Prone to love

02 November 2006

THE FIRST debate on resurrection in the New Testament (it is not debated at all in the Old Testament) takes the form of an artificial concern for those who have wed a succession of partners and have arrived in heaven. Who will be the true husband and wife? The Lord’s doctrine of resurrection is being reduced to a familiar squabble beyond the grave.

In dismissing this nonsense he allows us our first glimpse of his paradise. From now on, resurrection would be a repeated truth in his teachings. These teachings come to a head in the story (at first uncomfortable) of the resurrection of his great friend Lazarus, in which there appears to be a deliberate delay of two days before Jesus arrives to heal him, when, of course, it is too late.

Jesus uses the euphemism “sleep” for death when discussing the matter with his puzzled disciples. When they fail to understand this, he says, almost brutally, “Lazarus is dead,” adding strangely, “Let us go, that we may die with him.”

Outright, Martha berates him for arriving too late to cure her brother, before acknowledging his power over death itself — “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And it is at this moment that Christ makes the huge statement that will roll away the stones blocking his own tomb: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whosoever believes in me can never die.”

Lazarus would step from his tomb dressed in his shroud. Christ would step from his in unimaginable glory. Perhaps Piero della Francesca comes nearest to showing it to us. He did not use live models, but made clay figures that he dressed in soft fabrics. Into such stuff he breathed the divine vitality of a great artist’s imagination; and we are able to see something of the risen Lord on that first Easter Day.

Easter comes early this year, as has the spring. It has been a good March for coppicing and pruning, putting me in mind of Theodore Roethke’s

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saints strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

There used to be a more tangible sense of resurrection when winters were bad, and spring arrived in a belated rush, apologetic, wonderful, at last routing cold weeks and cold hearts. Whatever the weathermen say, it has been spring on and off since Christmas, primroses since the Epiphany, and greening without a pause since, well, the autumn. The postman paid homage to six inches of snow by not attempting the track.

But now comes this incomparable moment when the risen Christ and the resurgent natural year join hands to create Easter as we have always known it, in a holy partnership of new life.

We should read Thomas Traherne, maybe — the master of earthly gratitude. Or seed packets. Something happy and profound, anyway. Something deep to remind us, if we are ever able to forget it, that “Christ is risen, we are risen.” He taught the recognitions and pleasant sensations of the earth, grumbling a bit about barren trees, but with an eye for flowers and birds, skies and streams; and he would have observed their intensification round about Passover time. How terrible to walk towards death in the spring.

Could we bear to consider such matters, it is probable that we will find our own deaths more unimaginable than our own future existence. It used to be all the rage for Christian poets to rake over the grave-dust, but now we tend to rise above it — as we should. Again, it is what Christ teaches. He dared to say it in the Temple itself: “The dead shall hear the voice of the son of God, and they that hear shall live . . . they shall come forth . . . unto the resurrection of life.”

Isaiah foresaw it. “Arise, shine, for thy light is come . . . and the Gentiles [us] shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” How one loves these confident old texts, and how Easter burnishes them afresh.

Easter Day is the risen Christ’s walking day. There he is, catching up with old friends who do not recognise him, for, having been to hell and back, and now resurgent, he is beyond their experience of him.

The most entrancing of sacred encounters occurs on the road to Emmaus.The spring day has been denied its usual newness. It has, in fact, become a day of horror, disappointment and disillusionment. All that those who saw their hopes perish alongside the poor creature on the scaffold could do now was to step it out home, hoping that the police would not catch them up. No names are given, and their village, Emmaus, is named only this once in scripture. Yet, alongside Bethany, it will, before the day is out, become the founder home of Christian hospitality.

The Bible is for journeymen, and this seven-mile walk to Emmaus on Easter Day in the half-dark is the journey that we all take at one time or another: the journey of fright and faith, of instruction and recognition. In Cowper’s hymn, it is the depressive lagging behind the risen Christ, unable to keep up. On the Emmaus road, it is Christ finally keeping step with his deserters. “Come in,” they say when they reach home, not to him, but to a fellow man who is nightfallen. Polite they may have been, but they are among the first to have disbelieved the resurrection — and with some cause.

It was a gesture, not words, that kindled belief. The guest had given a history lesson as they tramped along, but when he repeated an action that they had seen at that last, sad meal with him, they knew him.

“Abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent” — this is the first invitation from Humanity to Jesus to enter its home, where he took bread and blessed it, broke it and gave it — to his hosts. Luke tells this resurrection story: it doesn’t appear in the other Gospels. It is both domestic and grand, ordinary and glorious. Christ the guest is Christ the Host. The tremendous clamour of Holy Week, with its noisy processions, pragmatic law courts, torture, shouts and accusations, men in fear and hiding, distraught women and faithless followers, comes to a homely close.

