Passiontide begins with a trip to my old patch in Devon for a funeral, this time tragically of a young mum with two little children. Earlier in the day I had been preaching on the Lazarus gospel. Mary and Martha, ‘Lord, if you had been here this wouldn’t have happened’. The raising of Lazarus is a sign of the resurrection in which we all share, but there is still heartache. Only through Good Friday and the cross do we get to Easter and resurrection.
Martha and Mary are helpful guides into Holy Week as we come to find once again the God who knows us and loves us so profoundly. I have recently been meeting candidates in the discernment process, and am deeply moved by their journey of faith and what God is calling them to. On the whole, they more or less know what they’re coming into, and have a realness about what that calling means. More than anything it is humbling to be with people at this stage; an absolute joy.
The following morning, with a diocesan hat on for clergy at the other end of the scale, I am with those close to retirement and preparing for the next stage. (Chichester has the second largest number of retired clergy in the southern province.) Speaking to them, there was obvious nervousness and trepidation about the future, and understandably so. They have been incumbents for so long, and wonder what God has in store for them now. Many haven’t yet worked out where they’re going either. Retired clergy do so much for us. No one ever truly hangs up their dog collar.
This year the Annunciation was the day before Lent 5, and in the Octave of Mothering Sunday. Simeon prophesied that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart which takes us directly to the foot of the cross. And weeping we go to the grave, but the A—word is our response; our song, as the Kontakion has it. It was St Michael and All Angels, Lewes, for Mothering Sunday. We thought of mothers and their unconditional love – so often the trait of mothers – and how Mary is the embodiment of God’s hope, joy, love, peace.
The first signs of spring are appearing. Hours of daylight slowly extend. I notice this especially when walking the dog at 7am. The scents and sights herald something new in the air. Refreshment Sunday says we’re over halfway through Lent and it helps to move us along. Leading a retreat recently at St Mary’s, Buxted – England’s Nazareth in Sussex, just north of Uckfield, where they have a replica of the Holy House – we reflected on the different ways we pray. I do this quite often on long drives which I undertake; a time to think and pray. And first thing in the morning too: just God, the dog, and me.
March also saw two gatherings of bishops, in consecutive weeks. There was a House of Bishops meeting to discuss further stages of the LLF process. Please pray for all those in the groups and the work they have to do. A converging of the Society bishops for 48 hours was a real joy, not least as we’re now back up to a full contingent with Bishop Paul. It’s exciting to be thinking about the future, which means strategy, how to model evangelism and mission across all our Society parishes and areas. It’s rewarding for us as bishops too because there is genuine collegiality. We all have different gifts and talents (theology, training, mission), common areas of concern, and a chance to think about how to tackle them together.
Holy Week looms, and my custom is to spend it with parishes in interregnum (Saltdean for Palm Sunday, Hove for the Triduum). This year I shall be at two vigils – one at night, then a dawn vigil with baptism and confirmation in Eastbourne. I confirmed people at daybreak last year and it’s incredibly emotional to do these things in the dawn of Easter Day.
I think about this and the funeral I’m going to, of course. We live in a world fearful of death and doing what it can to avoid this, but grief and life don’t work like that. The focus must be on the reality of Christ’s love. That’s what Lazarus in the tomb shows us. Christ shedding tears is not removed from our own reality as he prepares himself for his own death. He takes this on to destroy death and transform life – a new beginning in him. So much of that is in our holy week rites: the dark church with Christ as our light, the submerging of the candle in baptismal water three times and lifted up with hope.
With the way Easter falls this year, for the first time in a long time we shall be able to have a family holiday together in Easter Week. The plan is for a brief cycling trip on the Camino trail. Then it’s back to the realities of daily life, the Gospel we have to proclaim, and the joy of life in Christ. Oh, and a glass of wine too as I gave up alcohol for Lent. So wherever you are, Happy Easter when it comes. Cheers!