I have pulled together the blog for this week, linking my two roles of Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship and Coordinator of the Diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme. There are some rich treasures to discover below. Do explore!
‘An Idle Tale’ (Luke 24.11) is the initial response of the apostles to the news of Jesus’ resurrection brought to them by the women after their visit to the tomb. History since suggests that was ‘not such an idle tale’.
‘Not such an idle tale’ is also not a bad description for the ‘story’ of this year’s (September 2020-June 2021) Ministry Experience Scheme. Against all the hurdles that COVID has presented us with, we have been working with seven young women, currently situated in various locations in the diocese and beyond, who have in the course of the year been exploring what their longer-term Christian vocation might be. I am perhaps slightly biased (I am the honorary coordinator of the Scheme!) but our experience as a Scheme over the last year feels much more like a ‘good news story’ than an ‘idle tale’.
Those on the Scheme keep in contact in a variety of ways. One of them is a regular Wednesday afternoon Zoom meeting which provides an opportunity for both educational input and sharing of insights. In our meeting yesterday afternoon (31 March) participants and mentors were invited to share something related to Holy Week and Easter that spoke to them. What was offered turned into a rich feast – and I am taking the opportunity of sharing at least some of these insights in this week’s blog. (I apologise to those who contributed that in a couple of cases I have not been able to include ALL they shared.)
First – An Idle Tale. That is actually the title of a vivid, fascinating and challenging painting, the creation of the Derby artist Michael R Cook. It is used as the ‘heading picture’ for this week’s blog and reproduced with Michael’s permission. I am grateful to Anna Richardson, a participant in the Scheme who has been working with the chaplaincy in Lyon, though COVID restrictions mean she is currently in Cornwall, for drawing it to our attention.
Mary Kilikidi, working currently in Moscow, and herself a Russian national, shared with us in words and pictures, ‘How Russians prepare for Easter and celebrate it in small towns as exemplified by my family’. Mary says:
My mother and I lived in a small town near Ukrainian boarder with a population of 17 thousand. We had only one church, which was almost full every Sunday and overcrowded during big celebrations. I still remember how we used to prepare for celebrating Easter. The beginning of the preparation starts with Maslenitsa – a whole week of celebration commonly associated with making and eating pancakes. We ate all types of pancakes – the Russian word blini – with jam and condensed milk.
After Maslenitsa is over it is forbidden to eat anything with meat or milk. Even fish is allowed only on particular dates…. During the first week of Lent, we went to church every day in the evening. It is the time when, in semi-darkness with a faint glow of candles, the words of St. Andrew of Crete acquire a special meaning.
On the fifth week of Lent, also in the evening, an unusual service is conducted. It is called “The Standing of St. Mary” and it unites the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete with a story of St. Mary of Egypt. It lasts from five to seven hours with people kneeling. I had a lot of time to think during the service and I imagined myself praying alone in the wilderness, like Mary did, fighting with hunger, heat and many-many sins. Contrary to St. Mary, I had hearty dinner afterwards. My family was not rich but we had a particular ritual on Lazarus Saturday – the day before Palm Sunday. We went to the food store and bought a can of red caviar. It is allowed to eat fish and fish products on that day and we made it our tradition to celebrate it.
The Holy week – the last week before Easter – was truly special for us. We were preparing for the celebration, painting eggs in red, buying Easter cakes – kulich – and cleaning the house. I was a member of the Sunday school and every Easter we would prepare a big skit with costumes, music and poetry. We met regularly to rehearse and the main rehearsal was usually during the Holy week too. Maundy Thursday is called Sheer Thursday in Russia and it is usually a day for cleaning the house, washing clothes and bathing. In the evening, people gather in church, carrying lanterns with candles. Twelve Gospels are read to remind people about the Passion of Christ. During each Gospel reading, people hold burning candles. By the end of the service, they put them in the lanterns and take them home. The candles are required to make a sign of the cross over the window holes and doorways. The soot cross remains until next Sheer Thursday and serves as protection from demonic attacks. For a long time I thought that all the Russian Orthodox were doing it but it turned out to be a local tradition probably with Pagan roots.
On Good Friday, people come to church in afternoon. In Orthodox churches there is a shroud with the image of Christ embroidered on it….
The Easter service usually starts at 11 pm and finishes at 4 or 5 in the morning. In fact, there are two of them and the evening service smoothly flows into the morning service. At the beginning of the morning service, people go around the church one last time and then everyone stands in front of the closed church doors. The priest says special Easter prayers with the words ‘Christ is risen’ in between. Every time people respond with the words of affirmation. Then the doors which represent the entrance to the tomb, are opened. Christ is no longer there. He is risen indeed!
