Each year we host an art installation at Southwark Cathedral during Lent and Holy Week which we hope will be a means of helping people enter more fully into the season. This year the works are by Peter Burke, parts of the human anatomy, on a human scale which we’ve collected together and called ‘Earthworks’. The artist has used soil to create them and for people of faith there’s an instant link with this to the creation myths and the way in which we were created from that same soil.
Jesus, sharing in our humanity through the self emptying, the humility of the incarnation enters this ‘earthy’ nature. That word humility is in itself an ‘earth’ word, drawing from the Latin for soil, earth.
Visitors to Southwark Cathedral are encouraged to make the journey amongst the various elements of the installation. But we can do that virtually as well. So during these weeks of Lent I’ve been sharing my own reflections on what we see. On Palm Sunday evening at 6.00pm we will make the journey together and if you are in London you are very welcome to share in ‘Earthworks’ with me.
The prayer that is accompanying the installation is the place 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.
So far we’ve looked at a series of hands in the nave and then, walking towards the retrochoir at the east end of the Cathedral we see a distant figure. Then entering the most ancient and peaceful space (the retrochoir of the Cathedral was the first part to be rebuilt after the devastating Great Fire of Southwark in 1212) we see a series of faces. It’s these that we now contemplate together.
He will drink from the stream by the path;
therefore he will lift up his head.
Look at these heads? What do they say to you? What mood are they in?
Human beings have a wonderful gift of facial recognition. We remember a face, even though we often forget the name and part of the horror of dementia is having this basic human ability taken from us. ‘I know your face’ we say and we do, even though it is composed of the very same elements as every other face that has been created. And faces tell us so much. These faces, cracked, incomplete, perhaps they tell us a variety of stories.
As St Stephen stood before the Council those judging him ‘looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.’ (Acts 6.15)
In Dylan Thomas’ play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’ one of the characters, Lily Smalls, on getting up in the morning, looks at herself in a shaving mirror and says
Oh there’s a face!
Where you get that hair from?
Got it from a old tom cat.
Give it back then, love.
Oh there’s a perm!
When you look at yourself what do you think, what do you like, what do you despise, what do you see?
No one bothered to describe for us what Jesus looked like. Not one of the evangelists, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, seemed to think that what Jesus looked like was important. Yet I would love to know. As he journeyed to the cross people saw him, head crowned with thorns, blood running down, perhaps looking nothing like his mother knew him. And when she met him on that Via Dolorosa, when Veronica wiped that face, what did they see and what looked back at them? Perhaps even in all that pain, love looked back at them.
That ‘sacred head, sore wounded’ would be raised up.
The Head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now;
A royal diadem adorns
The mighty Victor’s brow.
Look at these heads? What do they say to you? What mood are they in? And see yourself as others see you, see yourself as God sees you.
Lord, you know me and love me.
May I recognise your face in those around me.
May I recognise your face when I look at myself.