Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

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Take this light: A reflection for Candlemas

On Sunday in the parish we celebrated The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: also known as Candlemas. We heard again the account of Jesus being brought to the temple by his young parents, to be met by Simeon and aged Anna: expectant, hopeful and looking for this baby who would be a light for all people.

As is traditional at this time of year, we brought candles and lights from home to be blessed and taken away again: a sign of the light of Christ that each of us carries out into the world. As we lit our candles and switched off the lights around the crib, I spoke about the significance of what we were doing. What follows is an adapted and developed version of what I said in that moment.


As December nights grew colder, darker
So we huddled around this place

Waiting.

Waiting for the light to glow:
Faint, at first –
Then a crescendo to full brilliance
As the promise of a saviour came to pass.

We knelt here in worship with the shepherds
And sang his praises with the Christmas angels.
We basked in Joseph’s quiet wonder
And we heard Mary’s joyous yes.

We brought gifts to mark the arrival:
Crafted woollen sheep
Whispered prayers
Tears of loss
Of joy.

We made room here for the lost and the forgotten
Shepherd rubbed shoulder with father as we placed our own people around the manger.
Always room for more.

We watched in anticipation
Long after the world ditched Christmas
Sharing a star with far away travellers
And claiming their homage to this child as our own:
A light for all people.

And now we gather here
One last time.
And we switch off the manger’s light.

Not because he is gone.
Not because it is over.
Not because we are done.

But because he is here.
Because it has begun.
Because we are called.

The light that began in this crib
Is the light we now hold in our hands
As we take its blessings back
To home and to heart.

But it doesn’t stay there.

Take it: take it in your words, your actions, your care
And shine it into the bleakest corners of this world.
Take it and illuminate your heart as you light up your home
So that you become bearers of the manger’s light
In the coldest, shadowy places of life.

Take it, and know that you are blessed
And will bless
And will grow
And will go
Onwards, down darkest paths
As people who carry this light.

God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and has given us a place with the saints in light.
You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life.
Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

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All travelling safely home: A meditation for Epiphany

On January 6th, we reach the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Christian calendar celebrates The Feast of the Epiphany: the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the promised Jewish saviour. 

But these men were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). I have tried to write this meditation from a “farthest corner” of my own – the deflated sense of normality that I return to after our Christmas celebrations, in what ought to be one of the most joyous times of the Christian year. Perhaps in the relative stillness of “normality”, away from the distractions of Christmas, we might receive again the real gift of Christmas: the love, acceptance and adventure of a life with God.

As ever, use this as it is helpful, and ignore it as it is not. 


On the thirteenth day of Christmas
The tree is well away
The house is hauntingly empty 
And the wind seems so much colder.

January’s darkness is not like December’s:
Pregnant with anticipation
As light and warmth swell
And holiday loiters promisingly on the horizon.

January’s darkness is bleak:
The embers of Christmas grow dim
And we notice (as if for the first time)
The gloomy days filled with worry and bustle.

But on the dark chill of Christmas’s thirteenth day
A band of angels gathers
As a day is just yet dawning
And a quiet herald whispers poems of hope.

In our darkest, furthest corners
Something in our souls is stirred.
A hand reaches in, to lead us from our gloom
As December’s embers flame again.

Star is swallowed by brilliant sunrise, and
Rising, we leave our emptiness behind
Drawn by Epiphany’s brightest light
To join a company of kindly strangers

All travelling safely 
Home.

Arise, shine; for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee

Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

On darkness

This morning I preached at our joint All Age service about darkness. This afternoon I was heartened to read this, by James Martin SJ, about newly-canonised Mother Teresa and her own battle with spiritual darkness.

What follows are some improvisations on the words I shared today.


I’m afraid – not of the dark – but of darkness.
This darkness is difficult to describe.
It is…

The darkness of depression and anxiety that creeps up on me sometimes.
The darkness of knowing that I might fail: in my parenting, in my ministry, or some other area.
The darkness of a fear that grips when I hear of more violence, more hate, more terror in the world around.
The darkness of thinking that this might be all that there is.
The darkness of a world without life, a tragedy without hope, a death without resurrection.

It is the darkness that lurks, as Doctor Who warns Amy Pond,

Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look. The corner of your eye.

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It is a darkness described by Mother Teresa:

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.

This darkness is very real and frightening.

Anyone who has wrestled with God – or God’s absence – in the long hours of night will know the suffocating, crushing, oppressive feeling of being surrounded by a darkness that is more than an absence of light.

This darkness is not right.
This darkness is not peaceable or calm.
This darkness is not harmless.

There is something in this darkness that is a theology without a language.
We barely talk about it, maybe because we are scared or embarrassed, or possibly because we don’t need to give it attention beyond that which it demands.

This is the darkness of spiritual warfare, spiritual battle, spiritual oppression.
It chokes, it robs us of life, it cuts us off from all that is holy.
It tells us of God’s absence, of love’s failure, of hope’s flight.

And yet, paradoxically, it is a darkness that I know more deeply the nearer I draw to God.
In this way, spiritual darkness is vocational.

With each glimpse of God, another small part of his kingdom is illuminated.
We see the good, and the bad.
The redeemed, and the not yet.
The light, and the darkness.

With each whisper from the Holy Spirit, we hear a little of her wordless groaning of intercession.
We hear cries of joy and pain.
Of laughter and sorrow.
Of relief and grief.

Perhaps only in the darkness do we see how much we need the light of Christ.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we come to know prayer as throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and saying I cannot live this life alone. I need God to get me through.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we feel most deeply the pain of those around us, and find the resources and compassion to bring light to the darkness of another.

This darkness is not from God.
It is more than God’s absence.
Yet with God’s presence, it flees.

Perhaps this darkness is always there, always threatening, always looming, but never victorious.

The closer we draw to God, the more we know love, light and hope.
Yet the more we know these things, the more we are called to journey through the darkness that they will one day defeat.

If you’re in darkness, hang in there. Shout prayers and scripture and the name of Christ at whatever lurks in the corner of your eye, right where you never want to look, and it will flee.

 St Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort me and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.