13 April 2022

Step by step we are drawn out of fear and darkness to God’s transformative light

An Easter reflection by Barbara Easton, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference

One of the features of following a liturgical calendar is that things happen at varying times of year whether you are feeling like them or not. Traditionally, people don’t get married in Lent because Lent is not a time of celebration – but people are born or have other things to be joyful about, regardless of the church being locked down in a time of penitence. Likewise, Easter Day will dawn and everything in the church will move to a period of gladness, whether we are personally feeling glad or not. Myself, I get round this by buying hot cross buns throughout the year! But at a deeper level I also feel its weight because my dad died (several years ago) on Christmas Eve. Loads of people, particularly colleagues not of faith, commiserated about how terrible that was. One said ‘Oh, this will spoil Christmas for you for ever’. But actually we felt it was a good day to die – all the family was able to be around and, on the Sunday before he died, most of the church family stood in our back garden in the dark, carol singing as he listened from his bed. Sadness and joy don’t always come at the times they are supposed to.

As you know, I come from Leeds, which is where Donald Sangster was for some of his ministry. I think that Auntie Doris was a bit of a Sangster groupie, and one of the few books that she had was a little reprint of one of Sangster’s sermons that took the text from John 19:41, ‘Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden’. I read it quite a lot, mainly because there wasn’t a lot else in the house to read! Sangster goes through all the times in the Bible story when good things come in bad places, good and not so good coming together.  The stories we will hear on Sunday are not stories of simple, untrammelled joy: they are stories of people in difficult places who realise that love is stronger than death, good wins through over evil, light is more powerful than darkness. In this Holy Week we might be feeling quite jolly, and our faith might be quite confident. When Easter comes we may be caught by sadness or doubt. The image ‘in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden’ sets that out right from the morning of the resurrection – it’s OK, wherever we are, we are held…

A favourite image of mine at this time of year is of the blackthorn. It’s out at the moment so you will have seen it in the hedgerows – sometimes just the odd plant and sometimes a whole mass of snowy blossom. As the name suggests it has very dark branches and long sharp spikes – it’s very crown of thorns. One of the special things about it is that its blossom comes out before the leaves. So if you look closely at it you will see these exquisite tiny flowers against a framework which is hard, dark and spikey. I think it’s a powerful image from nature at this time of year (who was it that said that nature is the first Bible – Galileo quoting Tertullian?) – in the end, what triumphs is life and blossom, but it reminds me of the fluidity between the place of crucifixion and the garden.

Good Friday: Walking on Water, 2006, Maggie Hambling

Methodist Modern Art Collection, HAMB/2011. Image Copyright © Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes. The Methodist Church Registered Charity no. 1132208

My second image is one I have referenced before but it’s really relevant to this week. Maggi Hambling paints a new picture every Good Friday, as a way of remembering or reflecting on or responding to the death of her mother. This one is in the Methodist Collection of Modern Religious Art. What speaks to me so much about this picture is the way it combines the dark and deep power of the swirling sea with the unquenchable, over riding presence of the light and the figure from whom the light comes. A bit like Mary in the garden we ask, ‘who is that? It’s not like any picture of Jesus we are used to and yet somehow we know that he comes bringing light and life and this is the triumph over the turmoil of our experiences. Whatever is going on for us and for our world, in a way we don’t understand, loves wins. It’s a picture that captures both death and life in the same moment – but reminds us that it is light that holds the upper hand.

The Empty Tomb, Richard Bavin

Methodist Modern Art Collection No. BAV/2015. Image Copyright © Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes. The Methodist Church Registered Charity no. 1132208

My third image is another picture from the art collection. It’s a picture of Easter Day but not the usual image because it’s pictured from inside the tomb. I don’t think I have often thought about what the first moments of Easter would have been like for Jesus and, now I think about it, it’s interesting isn’t it that we don’t get a any inkling of Jesus’ thinking or reaction at this part of the story – at the baptism we get a voice from heaven and a dove; at the birth we get angels telling us what to think; at the transfiguration we get something similar. Of the meaning of Easter we only get the fragmentary experiential accounts of the people whom Jesus encountered – and from those we have to piece together our own meaning. But back to the picture – what I see in this is that, although the new is bright and encouraging – maybe it’s where we are supposed to be, maybe it’s inevitable – where we are can also have a big pull on us. It’s obvious that Jesus needs to leave the tomb – that’s the plot of the whole story. But somehow, this picture makes life in the tomb strangely attractive. It’s cool, our eyes are adjusted, we know where the walls are – we know how to navigate this space. What’s beyond the door of the tomb? We don’t know. But it looks very bright out there. I first really noticed this picture last Easter – we were just coming out of another covid lockdown and many churches were going to be re-opening for Easter Day. Lots of us shared that sense of hesitation – what’s it going to be like? Can’t I just stay here a bit longer? Look, here’s a nice step to sit down on – I could just wait here and look out for a bit… there’s no rush to embrace the new…

Well, on the one hand, obviously, I think that’s a bit of a cop-out – where would we be now if Jesus hadn’t embraced the next part of the story? But I think also that, in a way, it’s true both to our human experience and to the disciples’ experience of the Easter story. It was a while before it all made sense to them and before they rushed out into action. For a few weeks they stayed locked up, for fear of the authorities, and then they talked about the powerful change that God had made in their lives and in the life of the whole world through the resurrection of his son. But at first, they took it one step at a time – one meal with a stranger, one encounter in the garden, one conversation between friends.

So we take the steps through Holy Week, one step at a time, walking with the man on the donkey. We will stand in the desperation of Friday and the devastation of Saturday. They are true to our life. But we will also see the light coming to us in the presence of a man who walks across the troubling deep (is he coming towards us or is he leading us on?); and step by step we are also drawn out of fear and darkness to God’s transformative light. I wish you strength and grace for this week and joy and restoration when the light dawns.

Barbara Easton, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference 2021-22. Watch Barbara read her reflection in a Facebook Live broadcast here

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