Journeying through Good Friday and Easter

Reverend Dom’s Easter Magazine letter

I’d like to talk about the earth shattering moment of the resurrection of Jesus in this edition of the parish magazine because this is the month that I will celebrate my first Easter day in Olton. But as many of you pick up this copy there will still be two or even three weeks to go. We’re on a journey through the wilderness of Lent, to the events leading up to the crucifixion, before we get to Easter. I want us to pay attention to the whole journey rather than rush to the happy ending. In the Christian Protestant tradition many of us are more comfortable with the image of the empty cross which speaks of God’s power and victory over death, rather than image of the crucifix which shows the profound suffering of Jesus. Actually we need to spent time with the whole story and not just the relief that  God will make everything alright at the end.

Three years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As I looked through the itinerary there were certain days that I was really looking forward to. In the main I wasn’t disappointed although some of the places that I was expecting to be significant felt a bit empty. But it was a rich experience which I frequently reference in my sermons. I wish that I had kept a diary that I could look back and reflect on now, although it’s no bad thing to just live in the moment sometimes. There were a couple of stand out occasions where I felt that God really caught my attention. What was surprising was that these experiences didn’t occur at the times that I was particularly looking forward to or anticipating.

On the first morning we’d been given space to pray and reflect, but here I was in Jerusalem for the first time in my life near the fabulous and ‘Old City’. There was no way I could sit still so I took myself off to do some exploring on my own. After taking lots of twists and turns through narrow stone alleyways inside the city walls, I found myself on the Via Dolorosa. I didn’t know that this has been a hugely important street for Christian pilgrims over the centuries because, by tradition, it is the way that Jesus walked when he carried the cross to Golgotha where he would be executed.

As I looked up and down this very narrow street I saw a sign which read “Prison of Christ” so I decided to go in, entering the Praetorium Monastery. Inside was a Greek Orthodox Priest at the front of a small chapel. There was a cave entrance on the far side so I wandered in. I then went down some steps past a chamber cut into the rock with iron bars, which seemed to be a cell for one of the two men executed alongside Jesus. A bit further down was another prison cell cut into the rock for the other prisoner. I carried on descending until I reached a cave with an icon inside, which was labelled as Jesus’ cell. As I entered this chamber I had an emotional experience that I can’t really explain, and which took me by surprise. It was a feeling that Jesus had been in this place where I was standing, and a lingering sense of his presence. In my mind I had a picture corresponding to the icon on the wall of Jesus as prisoner with his legs locked in the stone stocks that were on one side. It was surprising to me because when I imagine Jesus, I rarely think of him in this kind of situation. I imagine him on an invigorating walk with his disciples on a hillside or perhaps feeding the five thousand. It was such a strong sense that I felt that I needed to linger in the cave for a few minutes rather than rush back up. When I told my retreat guide about it later he poured cold water on the historical reliability of this as a location (there are several competing ‘Prisons of Christ’) but it didn’t matter to me. I realised that I wasn’t used to the image of Jesus suffering and this was lacking in my experience of Him.

James Alison a theologian and lecturer wrote a book called ‘Knowing Jesus’ in which he talks about the importance of Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection as the ‘crucified risen Lord’ rather than just the ‘risen Lord’. When Jesus rose from the dead he still bore the marks of his death on his hands, feet and side. When we get to heaven, it won’t be as if we never suffered and our sin was never there. Jesus brings redemption. We will still carry those marks but those things which shame us now will somehow be changed into shining trophies of God’s wonderful grace towards us. We can’t understand that now because we “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” Let’s make sure we pause along the Easter journey so that we capture the whole gospel, that we see the crucified risen Lord with all his marks that speak of redemption, as we finally come to celebrate his glorious resurrection.