Words on the Word
Acts 10:34, 37-43: Jesus went about doing good.
Colossians 3:1-4: You must look for the things that are in heaven.
John 20:1-9: The cloth that had been over his head was rolled up.
We still have images of Good Friday fresh in our minds, its din ringing in our ears: the violence and blood; the contortions of mouths that one day shout, ‘Hosanna’, the next, ‘Crucify’; the grief of the small band who knew overrun by the chaos of ordinary life taking its course, with people everywhere, buying, selling, haggling, rushing, shouting, needing to get such a great deal done, lacking time to notice that the world’s redemption was being wrought in front of their eyes. Easter morning provides a startling contrast. Everything is quiet, recollected. A beneficial cool tempers the air and perfumes it. The world, not yet awoken, rests in sleep’s embrace—and isn’t it true that even the cruel display in sleep a kind of innocence, despite themselves?
The picture painted by John the Evangelist is one of serene order. Order is evident even in the way events unfold. We know from other Gospels that the myrrh-bearing women had worried about the stone used to seal Jesus’s tomb. How were they to shift it? On arrival, Mary finds it rolled aside, just standing there, offering care-free access, as if it had to be that way. Mary, not knowing what to think, runs to Peter—Peter the betrayer, Peter, who, that morning, will not have felt rock-like—and says: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.’ That unspecific pronoun, ‘they’, speaks volumes. It tells of anxieties built up over time, of what it must have been to know oneself, more and more, surrounded by enemies. On arrival, however, there is no sign of grave-plundering. On the contrary, even in the tomb there is order. I am always intrigued, attracted, by a detail in the narrative of what Peter found in the grave. While the linen shrouds lay on the ground, the cloth that had covered the Lord’s face was ‘rolled up in a place by itself’. This fact suggests a measured carefulness in Jesus’s rising: no violent surge accompanied by lightning and earthquakes, but a deliberate rising from sleep, a sitting for a moment on the side of the bed before tidying the bed-clothes. Jesus leaves his death-linen in order, as if he had merely been death’s overnight guest. It is a courteous gesture. It shows God’s ordering gentleness even in the face of hatred and destruction. Above all it shows how natural the resurrection is. The entire scene conveys the clear message that reality, ultimate reality, really couldn’t be otherwise.
And indeed, the God we know is an ordering God. The word kosmos, by which we designate the fullness of all there is, means ‘order’. Whether we contemplate the night sky or an anthill, the passage of the seasons or our own heartbeat, the patterns are achingly beautiful, with micro- and macrocosms perfectly attuned to one another. Disorder, meanwhile, bears the fingerprint of man. Around us and within us we disrupt, upset, break down, are appalled by the consequences of what we have done, but fail, on the whole, to take responsibility. The rare occasions on which our atheistic times invoke a putative transcendence tend to be face to face with the outcome of human presumption; for then people see fit to ask, ‘How could a god allow this?’ The Easter Gospel shows God creating new order out of chaos we have wrought. In one of the Psalms the Church sets for Good Friday, there’s a line that reads, ‘Even men’s anger will praise you, [O Lord]’. Such is God’s cosmic symphony. He manages to orchestrate even jarring, patently ugly discords within a whole of ultimate harmony.
The Lord would rather, though, restore his order in the world than reset our disorder. This holds for each of us in an intimate way. The Cistercian Fathers, so attentive and humane in their reading of God’s action in our lives, never tired of invoking a verse from the Song of Songs that, to them, summed up their experience of grace: ‘Ordinavit in me caritatem’; ‘He has set love in order in me’. If we let the holy angels roll away the heavy stone that blocks the way into our hearts, God enters to heal and recompose our disordered affections. Growth in virtue, in holiness, is only possible in so far as we learn to love order better than chaos—and let us be humble enough to admit that, here, we may all have something to learn. We’re so accustomed to the mess, and have somehow learnt, in it, to make a cozy nest for ourselves that we do not easily let the Spirit do its purifying work. We curl up in our shrouds instead of putting them neatly away to step into the light of day. The truth of who we are, says St Paul, ‘is hid with Christ in God’. He is risen. We shall rise with him in so far as we let his life be ours. That means putting our house in order. It is a sane impulse to respond to God’s grace by countering chaos: by tidying our room; by letting love be set in order in us; by girding our loins with truth and taking faith’s shield in order to enter battle against faithlessness and lies. When he rose from the dead, Christ gave our lives an astonishing potential both in time and for eternity. May we be worthy of it and use it well. May it be clear to all that we have seen and believed; and so, by our credible witness to Christ, may others, too, be freed from unbelief and blindness. Amen.