"But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor
little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from 'Let
there be light' to 'It is finished' only amounted to 'boum'."
So reflects Mrs Moore in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. A
life-long Christian, whose faith and the comfort it brings her have become
increasingly cold with the passing of the years, Mrs Moore has come to India
seeking new meaning, new purpose, new significance in her life. During a trip
to the Marabar caves, Mrs Moore's life and beliefs are turned upside down by an
unexpected and disturbing experience. Standing in one of these cavernous
spaces, she realises that her ears are filled by the haunting sound of a
persistent, incomprehensible echo. No matter which words leave her lips,
however pious or well-meant, the sound comes back the same - an empty,
meaningless echo. And from this unsettling experience, Mrs Moore reflects on
the faith that has sustained her throughout her life, and concludes that from
God's first words in creation to Christ's final words on the cross, it is no
more than "poor little talkative Christianity".
On Easter Day, I suspect that many of us approach the tomb of Christ with
some of the same hopes and aspirations with which Mrs Moore travelled to the
Marabar caves. As Christians, we believe that all human history converges upon
the saving events of the death and resurrection of Jesus; and, unlike the three
women who, in Mark's Gospel, bought spices in order to anoint the lifeless body
of the one whose brutal execution they had witnessed, our early-morning journey
to the tomb is not filled with the same heart-broken grief and heavy sorrow.
Our advantage over those first disciples is that we have already heard the
message proclaimed inside the tomb: "He has been raised; he is not here," and
so our expectations are high. We may be confident that retracing steps along
which countless disciples have travelled for 2000 years will lead us to joy and
fulfilment when we see the place where they laid him.
Yet in none of the Gospel accounts do those who come to the tomb remain
there for very long. The Easter experience is not complete unless, having
entered the tomb to see for ourselves, we then leave with a message for others.
For us, who have heard and seen it all before, and whose response to the
resurrection may have become dulled by familiarity, there is a danger that, in
growing weary of the challenge of stepping back into the garden to discover
what it means to be a disciple of the Risen One, we have become content to
remain in the tomb, filling its emptiness with Alleluias that are not heard by
those outside, but return to our ears as a confused, meaningless echo - "poor
little talkative Christianity".
If our Easter faith has got stuck inside an empty, echoing tomb, then
perhaps we need to find other images of the resurrection that speak more
realistically to our experience. For me, one such image stands in the great
12th-century Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.
Over its history, at different times and in varying circumstances, the
worshipping community has expressed particular aspects of its faith in Christ
through images of his mother. Of all these, none is more striking than the most
recent addition: Our Lady, Queen of Peace. The work of the
contemporary sculptor, Anthony Robinson, it was given to the Abbey in 1992.
Standing in front of the image, the eye is drawn first to the base of the
statue, which appears to be no more than a pile of scrap metal, rusted and
misshapen. In his Pilgrim Guide to the Abbey, Michael Tavinor
describes how some have seen within its contorted features instruments of
torture or the wreckage of a car crash. In more recent years, it has been
identified with the Ground Zero of 11 September. This ugly pile of twisted
metal speaks powerfully of the pain of a disordered world of chaos and despair
- of a world and its people disfigured by the effects earthquake, flood and
famine; of terrorism and military conflict; of religious and racial intolerance.
But from this chaotic base rises the image of Mary. Made from shining
stainless steel, its most striking feature is that Mary is completely hollow,
holding her hands out in a gesture of prayer which is both open to God and to
those who are drawn towards her. With its two parts, the statue speaks of the
movement from death to life, from crucifixion to resurrection. This is no
sentimental Christmas-card representation of the sort of mother who cradles her
child in her arms in order to protect him from the painful reality of what is
happening beneath them. Rather, the twisted metal is an integral part of the
statue. Without it, the image is incomplete and would topple over.
By making scrap metal the foundation for stainless steel, Anthony Robinson
expresses the Christian truth that the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not
obliterate his Good Friday experience; it does not remove the intense Passion
of its pain, or its darkness, or its God-forsakenness. Without the cross,
Easter is no more than a theatrical sleight of hand, a meaningless charade.
Without the resurrection, the crucifixion has no more significance than any
other Roman execution.
At one level, Tewkesbury's Mary may appear to be an unlikely icon of
resurrection life. The New Testament contains no evidence to suggest that the
Mother of Jesus was among those who went to the tomb early on the first day of
the week. And yet, the juxtaposition of the two parts of this image reflects an
important reality of our own post-resurrection lives. We, who were also absent
on the first Easter morning, find ourselves, for much of the time, not basking
in the gleaming, reflective, and ecstatic splendour of resurrection glory, but
struggling to find our way in that often sharp and ambiguous place of what
often appears to be a spiritual wilderness or no man's land, where twisted
metal and shining stainless steel meet.
Comparing the Evangelists' accounts of the resurrection, it is interesting
that they present subtly different pictures of how light or dark it was when
the women journeyed to the tomb. In Matthew, they arrive "as the first day of
the week was dawning"; in Mark, it is "very early . . . when the sun had risen"
; and Luke describes the scene "at early dawn", whereas in John it is still
Responding to this ambiguity, as well as to our own experience of living in
the light of the risen Christ, Tewkesbury's Mary helps us to come to terms with
the reality that, for much of the time, our lives are lived in the dawning
half-light of Easter morning, very early, in that often confused and uncertain
place that is neither light nor dark, where we must wait to discover the full
reality of what it means for the bloodstained wood of the cross and the
transforming glory of Easter to embrace and clothe each other in eternal
Such a place is described by Elizabeth Jennings in these four verses from
her poem "Dawn Not Yet":
Dawn not yet and the night still holding sleepers
Closed in dreams, clams in shelter, a hiding
Of half the world and men turned back into
Primeval matter. A closed world only tides
Ruminate over. Here men could be fossils
Embedded in strata, all to be discovered
By morning, skilful archaeologist
Cutting down carefully, drawing up debris
Of centuries but also precious gems,
Ivory figurines, kings' hoards. We are shown
Riches the sun at last gives shape and glint to
Sun the explorer, sun the diver, too.
As those who inhabit a world that frustratingly feels all too often as if it
is "dawn not yet", our Easter response to the resurrection of Christ is not so
different from that of Jennings's skilful archaeologist, who makes careful use
of the rays of the sun to give shape and glint to riches embedded in strata,
all to be discovered.
This Easter, may our early-morning pilgrimage on the first day of the week
not reach its final destination in an empty tomb where faith in Christ's
resurrection echoes meaninglessly around our heads. May it rather empower us to
rejoice in the ultimate defeat of sin and death in a world still painfully
scarred by their reality. As we continue our Easter journey by walking away
from the garden, may our eyes be opened to recognise in the half-light of the
new dawn the transforming light of the risen Christ, shining upon the twisted,
misshapen, and rusted disorder, to form us into his own likeness and to
bring to birth a new creation.
The Revd Dr Simon Jones is Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.