overwhelmed how completely remembrance can eclipse reality.
The truth is that even more than appreciating what an incredibly beautiful place it is, the remembrance is transfigured by knowing how loved I was by my Greek family. We travelled to Greece when we could but, as my grandparents and many other relatives couldn’t read or write, there were very few letters and news was unimaginably slow compared with today. Quite apart from the love I have for the physical place my family came from, I am indebted to them for my Greek Orthodox childhood. I have never reached the boundaries of its influence and it has always enriched my understanding of faith.
Growing up here in London and going to very Anglican schools has, I hope, made me more tolerant and ready to listen and, above all, very aware that we can belong in two places at once. We are here stuck more than ever in our daily lives, and how overwhelmed we have felt in this seemingly endless year-long Lent. A year of loss, grief, disorientation, separation from everyone and everything we took for granted. You can imagine how much I’ve wanted to return to Kapsali, and how the remembrance has at least helped put the present into some perspective.
But there is somewhere else we all need to be. As Lent moves into Passiontide this week we are called to set our face towards Jerusalem as Jesus did. We are called to enter into our common, shared ‘other place’ where we follow in Jesus’ footsteps as he rushes towards suffering and death. We need to put time, space, and current preoccupations to one side and step back into our own faith story and rediscover its truths. It is also a moment to face some of the paradoxes of our existence as human beings. In his incarnation there is nothing Jesus shied away from in his humanity, not even a violent, undeserved death. Keeping paradoxes in tension is a recurring feature of Orthodox liturgy and spirituality. At this time of year I’m reminded of the following lines from the morning of Good Friday’s service:
Today is hung upon the Cross he who hung the earth upon the waters. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection. (From the Royal Hours of Great Friday)
We should never be afraid of contemplating the wonder and the truth of these seemingly irreconcilable opposites. We’re not meant to be explaining or arguing them away. We are just meant to shut out the noise, think about them and let them speak to us. If we do that in a humble and simple way these coming days, we will find our love of God, our understanding of who Jesus was and is, and our relationship with each other and the world transformed. The ‘other place’ we share with all our sisters and brothers in faith is, of course, most fully experienced in the Eucharist. We have all had our experience of celebrating together with bread and wine turned on its head this past year. But we know that when we have walked with Jesus though suffering and death there comes an Easter morning which we will share with joy and gratitude beyond measure.
Some words of Peter Abelard to take with you through the days ahead.
Alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord,
giving thyself to Death whom thou hast slain.
For us thy wretched folk is any word?
Who know that for our sins this is thy pain?
For they are ours, O Lord, our deeds, our deeds.
Why must thou suffer torture for our sin?
Let our hearts suffer in thy Passion,
Lord, that very suffering may thy mercy win.
This is the night of tears, the three days’ space,
sorrow abiding of the eventide,
Until the day break with the risen Christ,
and hearts that sorrowed shall be satisfied.
So may our hearts share in thine anguish,
Lord, that they may sharers of thy glory be;
Heavy with weeping may the three days pass,
to win the laughter of thine Easter Day.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142), translated by Helen Waddell
Like so much else during this pandemic, our celebration of Mothering Sunday will be different this year.
This year, mindful of loss and suffering, we will come to our Church in small numbers at different times to give thanks for our Mother Church, for our own Mothers and those who have been mothers to us and to receive our customary flowers; to pray, give thanks in peace.
This Mothering Sunday is a time for quiet contemplation rather than celebration, giving thanks but also, as it says in the collect for the day, asking that
‘Jesus might strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and sorrow we might know the power of Christ’s presence to bind us together and to heal …’
This last year we have come to know a deep need to be bound together with one another, and a deep need for healing. We need healing for minds and bodies but also for our society, for our environment. And sometimes we need attitudes and priorities to be healed.
During this lockdown, I have had an experience which has made me see healing, caring and loving in a different light. And it’s shown me ‘mothering’ in a less conventional way.
