With all our churches closed I was exercised about celebrating Holy Communion on Easter Day this year. Nervous of ‘private masses’ – as was Archbishop Cranmer – I nevertheless decided that Easter Day, being the most important day of the church’s year, would be an appropriate – indeed expected – day for a celebration of communion in the Benefice.
The Communion Service does not depend upon numbers for its validity. High Mass in the Vatican is just as valid as a celebration in The Rectory kitchen because both recognize and participate in the one unrepeatable sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Just two of us were present physically but with the prayers of the Benefice, the wider church and the world on our hearts, we were also surrounded by the great company of heaven: angels, martyrs and all those who had gone before us in the faith. We were in good company. Given our current situation, I have to tell you that it was one of the most emotional and draining celebrations of my life.
The following photographs chart the progress of the Easter Eucharist in the Benefice. (Click on each thumbnail for a closer look.) I offer them to you for your prayers and thanksgivings in the midst of this Coronavirus crisis.
A Message from Christopher Armstrong on Easter Sunday
Our churches remain closed but there will be a celebration of Holy Communion in the Benefice around the kitchen table at The Rectory. My lack of technical expertise means that you will not be able to see or hear it, however it will begin at 11am if you would like to join in prayer or use the readings detailed here.
The Collect for Easter Day:
God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell: fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way to life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Epistle: Colossians 3. 1 – 7. The Gospel: St. John 20. 1- 10.
Christopher’s Address is titled: In-Between
One of the many things I will miss about this Easter Day is the Dawn Eucharist: sitting in a darkened church, listening to various readings from the Old Testament which chart the course of our salvation history and meditating upon them in the silence. As we do this, the dawn gathers, almost mysteriously, without us knowing. Then suddenly, we are aware of the change. ‘Is it dark or is it light’? ‘Is it night or is it morning’? Then the time of hesitation passes and we know that the day has dawned with the shafts of daylight piling into the church, suffusing every corner of darkness.
The practice of getting up before dawn to celebrate The Eucharist reaches back to that first appearance of The Risen Lord to Mary Magdalene. So critical was the event to the Early Church that it was recorded in all four gospels and our gospel for today – John – is uncommonly precise: “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark.” (John 20.1). Mary does not see the resurrection – no one does – but she returns later to see the effects – the empty tomb – together with two disbelieving (male) disciples. She lingers and then meets the Risen Lord whom she mistakes for the gardener.
The half-light. This in-between state is very common in our lives: ‘Is the egg properly cooked or not’? ‘Is our boy old enough to drink beer’? ‘Are those really the first sign of my bean shoots’? Such transitions also extend to our emotional life and moral choices too: ‘Am I really in love’? ‘Could I get away with a tax fiddle’? Truth comes at us in different forms, as any lawyer will know. As Emily Dickenson says, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
This in-between state allows us extra choice, as our epistle today identifies when St Paul writes, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above.”(Colossians 3.1) He is suggesting that experiencing the resurrection, believing in Christ, gives us a wider choice in life between the flesh and the spirit (a distinction which he goes at great lengths to explore).
So Mary’s visit to the tomb in the light of dawn has an encounter with The Risen Lord. Is it the gardener? She only recognizes Jesus when He speaks to her.
This pandemic has turned life as we know it upside down. For many, no dawn can be seen. All is pitch black: for those who have been laid off; the direction of our personal and national finances; the intense pressures upon families living in cramped premises – and many, many deaths.
For all of us, life is different. We have new priorities, either forced upon us or self-generated. We have become more aware of our neighbours, the value of food, the sacrificial work of our front line, back-office and supply services. Never before have we clapped on a Thursday night for those whose work we have taken for granted! All these are positive signs but it is too early to identify silver linings, green shoots. My hope however is that life will be different when the new ‘now’ arrives. There are glimpses, straws in the wind. People have time for each other; more are exercising; the ozone layer is healing. Many have been taken aback by unsolicited acts of kindness. Will these survive the lock-down or make it into the new reality? Time will tell. As with Mary, life has changed; it has not been taken away.
I used to work in the North-East when the steel works at Consett closed down. It devastated the region but now, you would not know a vast steel industry had been there at all, such is the multiplicity of new industry and different landscapes.
So our universal outlook is grim – and so it was for Mary Magdalene on that first Easter Day. The gloom may have continued for her and the other disciples had she not met the Risen Lord in the half-light of dawn. From that moment, life changed. It was alarming but it was enriched with hope, potential. And it got better for her and the others as the Risen Lord made himself known to more and more, corporately and individually.
