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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“I think we’re nearly there” – Leading through brokenness

The story of The Exodus – the escape over three millennia ago of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey homeward bound – is one of the greatest stories ever told. And it begins with a broken man being called to rescue this broken people from a broken tyrant overseeing a broken economy within a broken culture.

I was reflecting with Jim today on the brokenness I have seen lately in people around me, and in myself. This brokenness is not a bad thing: the opposite, in fact. Some of the people I most admire and look up to; those who have taught me how to live well; are broken.

Actually, on some level, we are all broken.

And the more I become aware of the brokenness around me, the more I realise that my leadership – in all areas of my life – must begin in the brokenness.

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Exodus 6:9

The people of Israel were so broken; their inward (and probably outward) cries of pain were so overwhelming, so unbearable, that they could hear and see and feel nothing that didn’t hurt.

We may not be slaves, we may not have experienced oppression to the same degree as the Israelite people under Pharaoh, but life hurts, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, life hurts so much that we can hear nothing but our pain.

Disillusionment, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt: these things begin to shape our narratives: they become the dominant stories that we tell. We lose sight of the future we were promised. We forget that there might be promise beyond the pain. We become hope-less.

A few weeks ago, I had a particular day where a number of people asked me to listen to their pain, and to pray with them. Thankfully, I had my anointing oil on hand! Following that day, I made a decision to always carry the oil – at least, as much as I would remember to. I think this decision arose from a realisation that I am ministering to a broken people. Not that the people I minister to are an anomaly; rather, I see in them the brokenness that many of us wear as casually and normally as our clothes. With the oil, I am ready to hear their brokenness, to embrace and anoint the darkest of their fears, and to speak words of comfort and hope and freedom.

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But…
Broken people don’t listen.

Why should they?

And yet, the story we have to tell – of resurrection and life and love and hope – needs to be heard.

So how do we tell it?

Anyone called to or engaged in Christian leadership needs to be ready to minister to the brokenness. Sometimes, the pain of our people is so profound – and shapes their story so crushingly – that before we can begin any meaningful work of discipleship or teaching or building up we need to address the pain.

Effective leaders must be pastors, listeners, healers, and encouragers.

If our people are broken in spirit, then the first – perhaps the only – tasks of leadership are:

To understand the brokenness
To listen, painstakingly, patiently, undefensively.
To hear the story behind the story; the meaning behind the words; the pain behind the aggression.
To be able to retell the story back to the storyteller in their words.
To empathise, and not sympathise.
To be there, with no agenda.

To bind up the wounds
To speak little, but incisively.
To offer words of healing balm, rather than explanation, defence, challenge, or frustration.
To embrace, without turning away.

To earn back trust
To recognise this is slow work.
To teach by listening rather than talking.
To offer freedom, autonomy, and space to make mistakes.
To be ready to go back to the work of listening, hearing, understanding, when the pain crowds in and this inner work is too much.

As a church, we are broken, and we have a difficult time ahead. Trust in us as an institution – as with many institutions – is at an all-time low. The narratives all too often turn to desperation, failure, regret. We must learn to lead our people through despondency, through disappointment, through brokenness.

But these things must never come to define our story.

We are broken, but our brokenness is not the end of our story. The great story of the Exodus probably never felt like an epic tale of adventure to the broken Israelite slaves. At what point did they, as a generation, realise the extent to which their story would be told, retold and learned by heart?

Probably never.

My greatest heroes, my cherished role models, are all broken people. But it is their brokenness, and their embrace of that brokenness, that makes them heroic.

We are all on a path through brokenness to wholeness. And increasingly, we need leaders who have walked that path, and who are willing to walk it again with their people; as slowly and as painstakingly as it takes. The best leaders never sprint off ahead. The best leaders stay with – and unite – the group. The best leaders tie up shoe laces and wipe snotty noses and sit with those who have given up and hand out snacks and plasters and jokes and say,

“Look ahead – I think we’re nearly there“.

And there is the wholeness we glimpse in brokenness. It is in the people among us to are ready
to listen,
to hear,
to heal,
to hope.

“I just want to be blessed”

My abiding memory of Christmas will be the person who said these words to me.

