‘While it was still dark’

Happy Easter. We have had a very good Holy Week at Southwark Cathedral. It was a joy to get into the church and a real joy to have Dr Paula Gooder as our guide through the week. This is the sermon I preached early on Easter Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 25.6-9, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18.

As this slow unlocking of life continues I realise that there’s so much that I’m looking forward to – something of that freedom that we used to enjoy, to do what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it, to go where we wanted to go when we wanted to go there.  I miss the theatre, and I miss restaurants, and, believe it or not, I miss hotels.  I really enjoy staying in hotels, it’s a guilty pleasure!  Airbnb is fine but there’s nothing quite like being in a hotel as far as I’m concerned.  But one thing that always frustrates us and that’s when there are insufficient plug sockets next to the bed.  We’ve resorted to always travelling with one of those multi plug extension leads in the luggage and when we’ve forgotten to take it we have to search out a hardware store wherever we are to buy one!

The reason?  Well it’s simply that there are so many things nowadays that you have to charge overnight.  There’s the phone, my watch, the iPad, maybe the Kindle if I’ve had a day of reading, my shaver, all those kinds of things.  And some of them do need to be on charge overnight and linked to the Wi-Fi so that they can update themselves and put things into the cloud and do all the work they seem to do when we’re asleep so that we can pick up our lives and our gadgets in the morning, fully charged and ready to go.

St John’s account of the resurrection begins with these words

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

So often when I’ve been thinking about Easter and Mary Magdalene in the garden I’ve been thinking about the second half of this wonderful Gospel reading.  Mary is on her own in the dawn light when she encounters Jesus, but mistakes him for the gardener, when he calls her name and she doesn’t quite realise who she’s meeting – until it all becomes clear.  And I’ve often thought about what things look like in that half-light at the beginning of the day and made that connection, which we so often do with our Easter hymns, that resurrection comes with the dawn, that life begins as the sun rises.

But Mary in fact comes to the tomb, to the garden, in the dark.  Unable to sleep, she’d picked her way through the still sleeping disciples and their companions, quietly closing behind her the door of the room where they were staying, not wanting to disturb anyone whilst they were sleeping, not wanting to have to explain to anyone what she was doing, what she was feeling or to express her raw grief to anyone else but wanting the cloak and the anonymity of the darkness to help her come to terms with what’d happened to Jesus.

And so through the dark, silent, abandoned streets she makes her way to the garden and the tomb, the cave in which she, with the other women, had left him as the sun had sunk behind the horizon and the Sabbath had begun.

‘While it was still dark’, John tells us, ‘while it was still dark’ the work of God had taken place, while the world was sleeping God was active, in the dark rather than in the dawn resurrection took place.  Even the stone had been rolled away ‘while it was still dark’, there was nothing to be done by anyone, all the work had been completed, overnight, while everyone rested, ‘while it was still dark’. God is active in the darkness, God is at work even when we are unaware that divine work is being done.

In one of his Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’ the poet T S Eliot writes this

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

It was ‘all in the waiting’. Mary was waiting, but she was waiting not as we waited for this Easter Day but waiting to complete the work of burial that she’d begun.  She could wait no longer and so she entered the darkness and discovered that in God

‘the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’

One of the images that has long been used for the resurrection is the butterfly.  If you go into the retrochoir and look at Comper’s reredos in St Christopher’s chapel you were see painted there beautiful butterflies to remind us of the new life that Jesus brings.  How can that caterpillar become the lovely butterfly, but through the tomb of the chrysalis.  Hidden away, in the darkness, out of sight the work takes place and from the darkness something amazing, something beautiful emerges.

We’ve lived through a year of waiting, of loss, of false starts, of dashed hopes, of postponed joy, of grief, of sickness.  For all of us it’s been hard, for some it has been unbearable.  And now we’re gradually emerging, looking forward to different things happening, picking up our life, embracing, loving, laughing.

But what this Easter Day reminds us is that God has been at work even in the lockdown, even in the darkness, even in our isolation, even when God has seemed very absent, even when we have felt at our most alone.  God does not have to wait for the dawn to do the work that needs to be done.  Jesus steps from the darkness of the tomb into the darkness of the world that

‘the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’

And we emerge too, daring to step into the unknown, daring to test the water of the world, daring to pick up where we left off, daring to embrace, to love, to laugh.  We’ve waited a long time for this but in Jesus, in the resurrected, butterfly-beautiful Jesus we know that

‘the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.’

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading reassures us of the truth of all of this

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
   This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
   let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

My friends, the night has passed, the new day has dawned, the Lord is risen and God’s work has been done.  Bread has been broken, wine has been poured, the table is set and all is ready.

We’re simply invited to step into the future and to leave the stillness behind, to join in the dance that has already begun.

God, draw us from the darkness into the light and to the banquet and the dance you have prepared for us. Amen.