I LIKE to walk to the river on the feast of the resurrection. It mirrors me in its cold flow. It has done this all my life, causing my face to waver uncertainly, reflecting my hands, pulling me downstream, as it does polleny scraps of pussy willow and the first dropped scraps of spring nests. Stour Valley ramblers, chattering joyously, slow down over stiles.

The corn on the Hall fields is still too low to hide the flints, which glitter harshly between the green rows. Enormous skies look down. The old seed corn was, if possible, cast on light friable soil — “March dust was worth gold” — and not on wet land. So drying-up March winds were welcomed.

Neolithic men sleep in this stony ground, and I resurrect them in my imagination and make them splash through the icy ford from the still unnamed counties. “God is not of the dead but of the living. . . And when they heard this they were astonished at his doctrine.” Stone Age men in God’s image? Of course, how could they not be, being men? They lie in circles that only the Easter gliders can make out.

Chalk is our rock in Suffolk, but towards Ipswich London clay takes over, and clear, shallow rivers fret our slight hills. The faintest rise, and one can see real distances. They always give me pause on the Easter tramp. They take bell-music a long way. Stranded hedge oaks remind me of The Dream of the Rood, that mighty Anglo-Saxon poem in which a tree shared the agony and triumph of the crucifixion:

“Go and tell them that I am the Tree of Glory
On which the Son of God suffered for a while,
So as to redeem the sins of all mankind
And atone for Adam’s wickedness.
He sipped the drink of death. Yet he rose again,
Determined with his strength to deliver man. . .
I have not
Many friends of influence here on earth; they have journeyed on.”

Hares, safe now from the beagles, leap around the Tree in studied parameters, as they like to do in March, occasionally rising on their hind legs to box, or maybe to pray: who can tell what hares are up to? Although nature is doing what nature does in the spring, we cannot prevent ourselves from reading into it some of the pantheism and poetry for this time of the year.

The Church may sigh, but open Herbert, Traherne, Clare, St Francis — or the present Archbishop of Canterbury, if it comes to that. Then praise those spirits who through the years have made the Church a little unsafe. Who extend its cover, so to speak.

The East Anglian landscape is open cover at Easter. Sharp winds fly about. Clouds make high journeys. Animals leave home and are there for all to see. Wormingford mere, a dark secret in summer, now is a stark pool for all to contemplate. Birdsong increases by the hour, and prevents us from hearing the grass grow. More is going on than we are able to assess.

So we just breathe and listen and look — and think Easter. Christ is risen. God’s creation springs into new life.

It was resurrection that had hurried Jesus to Calvary. Being a travelling healer and a critic of religious orthodoxy was one thing; returning the dead to life was quite another. Such power must undermine Church and state, and had to be suppressed. There was official relief when someone cried out: “He saved others, himself he cannot save!” They would not have heard Jesus tell his fellow sufferer: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So the first person to recognise the cross was himself a poor crucified man.

Below them both, officialdom would have waited nervously to see if its strange victim would indeed save himself. When he failed to do so, its relief was equalled only by the despair of those who believed that he could.

We hold vigil as usual at Mount Bures, the old church on its rise recovered from scaffolding. We light a blowy fire in the churchyard, take flame from it for the Paschal candle, sing Baring-Gould’s translation of “Through the night of doubt and sorrow”, and process in the half-dark aisle. And I say, “Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!”, and then we repeat our baptismal vows, for good measure.

Both on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the flower-arrangers can hardly wait to get at the Oasis. Their cars smell heavily of lilies. Alleluias repeat themselves on the hymnboards. A bee creeps from a monument. On Easter afternoon, the river walk done, I take stock of those bright centres of returning life, my horseponds, unswigged for many a year by the plough horses, and so with marsh-marigolds (Caltha palustris) sealing them in with lustrous leaves and cups, and hints of where the dragonflies will eventually emerge in their brief splendour. Resurrection runs past and present tense together in a timeless continuity, and one never knows exactly where one is with it. Never mind the theology, says Traherne; just enjoy it.

Thomas Traherne on love

Love is the true Means by which the World is Enjoyed. Our love to others, and Others love to us. We ought therefore above all Things to get acquainted with the Nature of Love, for Love is the root and Foundation of Nature. Love is the Soul of Life, and Crown of Rewards. If we cannot be satisfied in the Nature of Love we can never be satisfied at all. The very End for which God made the World was that He might Manifest His Love. . . There are many Glorious Excellencies in the Material World, but without love they are all Abortive. . . You are as Prone to Love as the Sun is to shine. It being the most Delightful and Natural Employment for the Soul of Man.

From Traherne: Poems, Centuries and Three Thanksgivings, OUP, 1966

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