It was nearing midnight at the end of Christmas Eve. I was celebrating Holy Communion with a small but sincere congregation. We had just started on the Eucharistic prayer, when through the doors at the back of church, directly ahead of where I was facing, a young woman entered church with her two dogs. She wandered to the front of church, sat down in the children’s corner, and was quickly welcomed and shown where we were in the liturgy. The dogs busied themselves in giving the church a thorough ‘sniff-test’.

After the Eucharistic Prayer, I explained to the congregation that everyone was welcome around the table:

We welcome all baptised members of the Christian faith, regardless of your denomination, to come and receive the bread and the wine. If you would rather receive a prayer of blessing this evening, please come forward holding your service booklet.

Over the sound system, I played John Rutter’s Angels Carol (if you don’t know it, and even if you do, you must listen to the clip at the end of this post).

Have you heard the news…
that they bring from heaven…
to the humble shepherds…
who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

I turned to offer the bread and wine to the chalice assistants behind me, and when I turned back, she was there. Standing expectantly, hopefully, right in front of me on the other side of the altar.  She was dressed in pyjamas and slippers. She stood alone, with the congregation still sat behind her.

“What would you like?” I asked. “The bread and wine, or a prayer?”

“I just want a blessing.” She replied. “I just want to be blessed.”

I put down the bread and walked around the altar to join her. There, I stood with her, my arms on her shoulders. I asked her name, the names of her dogs, and I held her, and prayed with her for herself and for them. Then she skipped back to her seat, and chatted loudly through the rest of the service. She left at the end with a flourish of joy: “MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!” she shouted, as she held the entrance doors wide open, the dogs scampering around her feet.

I just want to be blessed.

It has stayed with me. Echoed through the days of the Christmas season. A bold, audacious, extravagant request, spoken through the vulnerability of the intoxicated girl in pyjamas. Not demanding, but confident. Not self-centred, but expectant that she would receive that which she asked for.

I just want to be blessed.

What might blessing look like, for us? For this person, it was about running to God’s table, hearing the story of divine love, receiving solid touch and whispered blessing. It was about standing before God, stripped to the simplicity of her pyjamas and slippers, and hearing her name spoken in prayer. It was about leaving in exuberance, filled with joy.

Her expectant hope and vulnerable approach seems to be the stuff of Epiphany. In Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God’s love to all people. The magi 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). Expectant hope, vulnerable approach, courageous humility: these are attitudes for the furthest corners of life. This is the stuff of Epiphany.

At my lowest, at my most distant, at my most vulnerable I hope I will remember the confident approach of my parishioner on Christmas Eve. And I hope she remembers something of it too. Perhaps her memory is hazy. Perhaps she now feels ashamed, or embarrassed. She needn’t. She modelled to all of us who were there that night what it means to run joyfully into God’s arms, stripped of everything that might otherwise keep us away. That night; however momentarily, however impulsively; she was blessed, and she came home.

Ebb and flow at Rievaulx 

We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years. 

The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss. 

Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx. 

What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt? 

What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?

What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?

What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?

What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?

What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place? 

What would Rievaulx be today? 

These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx. 

What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey? 

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow? 

Did he hope that Rievaulx  would become one of the richest abbeys in England? 

Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees? 

Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death? 

Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us. 

And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:

When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel? 

What spiritual footprints will I leave? 

How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place? 

What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins? 

What of these ruins will people wonder at? 

Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time. 

Hold on: A reflection for the dark days

Psalm 88: Stark, honest, raw. It joins voices of despair that span place and time. It gives permission to lament, and it carves a space for unresolved sorrow. It resists shallow niceties and bland platitudes.

The time between Good Friday and Easter Day is unresolved time. The Messiah is dead; the curtain is torn (but what does that mean?); God is silent. I wonder how many of us live in this unresolved, painful place, not just this weekend, but through much of the year. How many of us hang between darkness and resolution?

Here is a reflection for all of you who are holding on by your fingertips, as you plummet through this liminal space.


Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:12

An uncertain glance.
A silent tear.
Darkness rises, chokes and blinds.

It is finished,
And you launch into the unknown
Falling through the nothingness of what next?
Into the endless void of where now?

