Easter and the Poetry of Hope

This is the last instalment of the Poetry of Lent Making the Journey with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, written by John Parr, available online at http://www.cofesuffolk.org/assets/downloads/life_faith/living-faith-in-suffolk/2015-lent-reflections/Easter.pdf  This publication is intended only to be reproduced, free of charge, by local churches. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means for financial or commercial gain, without the prior written permission of the publisher.  

Just over 30 years ago, the American singer Paul Simon released a song called ‘Train in the Distance’, on his album Hearts and Bones. You can find the words here. The song is about an older man who falls in love with a younger woman. She’s already married, but he doesn’t give up. ‘Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance’, runs the chorus. The poetry of wishful thinking – or is it hope? Eventually they marry, and have a son. But their relationship doesn’t last. They fall apart, ‘two disappointed believers’ in the power of love, but for the child’s sake they stay in touch. She cooks for him occasionally. He makes her laugh. They can still hear the sound of a train in the distance. ‘What is the point of the story?’ asks the singer. ‘What message pertains?’ Then comes the punchline: ‘The thought that life can be better / is woven indelibly / into our hearts / and our brains’. ‘The point of the story’ is that our ability to hope is hard-wired. Some see this as a gift of evolution, a survival instinct. Without the facility to transcend adversity in our hearts and brains, our species would arguably have become extinct. For others the capacity for hope is a gift of God. Either way, ‘the thought that life can be better’ allows us to imagine life differently, as being more than circumstances appear to allow. We take our hard-wired ability to hope with us to the grave. Rituals surrounding death are as various as they are well-established. For all their diversity there are common themes: respect for the dead, space for grieving, hope finding expression. People are buried with their clothing, weapons, jewellery, sacred objects, even food – each in their own way intimations of what is ‘woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains’. The story that has accompanied us through Lent is sparing in its details of Lazarus’ funeral, but Martha’s words to Jesus suggest that he was shrouded in resurrection-on-the-last-day faith (John 11.24). This was a relative newcomer to Israel’s beliefs, and it wasn’t the only way of expressing the poetry of hope (Wisdom 3’s ‘souls of the righteous in the hands of God’ is alternative imagery to Daniel 12’s ‘sleeping in the dust of the earth’ before being wakened to shine like stars in the heavens). But it was common enough, especially in the circles of the Pharisees and their kind, and here in Bethany too. Martha’s declaration of hope-filled faith comes right at the mid-point of John’s narrative. Seeing Jesus as God’s agent of resurrection hope, something we’ve met earlier in this gospel (John 5.25- 29), takes her beyond conventional belief. Yet there is more. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ brings her face to face with the embodiment of her hope, not simply its agent. ‘The resurrection of the body on the last day’ may speak the poetry of hope, but what is woven indelibly in her heart and brain finds its true fulfilment in the one who stands before her. Hard-wired hope is no escape hatch, as some would have us think. There is no softening of the hard edges of death in this story, as we have seen. John shows us its many forms – physical, social, natural, emotional, relational, brutal – and parallels from our own world hardly need spelling out. Easter does not abolish the dark realities of death. But the last word in its darkness belongs elsewhere. The stone is rolled back, to allow the one who performs the poetry of hope to address the world of death. This is the Word that speaks from the beginning, the light that shines into a darkness that can never overcome it. The Raising of Lazarus, 4th century fresco from the Catacomb Cubiculum O in Rome (for further images, see http://wasjesusamagician.blogspot.co.uk/p/appendix-jesus-wand.html). The most common images in the earliest Christian tombs from the second to the fifth centuries in Rome are of Jesus the Good Shepherd and the raising of Lazarus. Some of their details are borrowed from pagan sources, but they have been given an unmistakeable Christian make-over. The one who knows his own sheep by name calls one of them, Lazarus the brother of Martha and Mary, to rise up from the dark reality of death and stand in the glory of creation’s new day. Raised by love, suggests Carol Ann Duffy by comparing Jesus to a lover in her poem ‘If I Was Dead’, which you can read here: ‘If I was dead … / I swear your love / would raise me / out of my grave, / in my flesh and blood, / like Lazarus’. In our expressions of Easter hope, there will always be place for poetry and pictures that speak to the heart and brain of what is written indelibly there. Yet this is poetry performed, words and pictures taking flesh in the one who is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’. Like unquenchable light shining in deep darkness, Jesus still speaks and lives in those who like Martha find their confidence and hope in ‘the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world’ (John 11.27). Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!