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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

06 April 2023

Malcolm Guite sees a mirroring of the creation story in Jesus’s appearance in the upper room

BOTH of the Easter Day appearances of the risen Christ in St John’s Gospel have the kind of luminosity and depth that draws one back, again and again, over many years, always to find something new and stimulating.

As a younger man, I was always drawn to the scene at Easter dawn, which has, in Czesław Miłosz’s phrase, “the clarity of early morning”. I loved the sudden transformation of Mary from sorrow to joy when she hears her own name on the lips of her Saviour, and her joyful sprint to tell the others, and so become, as Lancelot Andrewes says, “an Apostle to the Apostles, an Evangelist to the Evangelists”.

But now, nearer the evening of my life, it is the evening appearance, which immediately follows it in John’s narrative, that draws me in. There are the disciples, behind locked doors, not only cautious, but, frankly, fearful, notwithstanding the news that Mary had brought them that morning. And then Jesus appears in their midst, and the first word on his lips is “Peace”. In increasingly anxious and fearful times, it is a word one is longing deeply to hear. Then comes that extraordinary moment, a kind of Pentecost before Pentecost, in which he breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It seems to me that there is a lovely recapitulation of the Genesis creation narrative going on here. No, not so much a recapitulation as a delicate mirroring of the moment in the garden when the Lord breathes into the clay of the first person, and makes them a living being — “a human being fully alive”, as Irenaeus says.

Indeed, it’s almost a chiasmic sequence, as the New Testament mirrors and reverses the order of the Old. In Genesis, the first creation, we start with the cosmic coming of the Creator Spirit, the Spirit of God moving on the face of the deep, and then comes the personal inbreathing of the Spirit into Adam in the garden. But, in the New Testament, the ordering of the new creation, we start with this intimate, personal inbreathing of the Spirit; and then, in Acts, we have the cosmic event: the mighty rushing wind, the tongues of fire, the birth of the Church, the transformation of the world.

That moment in the upper room also took on new meaning for me in those panicky days of the first lockdown. Once more, we were living in fear behind locked doors, once more everything turned on breathing. I tried to get a little of how pertinent John’s vision became at that time, in this sonnet:

This Breathless Earth (John 20.19)

We bolted every door but even so
We couldn’t catch our breath for very fear:
Fear of their knocking at the gate below,
Fear that they’d find and kill us even here.
Though Mary’s tale had quickened all our hearts
Each fleeting hope just deepens your despair:
The panic grips again, the gasping starts,
The drowning, and the coming up for air.

Then suddenly, a different atmosphere,
A clarity of light, a strange release,
And, all unlooked for, Christ himself was there
Love in his eyes and on his lips, our peace.
So now we breathe again, sent forth, forgiven,
To bring this breathless earth a breath of heaven.

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