I have become a member of an exclusive club; there’s no membership fee, no rules other than the rule of love. It’s called the Mighty Wow Now Club and it operates at present over Zoom. Before Covid, I attended Saturday meetings in a church hall with my granddaughter, who has special needs, and the rest of my daughter’s family. Tim, who runs the club, is a music teacher at my granddaughter’s school.
But during lockdown, Zoom meetings have taken on a new, vibrant dimension.
Now families log in to Tim’s studio from home, from respite care; and teachers log in from classrooms. One family logged in from the car during a journey so that a precious Wow Now meeting wouldn’t be missed. Grandparents far from London Zoom in, their trade-mark puppets and teddies at the ready for when their child’s special song comes around.
By the miracle of Zoom (as a friend of mine who is a priest calls it), we have all gathered together and been welcomed to the heart of the children’s homes and lives. We meet their siblings, their parents, their carers. We see their toys, get to know their special interests: a fascination with Peppa Pig; a football team; family photographs in albums and on phones; and once, for one little girl with a big personality – for one week only – a length of flexible hose! Tim featured it in a song, of course. Some children have a little language; one or two have a lot; some are non-verbal.
And we are privileged to witness small miracles: a boy moving his head for the first time away from the head-rest of his wheelchair and holding it upright independently, all the time encouraged by Tim, who played the boy’s favourite song, his theme tune. A girl who barely speaks, given the courage to sing some words of her special song in a duet with Tim. Another boy with very little movement and a love of timpani is encouraged to reach out his foot and ‘play’ his fairy bells.
And that is the key to the magic – no, it’s not magic, although it may at times feel like it – it’s the power of mothering. Each child is presented as a precious individual, someone to be treasured. Every child’s achievements are celebrated and encouraged. Tim binds us together as a community of differently abled creatures, all with a need for healing. And the oil that smooths the running of the Mighty Wow Now machine is Tim’s gifts – to construct a song about absolutely anything whilst playing music, to introduce poetry and Shakespeare into the mix and operate the Wow Now theatre whose resident players are based on the children. And all the time, he sticks to his themes of love, courage and family.
Family is the other miracle we witness. It is a privilege to see love in action and witness the mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers who care for these children day after day, with so much humour, gentleness and acceptance.
On Mothering Sunday we will remember and give thanks and pray for mothers whose babies have been lost, for mothers whose children are differently abled, for mothers who find caring for a child with special needs difficult, exhausting and without recompense. And we will also give thanks for mothers, fathers and grandparents who delight in their special needs children, who are blessed by hugs and love expressed abundantly by their children.
Wow Now is special because it cares for the siblings (whose care and love for their brothers and sisters is beautiful to watch) and parents as well as for the special needs children. Most of all, the Mighty Wow Now Club is Christ’s message and love played out in the everyday world.
During lockdown, missing the Eucharist, I came to feel that participating in Wow Now was a different kind of Eucharistic celebration. Even the structure is similar. We gather and greet each other. We look upon the created world, usually via the weather, and give thanks for sun and rain, flowers, animals and the natural world, using pets, songs and pictures. We look back and give thanks for the past week, acknowledge each child’s achievements; we exchange signs of peace and love. And the incarnation, the sanctity of these little bodies, is acknowledged with one of Tim’s songs called ‘A Wonderful Tour of Me’, when mothers and fathers, grandparents, sisters and brothers massage and tickle the small and not so small bodies of our children, and every part of them, working well and some not so well, is celebrated. ‘From my foot to my knee, from my knee to my hip’ it goes and so on – back, shoulders, neck, head, belly and all the way down to my toes. Of course, no one sees it as incarnational except me; for the mums and dads doing the tickling and massaging, it is an important piece of touch to stimulate bodies where nerves may not be working efficiently. For me, it has become a time for prayer for each child, a moment to give thanks that Christ’s incarnation sanctifies all life, makes these children one with Jesus Christ.
