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.

Morning

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.

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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.

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sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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