Friday, 8 April 2011
I’m sure we should pay more attention to the graveclothes left behind in Jesus’ empty tomb.
It may seem strange to post an Easter thought just as Passiontide is about to begin, but we began to read John’s story of Lazarus at Matins this morning, and I’m just writing the notes I need to preach about the same passage when it is read again at the main service on Sunday morning, so the graveclothes are again at the centre of my attention.
John does not waste words or images, so it has to be significant that he says both that Lazarus came out of his tomb (from which the stone needed to be rolled away) still bound by the graveclothes and also that Jesus came out of his tomb (from which the stone had already been rolled away) leaving his graveclothes in a neat pile behind him.
At its most simple, the point must be that Jesus’ resurrection is something totally different to the mere revival of a corpse. Something new is happening here which doesn’t relate to any category of thought or reality we’ve ever encountered before. Mary thinks she sees someone else who’d she might expect to find there but she certainly doesn’t jump in surprise at a naked man walking around; it is the risen Lord she encounters and we are in new territory.
I’ve written before at Eastertide: I’m always puzzled by some plodding sorts of evangelical who think the empty tomb simply shows that Jesus got up and walked again. I’m equally puzzled by some sorts of liberal who aren’t bothered to begin plodding because they think other aspects of the story show it instead to be merely a profound spiritual experience of the disciples. Why should we think that our existing frames of reference (whether physical or spiritual) are going to help us cope with this new thing?
So I’ve gone back to a poem I revisit more often than almost any other. R S Thomas’ poem The Answer is about twilight and about the formidable and intractable nature of intellectual puzzles in which human living is embroiled. It finishes with the same image and resolution, lines I have also quoted here before:
... There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
The hare is at the foot of the Cowper memorial window, the link being the hares he kept.