Easter in Ordinary
Mary’s gloom was lifted in the half-light. It is when it is darkest that we see the stars so clearly. And so it is, I hope, with the Glory of God, which is why the darkened church on Easter Day is so important. It throws into perspective the new day, the company, the freedom to celebrate as well as the bacon butties and champagne which are an integral part of any Dawn Eucharist! So often I look for the glory of God in some Damascus Road moment: blinding flash and much drama. Well, it does happen occasionally – and I have experienced a few – but most of the time God comes to us in the normal. The new day, the delight of children, the skill of the operating theatre staff, the compassion of the consultant’s phone call, the warmth of a neighbour. In Bach’s St. John Passion, the evangelist announces the death of Jesus by moving from a minor to a major key, so critical is that moment for us all. One recent archbishop said that the glory of God is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
There is much foot-washing going on at the present time up and down our country. By the sacrificial staff on the front line, yes, but also along our streets and in our homes. Perhaps this lock-down has given us time to recognize it there. It’s a happy coincidence that the Jewish Passover coincides with our Easter festival this year. For the Jews (and Jesus was a Jew) this most important of feasts takes place in the home as they give thanks for their escape from captivity. We too can take a leaf out of their book. We cannot go to church but we can give thanks for the presence of the Risen Lord among us; in the provision of lunch, the imaginative games on the internet, a good night’s sleep and the hope which the eruption of the Resurrection brings of a better tomorrow. Amen.
Jesus is dead, locked down in a garden, in a borrowed tomb. Most of us are locked down too: not yet dead but having the opportunity of a garden which so many in our wider society do not have. Isolation for them must be very challenging.
St. Matthew’s account of the burial (27.62 – 66) is even closer to our own situation today. The Jewish authorities were fearful that the disciples might come by night and steal the body of Jesus and then claim that he has been raised from the dead. So they sealed the tomb and placed a sentry at the entrance. Official lockdown.
St. John makes much of the death and burial. For him it is the end of a life of total obedience and love for The Father and for all humankind. No one knew what might happen next, if anything. Only God knew. His will was pregnant with power and potential, just like this laid hedge on the road to Seaton. It is not quite dead but we can see the power of nature just beginning to break out. It was not nature which changed everything – divided time, gave hope, dissolved enmity – but the power of God. It is for that which we wait, sometimes patiently, sometimes wisely, often irritably. But because of tomorrow, we have hope that God will act. Today we must wait.
Christopher Armstrong, Priest-in-Charge introduces the exhibition:
Soon after the Resurrection of Christ, significant places in Jerusalem took on special value for the faithful. When Christianity became legal, pilgrims used to gather to follow ‘The Way of the Cross’, especially in Holy Week. Those who couldn’t afford the journey – or who were prohibited by war or political division – would erect these ‘stations’ in their own churches where they would be used for meditation throughout the year.
None of our churches in the Benefice have these stations so an idea emerged to create them in Barrowden Church this year. The local art groups were approached and jumped at the challenge. However, with the onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic – rather than lose all this precious work – we will now offer this meditation to you virtually for your delight, admiration and of course, your prayer.
I am so grateful to the artists who have exhibited their work and their willingness to explain their approach. I hope that next year this art will find its way into our churches for a more intense scrutiny and wonder. CA
SELECTED STATIONS OF THE CROSS HAVE BEEN INTERPRETED.
Each of the artworks is captioned with the artist’s name. Click on an individual artwork to see it at full size.
Each Station of the Cross is introduced by our Reader Ann Robinson, who has also written a meditation and prayer for each one.
1st STATION: JESUS IS CONDEMNED
The chief priests and the whole Council tried to find some evidence against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they could not find any.The High Priest stood up in front of them all and questioned Jesus, “Have you no answer to the accusation they bring against you?”But Jesus kept quiet and would not say a word. Again the High Priest questioned him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?”“I am,” answered Jesus, “and you will all see the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven!”The High Priest tore his robes and said, “We don’t need any more witnesses! Mark ch 14 v55, 60-63
Envy and jealousy can be like cancerous diseases within us. They spread throughout our whole being, often unnoticed, leading to uncharitable conversations, false accusations, and other destructive actions. We see all of this played out among the religious leaders of Jesus’ time as they condemn Christ without basis. He remained quiet but convinced Pilate that he had done no wrong. He is the Son of God now as then and needs our failings to turn to compassion.
Father, we cry out to you. May we be led away from hypocrisy and greed and hatred showing only love and compassion and truth to all around us.
Father, we cry out to you
3rd STATION: JESUS FALLS FOR THE FIRST TIME
In great anguish he prayed even more fervently; his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke ch 22 v 44
There is much anguish in our world, especially now with people unable to console each other physically. Christ must have felt so alone but even in his darkest times he was able to pray to his Father. We, too, in our deepest despair can pray to our Father and know that he hears us and cares.
