Darkness came over the whole land

People will travel half way around the world to experience a solar eclipse; they’ll search out just the right place to experience a partial one.  We are fascinated by the experience just as our ancestors were.  Indeed, there is something primordial about the fascination with such an event as though we suddenly realise that we inhabit a planet among planets and that one has an effect upon another, that moons and suns coincide with dramatic and, literally, chilling effect.  The eclipse becomes a portent, a sign of deeper things happening and as Tomasz Schafernaker, or some other weather watcher or reporter stands there in the gloom, you expect momentous language to be used to describe what is happening.


‘Doubt’ by Susie MacMurray

From the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, from the darkness of the cell beneath the house of Caiaphas, Jesus emerges into the glare of public attention as he stands before Herod, stands before Pilate, a man under judgement.  When we were still condemning people to death, when Capital Punishment was still being practiced in this country, the judge, before pronouncing judgement, would place the Black Cap on their head.  The Cap, still part of the official regalia of judges in this land, is a simple square of plain black cloth.  It is as though a black cloud is placed over the head of the one sitting in final judgement, the most final judgement that one person can make of another.

Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair and Jesus is led from the Antonia Fortress, close to where his mother was born, and along what we now call the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the Way of the Cross, the route of the world’s darkness.

The 19th century poet, William Ernest Henley, in his poem ‘Invictus’ writes

Out of the night that covers me, 
      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
      For my unconquerable soul. 
The night covers us, yet in a sense we are unconquerable.  There is a strange and unmistakable dignity about Jesus even when he falls, one, two, three times, according to the tradition in the Stations of the Cross.  The Black Cap was donned for him, but who is really condemned, him, or us?
How many times have I read, or heard, or even sung St Matthew’s Passion?  But when I was rereading it I suddenly realised something – that the darkness didn’t descend when Jesus died, as I had somehow falsely imagined, falsely remembered.  The darkness descended from noon and Jesus was still alive.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. (Matthew 27.45)
Jesus suffered in the darkness, the cloud was thick above him.  It was the darkness of the plague, the darkness that descended on the Egyptians in response to Moses’ prayer.
Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. (Exodus 10.22)
It was a curse, a plague, it was the unfolding of creation which had begun with a single command, ‘Let there be light’. The passion was not just of Jesus but the passion of creation itself.  Even the first act of creation was faltering, the roots of the universe hacked at as had been the roots of the tree out of which the cross was made.  As the theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin wrote
Christ has a cosmic body that extends throughout the universe’.
As Jesus suffers so does creation.  This is no simple eclipse that lasts a moment, that passes whilst we are looking at it, but the pangs of a passionate universe witnessing the death of the one who as we say in the Nicene Creed ‘through him all things were made’.
Thick darkness descends and for three hours there is no light.  But Matthew seems to suggest that it all ended at ‘three in the afternoon’ when Jesus cries out ‘with a loud voice and breathed his last.’ (Matthew 27.50) Did that final cry disperse the cloud and release the light?  Did in some way that death break the spell that had held the earth in bondage? And did those who had watched through the darkness see now in the clear light of day what they had done?  Was that why that lone centurion, who had been kept in the dark, suddenly could see and make the declaration on behalf of us all
‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ (Matthew 27.54)
The great prayer of St Richard of Chichester is on my heart as I too look beyond the gloom and into the light.
Praise be to you, O Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the many blessings which you have won for me,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for me.
O, most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.



Triduum – The tree

Whilst the cross is being venerated (in places where this sort of thing goes on) during the Liturgy of the Day on Good Friday the choir may be singing the traditional hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ (Sing my tongue) with the refrain known as ‘Crux Fidelis’

above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
 none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

So often in hymns and readings for this season the cross is referred to as a tree.  It’s a useful way to refer to the cross when you want to be able to make a connection between Adam and Jesus. If the first man, Adam, fell from grace because of the fruit of a tree then the new Adam will himself be the fruit of the tree that will restore grace.  Jesus is that Second Adam and so the tree connection makes the connection. The fruit of one tree brought death, the fruit of a second tree brought life. ‘None in fruit thy peers may be’, we sing as we ‘behold the wood of the cross’.

It was therefore wonderful for me in my quest for the ‘hidden and holy’ in Jerusalem whilst there on sabbatical last year, that I came across a monastery set right at the heart of modern Jerusalem but off the beaten track as far as pilgrims are concerned.

The Monastery of the Cross is in Emek Hamatzlevah, the Valley of the Cross which is now part of west Jerusalem, just below the Knesset, the Parliament of Israel. The place was founded around the 4th – 5th century on a site venerated by the early Christians as being where the wood was obtained from which the cross was made.  But the story that surrounds it is amazing.


The Monastery of the Cross

It goes back to the hospitality of Abraham and his three visitors, three angels, an experience of the Trinity.  The tradition is that before they left after they had been fed by Abraham and Sarah, they gave their staffs, made of different woods, to him.  The story then moves on to after the events concerning Lot and his sinful acts that we read of in Genesis.  Lot comes to Abraham and asks how he can be forgiven.  The Patriarch tells him to take the three staffs left by the angels and plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was then to water them with water from the River Jordan.  If they blossomed it would be a sign that God had forgiven him.  Lot takes the staffs and despite the attempts of the Devil to prevent him, waters them with Jordan water.  They blossom and grow into one tree composed of three woods, pine, cypress and cedar. The story then moves forward to the trial of Jesus.  Pilate orders that this cursed tree (as he sees it) made up of three woods of different heights, be felled and brought for use in the crucifixion.  That is what happened.


