Nails

There were three

To be killed

That day.

Two were thieves,

Strong young men,

Their lives to be wasted

For their crime.

They wailed,

Writhed, sobbed,

Flailing away

Their final moments

Of movement.

It took four soldiers

To hold them

To their crosses

As the hammering began,

The sturdy masonry nails

Driven

Through resistant flesh,

Through inhuman screams,

To their wooden homes.

 

The third man

Was a prophet,

So they say,

A Messiah even,

Yet he did not

Call on God

To intercede,

To save him

From this pitiable end,

This traitor’s death.

He undressed quietly,

Lay down, sad-eyed,

On his recumbent cross,

Only recoiling

As his flogged back

Met rough, hastily cut wood.

 

He was mine to nail.

I chose the sharpest points,

Placed them with care,

Feeling somehow

His courage deserved reward.

Against habit, training,

Professional detachment,

I looked at him,

Met his dark eyes,

Fear-filled yet calm,

Saw his slightest nod.

I took a breath,

My mallet rose

And fell.

He gasped,

Flinched,

Then held himself

Still

As my hammer-blows

Pinned him

To his death.

 

Slowly the three crosses,

Their agonised burdens,

Were levered

Upright,

Away from cool earth

Into the baking, glaring day.

The preacher,

Pale beneath his tan,

Forced words

From his suffocation:

“Father, forgive them,

They know not

What they do.”

And I, stern soldier,

Practised executioner,

Turned away

And wept.

 

SIA 9 iv 2014

 

The miracle

The crowd swirled

Around the shabby preacher,

His robes dusty, much mended,

His sandals worn

By miles on stony roads.

We pushed forwards,

Seeking to breathe his air,

Hear his compelling voice

Speak of hope,

Of justice,

Of God’s unfailing love,

To touch this prophet,

Know him real.

 

The sick, deformed,

Possessed

Crept closer

Through small ebbs

As the crowd

Flinched away

To avoid defilement.

 

We pressed closer,

Strengthened by desperation,

By hope of another miracle,

The dream that it could happen

To us.

We mobbed around him,

Shoving and clamouring,

Like beggars

For the last coin.

 

His quiet voice

Cut short our scramble,

Our pleadings,

Stilled our pawing hands,

Our desperation.

“Who touched me?”

His friend protested,

Someone laughed,

But he insisted.

 

A ragged woman

Fell before him,

Confessed

Her twelve-year bleeding,

Her foulness,

Her outcast life,

Her clutch at his robe

A final act of hope.

She looked up at him,

Huge-eyed

With astonishment,

Devotion,

Said she was healed,

And wept.

 

He smiled then,

With inexpressible love,

Love older than stars,

With a child’s spontaneous joy,

With a mother’s tenderness.

“Daughter,

Your faith has healed you.

Go in peace.”

 

Later, I hobbled home,

Unhealed,

My body unchanged,

But my heart transformed,

My soul overwhelmed

By the preacher’s smile,

Knowing my miracle was harder:

To make that smile,

That moment,

Sustain a lifetime.

 

SIA 5 iv 2014

 

Death Watch

The days lengthen.

The walk through Lent deepens.

Does it not seem sometimes as though this will never end?

Not like that other purple season. The days of Advent are filled with being busy and frantic; dashing around, making preparations, thinking secretly that a couple of extra days before Christmas would be no bad thing. It is no coincidence that the months of pregnancy are filled with being busy and frantic; dashing around, making preparations, and realizing in the last few weeks before the due date that the relationship between hours in the day and length of a to-do list are perhaps not as elastic as one might fantasize.

They are purple seasons, but that does not make them the same thing.

They are opposites. Bookends. The bookends that mark the beginning and the end of life.

The days of Lent are a bit barren. It’s a grim time, a difficult time, a time when our vulnerabilities are stripped bare and we have what seems like an uncomfortably long time to meditate and regret and wish that we might have done things differently. Perhaps we feel a bit guilty, as the season stretches on with what seems like no end in sight, for sneaking a look at our watches. Is it not Holy Week yet?

And when Holy Week comes, I will sit for hours on a cold tile floor keeping watch over a garden. The things I feel on that night are a microcosm of all the meditations and regrets and wishes that Lent stirs up in me. But, still, I will sneak a look at my watch. Isn’t it midnight yet?

