Fifth Sunday of Easter

14 may 2017

6pm at Southwark:
Service of Light

Preacher: The Dean

Readings: Mark 16.9-15


Go into any gallery and you’ll see numerous paintings and other works of art that’ve been commissioned, by or for the church, depicting elements of the Christian story.  The National Gallery is full of depictions of the nativity, of saints, of the crucifixion.  The imagination of artists have run wild over the centuries portraying heaven and hell, angels, virgins, martyrs bristling with arrows, John the Baptist with his head on a platter, cherubs circling a Madonna, an overlarge baby laid across his mother’s lap in a prefiguring pose of the dead Jesus in the Pieta.

But amongst them all you’ll find few paintings of the resurrection.  Icons of course are the exception I suppose, the frescos you find, for instance, in Istanbul, Byzantine imaginings of a triumphant Jesus dragging our reluctant first parents from the comfort of the grave into the new life won for us.

But even these are not attempts to capture the moment of resurrection, rather they describe its consequences.

Mark tells us in his gospel that

When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by Mary, they would not believe it.

Luke says that the men thought that what the women witnesses were telling them was ‘an idle tale’.  Unless you’d experienced it, it was hard, impossible it seems, to describe.  Words fail.

T S Eliot in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ one of his ‘Four Quartets’ describes it like this

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Words will only take us so far into mystery, but not too far.  The pen, the brush, the sculptors chisel, are limited in what they can describe and we’re lost for words and Mary is lost for words as the disciples look at her in disbelief.  You have to experience resurrection in order to know it.  That must have been the challenge for the early Christians as they took the Good News from Jerusalem around the known world; that’s the challenge for us, describing the indescribable, giving substance to mystery.

So we’re fortunate to have in the Cathedral this sculpture entitled ‘Resurrection’.  It’s the work of Edward Robinson who was the brother of Bishop John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich who most famously wrote the book ‘Honest to God’ which raised the whole question of the veracity of faith in the modern world, the place of myth and mystery in the modern context.

I love this sculpture because I think it goes along way to doing what can’t be done.  To be honest we don’t display it as it should be displayed – closed for most of the time and opened exceptionally.  But forgive us that and just look for a moment.

When I came to look at it again two things struck me.

The first is obviously the light.  It’s a motif that we’re used to employing in the church to describe Christ – the light of the world.  But here the artist uses it to effect in the way that St John describes it in the opening of his Gospel.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.5)

Here the light shines confidently, strongly, out of the darkness. It’s the resurrection light that destroys the darkness that descends on the world as Jesus dies on the cross.  It’s like the first light on the day of creation, the first light on this first day of recreation.

The second thing I noticed was the depth to the sculpture.  The women, Mary, the disciples, had to enter the tomb in order to find the evidence that he was risen.  You couldn’t tell just from standing outside, that’s not possible with these Jewish cave tombs with their ante-chamber and the burial chamber beyond.  They are deep places.  This sculpture invites us in, draws from the outside to the inside.  But as it does that I think that it’s telling us something about the superficial nature of so much of our lives.

R S Thomas in his poem ‘The Absence’ muses on that concept and what holds us back from entering more deeply.  He concludes

What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

The disciples found the open door, the empty space, the once God-filled chamber a vacuum, but not abhorred and they enter, they dare to go deeper.  We can’t play on the edge of faith this sculpture says to me, we can’t stay in the dark place like in Plato’s cave but must go towards the light, deeper, deeper into God.

Resurrection remains indescribable.  All we can do, here, now, is take one person’s inadequate depiction of it and allow it to illuminate and draw us, just as it did for Mary on that first dew-drenched morning.