The tree is watered and blooms

The monastery that you find today is peaceful and beautiful.  The frescos in the main church are stunning and seldom seen as there are few visitors.  Behind the main sanctuary is a chapel in which, beneath the altar, is a hole from where the tree was removed.  Whatever the truth of the story it was a beautiful and holy place and it put me in touch with the tree, with the wood.  I was reminded of that wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Dream of the Rood’, and a passage from it

I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots.”

I traced the journey of that tree from that valley across to where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands which was itself at that time ‘without a city wall’ as Mrs Alexander’s hymn describes it. I climbed the steps up to Golgotha and to that other hole beneath the altar into which this tree was replanted. I had placed my hand in that first hole from which the tree had been ‘ripped up by my roots’ to us the Rood’s own words, and now placed my hands in this second hole, cut into lifeless rock in which the tree would bear fruit.  Then I went down the stairs that led to the quarry in which St Helena’s workers found the discarded wood, the discarded tree.

The carol ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ a setting by Elizabeth Poston of a poem by an unknown author dating back to the 18th century, begins like this

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

The tree we venerate is the tree of life and the fruit of that tree is what gives us life.  Planted, replanted, it continues to bear fruit.

Jesus Christ,
fruit of the tree that gives life,
may I too be
a fruit-bearer
a life-giver
as I follow you.

My Holy Week – Good Friday

There’s such a sense of momentum from the second half of Maundy Thursday until now on Good Friday. It is as though events overtake you and you’re caught up in the breathlessness of it all. And that must be good, and that must be how it must be, because that is how it must have been for Jesus and his disciples. Events took them over as they were taken over, as evil had its day, as political power buckled under the demands of the crowd, as one man bore the weight of everything.

Yesterday evening, the ‘Evening Celebration of the Lord’s Supper’, was amazing. I’ve presided at that service so many times but this year it seemed to affect me differently. It was something to do with the feet to be perfectly honest. Twelve members of the congregation had offered to have their feet washed (or at least a foot) and they were seated down the nave. Canon Mark Oakley, our Holy Week preacher, had already challenged us to think what the church would have been like if the command to wash one another’s feet, which Jesus gave to his disciples, had replaced as foremost and paramount the command to eat bread and drink wine ‘in remembrance of me’.

‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ (John 13.14)

What, he asked, if we were a community of foot washers rather than bread breakers. The bowl rather than the altar would then have been at the heart of our liturgy and our life. It was a fascinating idea. It is an evening of commands – to love, to wash, to eat, to drink. And we perhaps couldn’t follow them all and so we chose the meal, we chose to follow the command to eat and drink, and forgot the command to wash, until this night.


One of the things that the priest becomes very familiar with is seeing the row of hands held out waiting, wanting communion, the bread of life. Those hands have been part of the Lent art installation ‘Earthworks’ and have reminded me of those hands. But we have also had a series of feet in the Cathedral, at the High Altar. And so seeing these twelve feet before me, waiting to be washed I found very moving. And it’s physically demanding. Up and down, up and down, juggling the bowl and towel and the water – pouring, holding, drying the feet. It’s intimate, personal, nothing quite like it. You look at the feet, not at the face. Young feet, black feet, gnarled feet, feet that have taken long journeys, feet that have been well looked after. We know hands well, we hold them, touch them – but feet are so different. Yet, like hands they tell their story – and it’s a story of pilgrimage, of the journey people are on.

'Earthworks' feet

‘Earthworks’ feet

That journey continued today because some of those same feet were on the Walk of Witness that I took part in from Blackfriars to Waterloo. On the way we gathered people and at the Pop-Up Church in the station people stopped hurrying for trains as we sang ‘Amazing Grace’. It was amazing and there was grace abounding. Then back in the Cathedral we took that journey with Jesus to the cross.

The Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday is for me perhaps the most powerful service of the Christian year. It has its own pace, the slow walk to the cross, the walk of the mournful, the solemn walk that brings you to Calvary. Within all the solemnity though its the veneration of the cross which is amazing. The line of people down the nave, each wanting their moment at the cross, making that journey to be near the cross on this day, is staggeringly humbling.

In the station I was asked to give an interview. ‘Why have you been doing this; why is Good Friday important?’ I spoke about the way in which so many people don’t know what’s going on when they see the procession coming down the street, and maybe, maybe we just remind them of the day, like on Palm Sunday. And why do it? Because whilst some may think that this was something that happened then, we know that it happens now. Christianity, Jesus, God, is always in the now, in the present moment and setting the cross at the heart of the busyness of Waterloo Station as people hurry past, their feet bearing them on their journey and setting the cross in the heart of the Cathedral where the pilgrim journey always continues is a reminder that the foot of the cross is planted in the now of the world.

Holy feet, holy journeys, the sacred feet of Jesus nailed to the cross, the foot of that cross driven into the earth, feet to be washed, feet to be cherished, journeys to be made.

may every step I take
be on the path
that you tread before me.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017


Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark