Each year at Southwark Cathedral we host an art installation for the season of Lent. This year’s installation is the work of the artist, Peter Burke. Peter has taken a variety of soils, from different places and from them has created elements of the human form. He hasn’t done this from any theological, spiritual understanding but is fascinated by the materials and by the body. When you approach this work however through the eyes of faith it speaks in a different way. We have given this collection of his work the title ‘Earthworks’. That title was firstly inspired by the Book of Genesis which begins with two poetic descriptions of creation, one of which uses the idea of God taking the very stuff of the earth and making a man from it.
‘Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ (Genesis 2.7)
Jesus is often called ‘the Second Adam’ and in his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth St Paul compares the ‘earthy’ man with the ‘heavenly’ man.
‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ (1 Corinthians 15.47)
But, of course, the truth is that in being born a child, Jesus shared our earthy nature but transformed it with heavenly glory. We know that from dust we came and to dust we will return but we also believe that this body will be transformed to become like Christ’s glorious body.
The season of Lent gives us an opportunity to think about our own ‘earthy’ journey as we think about the one that Jesus took that led him to the cross.
The invitation to visitors to the Cathedral is to follow the trail, a series of five stations around the Cathedral. But if you can’t physically get there, there’s no reason not to follow the trail. So over these next five weeks of Lent I invite you to do this.
The prayer that accompanies the journey is where we begin.
from the earth you took us,
to the dust we will return
and from the soil
you brought your son, Jesus,
to lead us heavenward.
Open our earthy hands to receive you,
guide our earthy feet to find you
and may we stand before you,
created before creator.
For the visitor the prayer journey begins in the south aisle of the Cathedral with the First Station – Hands. The installation is of a whole series of hands, at first sight identical, but on closer examination they’re not. Not just in their colour are they different.
‘When he had said this, Jesus showed them his hands and his feet.’ (Luke 24.40)
Whose hands are these? Are they held out hoping to receive something – help, a gift? Are they hands of a beggar in a street, of a person needing a helping hand?
Jesus used his hands all the time. People were coming to him wanting him to lay his hands on them, to heal them. His hands were stretched out all the time and in the end those same healing, helping hands were roughly taken, held against the wood of the cross and nails were driven through them.
But we are looking not at one set of hands but at many – and they are all slightly different. The soil from which they have been made is different and the hands show the signs of this. But seen like this perhaps they look more like a crowd – like refugees whose hands try to get through a fence to grasp for help. They are like the hands a priest sees at the altar rail, waiting to receive the bread of the Eucharist. They are like the hands of the homeless on our streets wanting some money, wanting some food.
Whose hands are these? How do they make you feel?
Look at your own hands – smooth and manicured; rough and work worn; young or old. These hands tell a story and so do yours and so do the hands of Jesus which he holds out to his friends, a story of love and of the cross.
Lord, bless my hands,
that they may build and not destroy,
give and not only take,
hold and not push away,
tell my story
and show my love.