Daleen Bakker, from the Netherlands and currently working with the church in Barcelona, has shared this personal story about a Holy week in the Netherlands: Locked up in a church on Good Friday.
Three years ago, I found myself to be locked up in a church on what is my most memorable Good Friday. To go a bit back to explain how it happened. I was invited to spend Holy Week in a Monastery and arrived on Thursday evening into a beautiful vigil. The next day we went on a walk going through the Stations of the Cross in the forest, ended with another beautiful service. It was the eve of what in Dutch we call ‘Silent Saturday’ and the entire Monastery had gone into an intriguing silence, mourning over our Lord and anticipating His glorious rising. I had discovered a door that led into the cloisters around the monastery garden and gave access to the parish church in which I was baptised not so long before. Keen to have some worship there, I went through the door and put something in between the door and the wall to prevent it from closing. And so it happened that after a great time, I tried to go back and found myself to be locked up! Someone had closed the door. ‘Well there are worse places to be locked up!’ – went through my mind. I looked around in the kitchen of the church for a key and when I didn’t find one, went through the options: spending the night in the church, escaping by climbing on the roof to ring the front door, or to check if someone left a window open when outside… In the end I decided to try my luck by sitting in the garden hoping that someone would pass in the late hours who could open the door. And yes! After a while I saw a small light and a sister hurrying past. I knocked on the window. ‘Sister, Sister!’ – feeling ashamed to break the silence. Immediately she looked up to the ceiling. I knocked again. She looked around, astonished, until she saw me which made her face shout of disappointment. (Which I understand if you think to see Jesus but then it’s me). She led me in and also broke the silence by whispering: ‘What were you doing there! …
Ksenia Smykova, from Russia, currently working with the church in Copenhagen, (though at this moment in Estonia, due to a combination of visa and COVID reasons!) shared with us some fascinating pictures, depicting Passion related themes in an unusual way. The easiest way of sharing this is to offer the slides Ksenia showed to us:
Janet Sayers, a pastoral mentor on the Scheme who is based in Brussels, and who has been involved with the diocesan Scheme since its outset, movingly spoke about George Herbert’s poem ‘Easter Wings’ and why it spoke so powerfully to her:
I first heard words by George Herbert a very long time ago when singing hymns at school. Much later in life I discovered some more of his poems, including ‘Easter Wings’ which I heard recited by Canon Theologian Jack McDonald, during a service at Holy Trinity Brussels. This poem intrigued me. Only recently did I learn that it was originally written in a pattern on the page representing two sets of wings.
To be honest, in the past I have often found the triumphalism of Easter Sunday perplexing rather than exhilarating. I can more readily identify with Christ’s suffering than with his resurrection. I find the crucifixion more credible than the mystery of the resurrection.
I understand that the content of the poem is a meditation focusing on the atonement of Jesus Christ drawing its theme from I Corinthians 15.51-56. Reflecting more deeply on this poem has opened things up and broadened my understanding. I find it amazing that so few words can mean so much. It is fascinating that the shape in which the words were originally written imitates the meaning of the words, and that the varying length of the poem’s lines creates a visual pattern or shape making it becomes a picture or representation of the poem’s theme, rather than simply seeing it as a poem on the page.
So why did this poem become so meaningful to me?
I am the mother of two children – a daughter Eleanor and a son Jonathan, two years her junior. Sadly, Eleanor died at the age of 23 – in the springtime of her life – from an aggressive kind of cancer. My struggle to understand and take on board the Easter message became greater and my questions more urgent. How could I possibly make any sense of this? Only by submitting my narrative to the light of God’s Gospel narrative. In my immediate grief, consolation in my desolation came from listening over and over again to a particularly beautiful rendition of Handel’s Messiah. The questions it sings from 1 Corinthians 15.55-56 became my own.
‘Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’
The sublime music carried me as the words challenged and inspired me.
As I further contemplated Herbert’s poem the word ‘imp’ in the next to last line intrigued me, until I learned that it was associated with the reparation of an injured bird’s wing by way of grafting a new feather onto the damaged wing, thus enabling the bird to rise and fly again.
Thinking more about the imagery in this poem during Lent has taken me on to further stepping out and living more fully into this great mystery of Christ’s resurrection and what it really means. For, and I quote the last two lines of the poem:
‘If I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.’
I am looking forward to a happier and more joyful Easter this year. Thanks be to God.
For myself (Clare Amos) I shared with the group something about reflecting on the events of Holy Week in the context of the Holy Land past and present. I won’t take space to include here exactly what I said yesterday – but they overlap with some biblical reflections for Holy Week which I was honoured to be invited to write by the World Council of Churches which are available here: WCC-EAPPI Easter Initiative 2021 | World Council of Churches (oikoumene.org) (You will find my bible studies near the bottom of the page.)
Christ is risen!
Truly he is risen!