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Walking away from the garden

02 November 2006

"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 dark.

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 significance.

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.

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