Father, we cry out to you as your Son did. Help us to accept your reassurance and in our darkest times turn to you.
Father, we cry out to you
5th STATION: SIMON OF CYRENE
They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. Mark 15:21
Those in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion compelled Simon of Cyrene to help carry the Lord’s cross. He did not volunteer or willingly accept the task, but that is no surprise. Simon was only passing by and presumably knew little about Christ. We, on the other hand, do know Jesus. And we have heard his words about the necessity of taking up our own crosses each day and walking in his footsteps. What is our response? Must we be pressed to carry our crosses, be they big or small, or do we accept them willingly
Father, we cry out to you. Help us to take up our cross whatever it entails and however heavy it might be as we remember the cross you bore for us.
Father, we cry out to you
8th STATION: JESUS MEETS THE WOMEN OF JERUSALEM
A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children.’ Luke 23:27-28
Compassion means to suffer with someone. Empathy means to feel with them. These women displayed both qualities as they accompanied Jesus, so bruised and disfigured, on this sorrowful journey through the streets of Jerusalem. We imitate their example when we listen with love to another’s troubles, hold another’s hand by a hospital bed, or embrace another who is grieving. Christ said that what we do for others we do for him.
Father, we cry out to you. Help us to follow the example of those who care so deeply for others perhaps to endangering themselves. Give us compassion and empathy for those who suffer.
Father, we cry out to you.
10th STATION: JESUS IS STRIPPED
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. Matthew ch 27 v 27-31
Pilate had Jesus scourged – a truly cruel punishment. He was probably stripped to the waist and made to bend over a short pillar. Then he was lashed several dozen times with a whip, the first few of these strokes cutting open the skin of his back. After the scourging a wooden band, or crown, of long sharp thorns was pressed into his scalp. The pain had to be excruciating. This suffering was for us. In all our pain Christ is there to heal and to hold.
Father, we cry out to you. You suffered so cruelly at the hands of men and yet we continue to hurt you through our actions. Help us to see your wounds and not inflict them further.
Father, we cry out to you
12th STATION: JESUS DIES ON THE CROSS
At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Some of the bystanders who heard it said, ‘Look, he is calling Elijah.’ One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.’ Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Mark 15:33-37
Jesus, as a faithful Jew, would have prayed the Psalms regularly. It is no surprise, then, that these words from Psalm 22 are on his lips during the intense agony of his last moments. While this cry might seem to be a sign of despair or hopelessness, it reveals, rather, the depth of his anguish and the intensity of his pain. Shortly afterward, he surrenders totally to his Father’s will – ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.’ We might wish to follow Christ’s example, letting these words be the last on our lips as we wait each night for sleep to come, sleep which is a symbol of our own eventual death.
Father, we cry out to you. In your final breath, Lord, you gave yourself to your Father. May we follow your example and give ourselves to those around us but especially to our Father who loves us so much that he gave his Son for us.
We who are in self-isolation yearn to be released, for this crisis to be finished. And so do those on our front line, whose lives are endangered by this virulent disease. Here are many, many examples of selfless sacrifice on behalf of others, all of which are shaped by the shadow of the cross consciously or unconsciously.
The compilers of our #Live Lent booklet have been overtaken by events but this current crisis does not devalue their observations. The NHS battles on because we believe collectively that every person matters. And so does God. That is why we call this Friday ‘Good’. Christ died to save us all. The life of Jesus may be over but God’s work continue in so many ways, many of which would be unthinkable a month ago.
This is the only day in the year that the bishop summons all the clergy to celebrate Holy Communion with him in The Cathedral because it is the foundation-day of our Christian Ministry. Last week on this blog, William Joyce made the point that the shepherd sometimes has to intervene to feed the sheep. For Christians, Maundy Thursday symbolizes that intervention. On this day, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and symbolically gave himself away as he celebrated The Last Supper. The bread and wine take on extra significance for Christians every Sunday.
This year, none of this will happen. We are locked out of our churches by CV. We are not however locked away from our need for food. The simplest items have taken on greater value because they are so scarce – a rarity caused partly by greed. At the Last Supper, each disciple was given the same measure of bread and wine. So it is in our churches most Sundays. ‘None is greater or less than another’.
I have occasionally celebrated Holy Communion around the kitchen table. It is very moving. Liturgy pared back to the basics. In this crisis, we have gone beyond that now. We cannot even gather in the kitchen! So we must re-value the sacrament of food, which is one of the subliminal messages of Communion.