The Wow Now families are from many different races and probably many different religions and none. But for me our common bond, our shared love for these children, is a strong link to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and God’s love holding and sustaining all things. ‘The Mighty Wow Now Club’ – I love the name. It calls to mind such phrases as ‘God’s mighty works’, ‘Christ’s mighty resurrection’. This experience, both sweet and sad, teaches me to look for small everyday miracles, signs and wonders. It demonstrates that very young siblings are capable of mothering, and that we all nurture and mother each other.
In our present situation, we must look constantly for Christ’s presence among us, bringing his power to strengthen us in our daily life, in both joy and sorrow, and to bind us to together and to Him.
We tend to know Psalm 22 from its beginning; rarely do we hear how it ends. Today that has been rectified. The cry of desolation we know so well – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ which we will immediately recognise as Christ’s last question from the Cross in Mark’s Gospel and which we will probably have heard echoed in our own minds when in deep adversity – is answered with consolation: ‘…he did not hide his face from me , but heard when I cried to him..’
One thing we all know is that our lives go through phases as articulated so beautifully but simply by the book of Ecclesiastes. But one thing we, as Christians, need to pay attention to is what is at the bottom of it all. Is this just a cycle we have to go through – one where joy and contentment come to be replaced by sadness and grief before returning, in due time, if we are fortunate – and which we just need to embrace?
At one level I think that we do. The Buddhist notion of impermanence accepts that everything changes – or as Bertie Wooster put it: ‘It’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.’ But I think that is certainly an improvement on the idea that life is just one hard slog through a vale of tears.
Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus urges his disciples to pick up their individual crosses and follow him, can be taken to exalt suffering as a good thing in itself. This way of thinking has caused a lot damage, particularly where those in power have bullied or abused others with the justification that the victim is being somehow ennobled. Slave masters and abusers have used this twisted logic.
Christianity proclaims the conviction that love is the foundational reality of existence. But just as the love we have for others, or the love we are shown by others, can’t protect against the tragic element of existence, God’s love has to operate within the context of an intransigent universe, which is no longer Eden.
I picked out a couple of poems by George Herbert this week because he was one of the wisest voices that has blessed the church by speaking honestly of the realities of what it is to be a human being, whilst simultaneously celebrating the consolation of knowing that God is loving, concerned and calling us to a joyful and purposeful life, which has significance beyond its fame or success.
Herbert, who died in 1633, before the age of 40, and probably of TB, was someone who came of age at the time the Church of England was finding its feet. His understanding of faith was shaped by a profound understanding of the riches of Scripture, the liturgies of the church and even the architecture of parish churches. His influence on our church has been so extensive that the 27th February was set apart as a day to remember him. It strikes me that that is very fortunate as we continue to allow ourselves to be encouraged by the themes of the season of Lent. And I am not sure that anyone has captured the heart of faith better than he did in the poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’, which you can all read here:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne,
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Herbert’s poem is a meditation on the Eucharist, where we are invited by God into his presence and acknowledge our frailty and need, but where we are also reminded that Christ bade sinners welcome, having taken the price of sin upon his own shoulders. Love bids us welcome and receives us with open arms whenever we return.
The poem, ‘The Call’ echoes this same idea in the second verse, but also gives shape to the spiritual life. The call to carry our cross is framed in a way drawn from St John’s Gospel. This is a way to respond to God’s love and call to us that enriches our life, rather than saddles it with crippling anxiety.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life;
Such a Way as gives us breath,
Such a Truth as ends all strife,
Such a Life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
Such a Light as shows a Feast,
Such a Feast as mends in length,
Such a Strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart;
Such a Joy as none can move,
Such a Love as none can part,
Such a Heart as joys in love.
I suggest that you use both poems for meditation. Please don’t let yourselves be put off by the antique language or the exalted status of ‘poetry’; just see what the words have to say to you.