Stations of the Resurrection

During Holy Week there is the long tradition of following the route of the Via Dolorosa, if not actually then certainly spiritually.  But there is another journey that we can make and that is through the experience of resurrection as described in scripture.  It was a journey that the disciples made, from the desolation of the Upper Room to the release from that locked-in, locked-down space into the freedom which Pentecost brought.  I have tried in this set of ‘Stations of the Resurrection’ to take us on that journey.  You can follow it on the Cathedral’s YouTube and Facebook channels – but the texts and the pictures are here for you to use in your own way and in your own time.

The Stations of the Resurrection

God of glory,
by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope;
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The First Station : A new dawn breaks

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. (Matthew 28.1-3)

Lord Jesus, may each dawn fill us with resurrection hope. Amen.

The Second Station : The disciples run to the tomb

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.

Third Station Eugene Burnard

Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. (John 20.3-6)

Lord Jesus, fill us with eager anticipation for each encounter with you. Amen.

The Third Station : Touch me not

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.

Italian School; Noli me tangere

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. (John 20.14-17)

Lord Jesus, may we hear you speak our name and know your love in our lives. Amen.

The Fourth Station : In the upper room

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.

Eighth Station tissot-the-communion-of-the-apostles-751x523

Later Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. (Mark 16.14)

Lord Jesus, meet me in my doubts and in my questions with the assurance of your presence. Amen.

The Fifth Station : My Lord and my God

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20.26-28)

Lord Jesus, may your peace rest upon us; may we declare you our Lord and our God.  Amen.

The Sixth Station : On the road

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24.13-16)

Lord Jesus, walk with us, our companion on our road.  Amen.

The Seventh Station : The breaking of the bread

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24.30-35)

Lord Jesus, feed our hunger with your bread, quench our thirst with your wine, your body, your blood.  Amen.

The Eighth Station : On the beach

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.

Seventh Station Jesus at the lakeside

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. (John 21.4)

Lord Jesus, may we recognise you even when we least expect you. Amen.

The Ninth Station : Come and have breakfast

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ (John 21.9-12)

Lord Jesus, meet us in the ordinary with your extraordinary love.  Amen.

The Tenth Station : Feed my sheep

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. (John 21.15-17)

Lord Jesus, feed us as we feed others, tend us as we tend others.  Amen.

The Eleventh Station : On the mount

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24.50-53)

Lord Jesus, bless us who look to you.  Amen.

The Twelfth Station : At prayer

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


The apostles were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1.14)

Lord Jesus, give us a heart to pray, to lift ourselves to you.  Amen. 

The Thirteenth Station : Wind and flame

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.


When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2.1-4)

Lord Jesus, drive us with the Spirit’s wind, warm us with the Spirit’s flame, speak through us with the Spirit’s voice.  Amen.

The Fourteenth Station : The witness

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia.

Peter preaching

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. (Acts 2.14, 32)

Lord Jesus, may we be living witnesses to your life; may alleluia be our song.  Amen.

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things that are above
where he reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Let us bless the Lord.  Alleluia, alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia!


A new dawn

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee;
joyless is the day’s return,
till Thy mercy’s beams I see,
till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

This verse from Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymn ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’ strikes me as the song that Mary Magdalene was probably singing as she headed from the Upper Room on that Sunday morning.  The Sabbath had ended and so they were able to complete the burial rites for Jesus that had been curtailed by the beginning of that enforced period of rest.  But only as soon as it was possible and safe to do so.


All the cloud that had been bubbling up during the week, culminating in that period of darkness on Good Friday as Jesus hung in agony on the cross, had gone.  It was still dark but the first streaks of light of a new day could just be seen in the east.  The day was beginning, it was a cloudless sky but Mary’s heart was heavy.

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee.

Mary was too impatient to wait for the others to wake and so she crept from that room, not disturbing the rest who were still sleeping, and made her way out through the gates of the city and to the garden in which the cave was located where Jesus was buried.  What she intended to do we don’t know.  St John who tells us the story just says that

‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.’ (John 20.1)

In the first light of day, with eyes still bleary with sleep, things don’t always seem as they are, things look different as the light changes.  But Mary was shaken from any remaining effects of disturbed and restless sleep when she saw that the stone was no longer sealing the tomb but had been rolled away.  John doesn’t say it but this brave and desperate woman must have gone into the cave, into the tomb, she must have seen what had happened, without knowing what had happened because the next thing that John tells us is that

She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ (John 20.2)

I’m fascinated that when Mary reports the news she speaks of ‘we’, ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’ But she was on her own, she didn’t know where they had laid him.  Or was it that she was speaking for me, was it that she was speaking for us, is it as if we were accompanying her in that early morning vigil at the tomb who know that

‘joyless is the day’s return,
till Thy mercy’s beams I see.’

The cloud has been removed from the chancel of the Cathedral.  Since Ash Wednesday it hung there, brooding over everything that we have been doing.  It has hovered as a constant reminder of the clouds that can hang over us, those clouds of doubt and fear, the clouds of depression and anxiety but also those clouds of unknowing that are part and parcel of the Christian life.

