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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Winter Light at Easter

It's a wintry Easter we are celebrating this year, for all of us cold and for some, very white. It’s no comfort to be told that a March Easter is more likely to be white than Christmas Day. The psychological and emotional effect of this equinoctial cold is all the more potent because we do not expect it and were not prepared for it when the days became longer than the nights. Fierce has this unseasonal winter’s grip been in upland Britain which begins not 20 miles west of here. Ask the elderly. Ask the farmers.

Lent is an old English word for spring. We have ached for spring, for its luminous duck-egg skies, its birdsong, its fresh colours and flowers. We would love to see cumulus bubble up again borne on a southerly zephyr letting loose sharp showers to wash the landscape. We would love to feel the gentle warmth of the strengthening sun as it climbs towards the zenith. When spring comes, it will never be more welcomed. 

Of course whether it is white or green, Easter is always a bursting forth of light and colour and life. In this Cathedral and in every church in the land, and in the hearts of all who feel the slightest pull of spiritual reality, it is springtime today. Rise heart, thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
(George Herbert, 'Easter')

But perhaps this prolonged winter brings a gift with it: to help us to enter into an aspect of the Easter story that we might not have felt in quite this way before. I mean the complex emotions of those who loved Jesus and who on Good Friday experienced the most terrible sense of bafflement, confusion and loss. For them, the aftermath of Golgotha would have been nothing less than a winter of the soul

           when a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

(R.S. Thomas, 'The Belfry')

In her cycle of radio plays about gospel story, The Man Born to be King, Dorothy Sayers has John discover a pair of old sandals that Jesus had worn. He hides them from Peter because of what memories charged with sight and feel and smell would do to him ‘like a sick animal that has crawled home to die. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep.' One of the normal symptoms of bereavement is aching for the presence of the loved-one, and an instinct to search that will not go away. Who is to say what brought the women to the garden at dawn on Easter morning? They went to anoint a body with spices, but what else drove them there? Surely the need to see him again, feel the tender skin, remember his voice, his touch, his scent. Perhaps this year we have glimpsed this in an attenuated way by our sense of the cold, our own wintry longing for Easter, for springtime, for warmth. 

Easter answers our longings and desires. It does this by both changing how things were, and transforming our view of them. We would not be here if we didn’t believe that something infinitely life-changing took place on Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the grave space empty. There is no getting away from this singularity in history. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here’ say the two men in the garden. A real absence, indeed, but a vacuum that gives the women what they most need: to dare to entertain the possibility that all was not as it seemed, that they were in the presence of the most profound of mysteries that nevertheless had the capacity to turn round despair. ‘He is risen. Remember how he told you.’ Here is where fantasy meets reality, where longing is transmuted into hope. The women begin to see reality differently. We begin to. The world is a different place. The garden has flowers. There is blue sky above our heads. The earth begins to warm. At last it is spring. Everything changes.

Of course, all this is to collapse a long disclosure and its realisation into a few moments. Luke himself keeps us in suspense here: the disciples did not believe the women at first. The two who walked the Emmaus Road with the unknown stranger did not recognise him: there was a journey to make, not simply along a dusty cratered near-eastern cart track but an inward journey of the soul to bring springtime to their bleakness, coax their frozen spirits back into life. The important thing is: there is disclosure. There is recognition. There is a new world. Winter has fled, and with it its gloomy shadows and oppressive captivity. He is risen. 

St Augustine has a beautiful passage in a commentary on the feeding of the crowd where he speaks about our human longings and hungers. ‘Give me a lover: a lover will feel what I am speaking of; give me one who longs, who hungers, who is a thirsty pilgrim in this wilderness, sighing for the springs of his eternal homeland; give me such a person, for they will know what I mean.’ He might have added: give me one who is longing for spring, yearning to be rid of burdens, tired of this endless Narnian winter, weary in themselves, weary for our globe that strives to find some hope as it struggles under the weight of unhealed conflict, sorrow and pain.

If this echoes your experience, then come to the risen Lord today. Sit down at his Easter feast. Eat bread and drink wine. Find your healing and refreshment in him; be glad that he is among us as our beloved brother who was lost in his death but found in his resurrection, who opens up the way home for all people and welcomes us to celebrate here in his Father’s house. For here, at least, the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come. Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral, Easter Day, 2013
Luke 24. 1-12

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