Fear sings her taunts
And Doubt dances on the place you used to stand:
What will catch you?
Who will save you?

In the land of forgetfulness
No memory sustains you
No story reminds you
No music restores you.

Going back is not an option:
That door has closed.
Beasts of regret and fires of what if? lie behind.

But you can go on.

Is there a glimmer in the darkness?
A seed planted but long forgotten?
A fresh shoot of – what?

You wait.
You watch.
You hope.

And then you step forward
Because forward is the only way to go.

Hold on, weary one.
Cling to the echo of a promise you have never understood.
Remember the hope you once passed by.
Believe that beyond what you know, there is a more brilliant future dawning.

Look up.
Look back.
Then travel on.

It’s night time, but morning is coming.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79

 

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In quietness and trust: Tell stories

This is the third in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Tell stories!

Stories can start anywhere.

“Mummy – what does that sign say on that bench?”
“It says it’s there to remember someone who died”
“Who died?”
“I don’t know – just somebody who liked this place”
“Do we know somebody who died?”
“Yes. Grandma died, just before you were born…”

And so I tell Ben the story of his Grandma. I tell him what she was like, and how much she would have loved him. About how I promised to tell him all about her. I show him photos. We talk about Heaven and Jesus and how many cats Daddy and Grandma had when Daddy was a little boy. And what their names were. And are there cats in Heaven? (My answer is yes). And can Ben have a cat at home? (My answer is no).

Stories tell us who we are.
They tell us where we have come from.
They might hint at where we’re going.

Kids love stories. So do adults – we just forget that we like them so much.

Stories make great prayers for kids. Not just reading the Bible together, or retelling faith stories. We find God in all sorts of stories. God is there in Stick Man and Dear Zoo. God is found in Sarah and Duck, and Peppa Pig. Everywhere we hear stories of love and laughter, of loyalty and trust, of hope and generosity – there God is to be found.

Just as we know ourselves by our stories, so we know God by his stories. The stories we tell to make sense of the world, and to process life. These stories all tell us a little bit more about who God is, and why he is, and how and where and what he is. This stuff – identity, security, revelation, thanksgiving, hope – is the stuff of prayer.

I try to tell stories to my kids. We read picture books; watch films; make things up. I tell them where they have come from – and what is important and why?

And I try to listen. I listen to their own fantasies and dreams and anecdotes. We explore and adventure together through story, and offer it all to God as prayer.

When we lose our stories, we lose our lives. But wherever there are stories, there is God.

(And while we’re on it, check out the brilliant Storytime Service website!)

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…and a victory of hope

It was the women who went to deal with his body. Early, at dawn. Few would see them. They wouldn’t make much fuss.

They would nurture him in death as they had tended him in life. Washing him with tears and anointing him with oil. Grieving, broken, empty.

But then everything changed.

An empty tomb.
A panic.
An earthquake.
A bright light.
An angel.
A cry.

A greeting.

A RESURRECTION!

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A revolution beyond all expectations.
A victory greater than political autonomy.
A liberation more eternal than simple Earthly freedom.

The victory of Easter is a different sort of victory.
It is a victory that points all of our struggles towards a greater whole.
It is a victory that shines the most brilliant of lights into the darkest of our experiences.

It is a victory that hears our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and frustrations, our disappointment and fear, our dying dreams and our misplaced expectation, and says…

these things do not have the last word.

Easter day is a triumph of:

Joy
over
sorrow

Peace
over
turmoil

Reconciliation
over
conflict

Reunion
over
grief

Good
over
evil

Rest
over
pain

Stillness
over
anxiety

Love
over
hatred

Life
over
death

Light the fireworks!
Uncork the champagne!
Laugh and sing and marvel in awesome wonder!

Today we know not how our story ends, but that our story doesn’t end.
Today is simply the beginning of the eternity of our lives.
Today we mock and laugh at Death himself, knowing that although we bear his scars, he will never again defeat us.

Some questions to enrich, embolden, renew, and restore:

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What new dreams are gestating within you?
What flickers of hope can you see in the darkness?
Where are the safe places emerging in which you can put trust?
Which of your frustrations is opening a door to new, surprising opportunities?

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O grave, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?