No wonder He almost lost his nerve.

If they’re going to come, can’t they just get on with it?

 It feels interminable because we sit by a death bed. We wait for the end, knowing that, when it comes, the one who we love and by whom we have been loved will die. We wait for the awfulest of Fridays. And it is awful because we know that we will never be able to do anything to stop it.

In my professional life, I see more death than most people. In my personal life, I’m no stranger to it. I’ve seen deaths that have come quickly and unexpectedly, but more often what I’ve seen is the kind of death that has come after days or weeks. The deaths that are anticipated if not really expected. And for people who are waiting for death and the people who wait with them, it is grim and it feels oppressive and the days are too long but not long enough and there is far far too much time to think about the things that we might have done differently.

This is Lent.

We are there with Him in a desert, grim in its emptiness and oppressive in its vastness, knowing and yet refusing to know what waits for us when we leave.

There is no end in sight.

But even as we sneak glimpses of the slow-moving second hand, what we really want is for the end never to come.

Stay by His side. Keep watch. Keep alert. Keep loving Him.

The end is where we start from.

 

Bare

I love the fine adornments of Christianity. Or of the way I choose to practice my Christianity.

Perhaps that isn’t something I should admit to.

Perhaps you would think more of me if I said that I were above all that.

But if you have seen the satisfaction I take in the weight of a thurible in my hands, my childlike delight at the swirling rose petals of Corpus Christi, my joy in the rich music and trumpeting organs, my pleasure in the changing colours of the liturgical year, or even my penchant for getting Bishops to sit in fairy-light strewn thrones, you will know that I speak the truth.

“I don’t like Lent,” my mum said when I was a child (and again many times since I’ve been an adult). “I don’t like how the church is when it’s all stripped and there are no flowers.”

So you will know too that at least I come by it honestly.

Of my love for the sparkle, for the shine, for the holy razzmatazz of the way I choose to worship and all the ephemera that comes with it.

For ephemera is what it is.

The swirling incense will be lost in a scent memory, the rose petals will wilt and fade, the notes from the trumpeting organ will die away, the colours will change and change and change again, and the fairy lights… well, we all know what happens to fairy lights.

As all of that is lost to time and space, what is it that remains with us?

Lent is not a comfortable season for me. But is it a comfortable season for anyone? For is not Lent about looking down into our very bones, into our very souls, and learning whether we can live with what we see there when all the rest is stripped away? If the ephemera is gone, what have we got left?

Those do not strike me as questions that are supposed to be comfortable.

At dinner with some friends this week, the conversation turned to what we learn about ourselves we are forced through circumstance to live without all the fuss and the fancy of our usual daily lives. Two had just returned from a year working in East Africa, away from first-world preoccupations. Another spoke of a solitary walk she had been on, more than five hundred miles, separated for weeks from the privileges and the inconveniences of what we consider normality. In that conversation, there are memories of people the world over, of pilgrimages and of spiritual retreat and, yes, of Jesus Christ in the desert too.

If people talk of finding themselves, we tend to snort a bit. It’s all a bit New Age and buzz word and surely worthy of an eye roll or two. But is it not what we do? We go on these journeys, to the ends of the earth or simply to the depth of our own psyche. And we come back and we are never ever the same.

Lent is not a comfortable season, but Lent is when we find out who we are.

From the crumble of ash on a forehead to the touch of lips on the bare wood of a cross to the empty cavernous space that once was filled with light and life and laughter.

If we take away all the rest, who are we?

Who do we want to become?

Depths of Darkness

Holy Land

[Christ] has penetrated into the depths of darkness,
loneliness, rejection, agony and fear,
in order to touch the depths of darkness
in each one of us
and to call us to belief,
to call us to walk in this world of darkness,
loneliness, rejection, agony and fear –
hoping, trusting in the resurrection . . .

[So] do not turn aside from your own pain,
your anguish and brokenness,
your loneliness and emptiness,
by pretending you are strong.
Go within yourself.
Go down the ladder of your own being
until you discover –
like a seed
buried in the broken, ploughed earth
of your own vulnerability –
the presence of Jesus,
the light shining in the darkness.

Jean Vanier
taken from Easter Garden by Nicola Slee