It was an unknown English author of the 14th century who first coined that phrase in the book ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ where it is written

‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

Mary longs for Jesus.  He gave her back her life. He changed the lives of all those locked away in that Upper Room, out of fear, out of guilt, in shock at what had happened.  But whilst all of their lives had been changed it was Mary whose life had been saved.  As Jesus had once said of her to the others

‘The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ (Luke 7.47)

But she ‘has shown great love’ he says to them all and we see that played out this morning as she runs from the room to the tomb – and we run with her and see and do not know. There can still be a cloud of unknowing even though the sky is cloudless and streaked with the bright beams of a new day.  We beat ‘with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud’ longing for the one from whom we seem to be seperated.

There have been many interesting comments about this year’s Lent art installation by Susie MacMurray.  But one of the ones was made more often was amazement that a Christian church should exhibit something called ‘Doubt’.  ‘We thought you were about certainty’ people have said.  That has given us the opportunity to say that the opposite of doubt is not certainty but is faith.  We do not know for sure, we do not have a cast-iron proof of anything, we believe and belief is about faith.  We peek into the empty tomb and we share with Mary the not knowing so that she can say to the others ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’

Wesley’s verse ends though in that great place where Mary ends.  The men come with her to see what is going on and when they see it as we have told them they rush back to tell the others.  But Mary remains, weeping, and we stand alongside her.  Peter will always rush here and there and John will run after him, impetuous pair – but we will remain with the unknowing – and then into that space Jesus comes, even though for a moment we still do not know – do not know who he is

till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Jesus speaks her name and she knows him; Jesus speaks our name and we know him.  Our eyes are glad, our hearts are warm.  We may not have all the answers about resurrection but we know that it is true, because we have faith, because we believe and because on a cloudless day we are touched by the warmth of his presence in the chill of the early morning, as bread touches empty hands and we know that he is with us.

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Triduum – The tomb

The tomb of Jesus has been in the news recently.  Whilst I was in Jerusalem on sabbatical the unheard of thing happened.  The tomb was closed to visitors for two days.  Not in recent history had this happened and it came after a long period of negotiation between the various denominations that have rights and vested interests in this most sacred place.  The tomb itself is located in what is called the Aedicule which is the free standing chapel under the rotunda.  I can’t say that it’s my favourite structure.  But what made it even more ugly than I think it is was the metalwork cage that seemed to surround it, to keep it together.  That was put in place during the period of the British Mandate in order to keep the structure in one piece.  But even that, for all its ugliness, was beginning to fail.  The Aedicule had been rebuilt in 1809-10 in the style described as Ottomon Baroque but it surrounded the original tomb which had become isolated from the mountain of which it was originally part.  The place where the body of Jesus was laid had been clad in marble to protect it from holy souvenir hunters.  But when the cladding was removed on 26 October and the material that lay beneath it removed, it was found by nightfall on 28 October that the original limestone burial bed was intact. This suggested to the archaeologists working on the project that the tomb location has not changed through time and confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the Aedicule.

The tomb was then sealed up and, when I went in as soon as it was open to pilgrims again, all I could see was fresh mortar between the marble panels.  But now, all the restoration work has been completed and the Aedicule is in a sound state to welcome millions more across its threshold, into the first chamber and then the burial place itself. It will be from this restored Aedicule that the Holy Fire will emerge for the first time this Easter.

The wraps coming off the restored Aedicule

But, to be honest, it still is a mammoth task of the imagination to imagine that this chapel, freestanding, under the dome was part of a cave in a rock into which had been carved a tomb.

Mark tells us all about it.

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. (Mark 15.46)

Matthew tells us exactly the same thing as does Luke.  It’s John who adds a few more details

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. (John 19.41)

But whether it was in a garden or not it’s clear that the tomb was hewn into the rock but the pilgrim can feel very disconnected with that.  But behind the Aedicule in the wall of the rotunda, close to the Coptic altar that clings to the back of the tomb is a little doorway that leads to somewhere more hidden and holy.

If you go through you find a kokhim complex, a series of passages cut into the rock in which are tombs (there is fantastic example alongside the road down the Mount of Olives which is signposted as the Tomb of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).  Pilgrims clamber through the small opening and with a torch can make out the chambers, cold empty holes cut into the rock.  Some say that this was where Joseph of Arimathea, the same Joseph you gave his tomb to Jesus, was buried.  We don’t know that.  But what this place does help us do is to make a bit of a connection with what the original tomb of Jesus might have been like.

The emptiness of these tombs, the sense of abandonment that surrounds them is, of course, important.  The tomb is just the tomb, the place of resurrection, but abandoned, vacated, left behind. The very emptiness is a challenge to death and you get a sense of that in this great poem by John Donne called ‘DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee’, one of his Holy Sonnets.

DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It’s a really, aggressive, almost cheeky, confident response to death, with that final cry of victory ‘Death, thou shalt die’. What could be stronger. So, however good the Aedicule now looks, it has to be an empty experience for the pilgrims who enter it if it is to speak properly of the resurrection to which it testifies. Those who bow and enter through its door must leave almost disappointed – there is nothing in it.

Abandoned .. empty

The stark ending to St Mark’s Gospel always has the ring of authenticity about it. The angel says to the women who have entered the tomb

‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16.6-8)

We won’t find Jesus in the tomb – we must always meet him in the ‘Galilee’ of the world.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark