This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 with Matt Lucas.

I went for a walk the other day.

You’re supposed to be impressed! Most days for the last year or so I’ve been stuck in my house behind a screen, talking to people or ‘enjoying’ meetings. I know we’re supposed to get exercise, but it hasn’t always worked out.  And that app on my phone that tells me how many steps I haven’t done each day – well, it’s an embarrassment.

Thirty years ago we lived in the Lake District and one of the great pleasures – when it wasn’t raining – was to get out into the fells. I’m not good at walking on my own, but loved doing it with family or friends. I actually discovered that you have a different sort of conversation when you’re walking than when you’re sat in a room.

This is why I am taken with the story at Easter of the couple walking home the few miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, deep in conversation about how to make sense of what had been going on at the weekend. They couldn’t work out how Jesus, in whom they’d invested so much hope, had got himself nailed to a cross and killed. It didn’t compute. Nor did the stories of him now being seen again by his friends.

While walking and talking, a stranger joined the couple and asked what they were discussing. They were surprised he didn’t know the gossip about the dead man walking, so they told him anyway. And it was only when they’d finished trying to explain it all that the stranger offered to re-tell the story in a way that did make sense. But, it meant they had to risk seeing God, the world and themselves differently. Not easy.

One element of this is simply that walking and talking is good for us. Given the last year in which many people have felt trapped or stuck between four walls and a screen, the spring opens up the space to walk and talk. To express what has been going on. And possibly, by talking about it, to draw some of the sting of loss. And share the hard questions of what it all means.

This is the text of my sermon in Ripon Cathedral this morning as the light streamed in.

Don’t tell me of a faith that fears
To face the world around
Don’t dull my mind with easy thoughts
of grace without a ground.

[Chorus]
I need to know that God is real!
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world, including me!

Don’t speak of piety and prayers
Absolved from human need;
Don’t talk of spirit without flesh
Like harvest without seed.

Don’t sate my soul with common sense
Distilled from ages past
Inept for those who fear the world’s
about to breathe its last.

Don’t set the cross before my eyes
unless you tell the truth
of how the Lord, who finds the lost,
was often found uncouth.

So let the Gospel come alive
in actions plain to see
in imitation of the one
whose love extends to me. (John Bell, The Sorrow)

“Whose love extends to me.”

One of the really intriguing things about the story told through the sixty six books of the Bible is that people keep having their name changed. Note: they don’t change their own name; their name is changed for them – and apparently without the courtesy of asking them first. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Simon becomes Peter (the Rock) – although the granite he assumes is meant turns out to be a leaking limestone; Saul becomes Paul.

Names matter. They are not simply a moniker or a label. They say something about the nature of the person. Or, in these cases, the nature God sees in them … despite the evidence to the watching world around them.

Take Simon who becomes Peter, for instance. He’s the one who constantly misunderstands Jesus, but, still pledges undying allegiance to his friend … just hours before denying even knowing him when asked by a young girl in a garden. It is this Peter who deserts Jesus at the point when his need is greatest and his loneliness most powerful: on the cross. This Peter returns to the old life, fishing on the familiar lake in Galilee, the hill country of the north which was home until the carpenter’s son drew him into a whole new world just a couple of years before. And it is this Peter who has the most beautiful and excruciating conversation with the risen Jesus at his old workplace, the beach, in which his failure is laid bare … before he is restored by love that suffers no illusions.

This same Peter, the one who ran away and who doesn’t seem to “get it”, we read later is out on the streets risking life and limb while telling anyone who would listen that his friend had been executed, was truly dead, but now was alive. Not resuscitated. Not recovered from a bad swoon or fainting fit. Not popping back to life like some magic trick. But, raised to new life by the God about whom many were sceptical.

In our reading from Acts 10:34-43 we find this same Peter having undergone in the preceding verses a radical conversion. Put simply, his assumptions about who God is for were turned upside down. To misuse a different image, a stone had been rolled away and now he could see that God could not be trapped by human limitation or prejudice. I think he might have appreciate the lines from the Welsh poet RS Thomas (I quoted in a Thought for the Day on Radio 4 on Good Friday):

History showed us he was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

The implications of the resurrection gradually shook Peter’s view of God and re-shaped his love for people. And here he is, speaking boldly in public about the resurrection of a dead man. Even mockery or ridicule won’t stop him now.

As Tomáš Halík, the Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of sociology in Prague, says in a newly-published sermon for Easter Day in lockdown (The Time of Empty Churches, available only in Czech and German at the moment): “We believers have no monopoly over Christ”. In other words, not even we can trap him within the limitations of our own pieties, prejudices or prayers. The resurrection whispers that God is free, that death does not have the last word after all, that Jesus will not be trapped in a place of decay behind a stone that won’t be rolled away.

But, it’s not just name changes that matter in the Scriptures. Names themselves are significant. As Mary Magdalene found out in the garden on Easter morning.

Let’s have a look at John 20.

In John’s Gospel light and darkness are very significant. John asks us to pay attention to light and darkness as we encounter the people who met Jesus along the way. Here, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb “while it was still dark”. She expects to find a corpse and is shocked to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. In John’s account she is alone, so runs to tell the men – including Peter – that someone has done something with the body. The implication of verse 2 – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” – is that the authorities have, for their own ends and purposes, removed the body.

Confusion, bewilderment, fear. Not joy, excitement, understanding.

Then, after the men have seen for themselves (because women’s witness statements didn’t count until verified by a man) and returned to their homes, Mary weeps and cannot leave this place of poignant mystery. When asked “Why are you weeping?”, she reprises verse 2: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And it is here – right here in the place of bereavement and inexplicable loss – that the risen Jesus comes to her. He doesn’t wait for her to get her act together and approach him; he comes to her. Mary, thinking he might be one of them, asks him to tell her where the body is to be found. And here we have the beauty, the simplicity, the directness of the mention of a name: “Mary.”

It was this that dispelled the darkness and opened her eyes. Jesus, the same but different, knows her by name. And in this gentle naming of her, in her place of despair, she knows that she is loved.

That is the Easter story. And it is this that the Christian Church is called to live out in whatever context or society we find ourselves living.

But, the story doesn’t end there. Her instinct is to grab Jesus, to hold onto him, to not let him go again. And Jesus won’t let her. There can be no bolder statement that we cannot possess Jesus. We cannot trap him within our own needs or wants. We cannot mould him to suit our political or ideological preferences or passions. If he won’t be contained by the grave, then he is unlikely to be constrained by my desires, comforts or conveniences.

I don’t know where all of us stand today in relation to the world’s suffering or the imminence of death and loss. But, I do know that the encounter between Mary and the risen Christ fills the world with hope and light. We might feel that we only ever come to him in the darkness, where we are confused or afraid or suspicious; and that’s OK. We might approach this Easter Day with tears and weeping, feeling lost or bereft – for whatever reason. We might feel the absence of God or the fragility of faith. And if we do so, sharing what a Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka called ‘the solidarity of the broken’, then we will not be ashamed to hear the questions put to Mary: “Why are you weeping?” and “For whom are you looking?”

Why? Because when we have let down the defences and faced the powerful reality of loss and fear, then we are able to hear the whispering of our name by the one who knows us inside out and loves us to death and beyond. He is not the disinterested judge who looks for our faults or inadequacies, but, rather, the Wounded Healer who holds out hands with holes in them and speaks our name into the silence of the place of darkness.

That, I think, is why we can rejoice. No bland escapism or romantic attachment to a comfort blanket of faith. Rather, the courage to be exposed to the searching love of the crucified and risen Lord who cannot be surprised by us or by anything the world can throw at him. This is the liberating power of Easter and resurrection: we look for God, for hope, for deep meaning in life and society … and we end up discovering that God has already found us … and spoken our name.

This is no faith that “fears to face the world around”, or “dulls my mind with easy thoughts of grace without a ground.”

I want to conclude with a verse from another song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday and in Wakefield Cathedral last night at the Easter Vigil. It takes seriously the reality of the world and our experience; but it looks to the future,  changed by life’s experiences – a pandemic and all that has happened in the last year, for example – and beckons God’s people, the followers of this same Jesus, to be surprised by joy:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the basic text of a sermon in Wakefield Cathedral at the Easter Vigil:

“Who will roll away the stone…?” (Mark 16:3)

It’s an entirely reasonable question in the circumstances. But, it is also quite revealing.

The three named women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – will have spent the sabbath in empty agony. Jesus is dead and buried. The sabbath is not the day for visiting tombs or touching dead bodies; so, they must wait until the sabbath is over, the sun is shining on a new day, and they can resume their shocked grieving. They come early to the tomb of Jesus, expecting to find a corpse whose dignity will be honoured by being anointed in the usual way.

That’s the point. They expected to find a buried body. Everyone knows that when you are dead, you are dead. (And Professor Alice Roberts, President of Humanists UK, was surprisingly theologically orthodox when she tweeted yesterday that dead people do not come back to life. Christians strongly agree. We believe that “God raised Christ from the dead,” which is different.)

If we are to live this story and not just intellectually recall its drift, then we must inhabit the imagination of Mary and Mary and Salome. They came to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus. They didn’t pitch up with a sneaky suspicion that he might not be there. They didn’t predict the surprise that awaited them. They weren’t playing some game of emotional forgetfulness that then dissipated in the joy of resurrection.

In fact, what they encountered at the tomb didn’t fill them with unbridled joy; the message of resurrection, accompanied by the experience of a vacated grave, terrified them. Verse 8 tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Let’s just stick with this for a moment.

After I did Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning (Good Friday), I quickly got an email from a woman who wrote: “A disappointing, wasted opportunity to share the story of the cruel, unjust crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. I learnt more about Winston Churchill and R S Thomas than I did about why Jesus died and what it means to know him as my redeemer through his glorious rising on Easter Day.”

Apart from confusing the Today studio with a pulpit (and not understanding the medium), she also made the mistake of wanting to rush to Easter Day before having lived through Good Friday or the emptiness of Saturday. And we cannot begin to understand what the gospel is telling us unless we work hard imaginatively at living with the story as it unfolds – not knowing the ending.

I don’t wish to be too controversial, but it seems that we would be much more ‘biblical’ if we were to recognise that the resurrection was met not with joy and bubbles, but with terror and fear and amazement. The joy can come later when, to quote Luke’s account of the couple on the road to Emmaus, their journey and conversation with the risen Jesus – incognito at first – “their hearts burned within them” as Jesus re-framed the narrative that made his death a necessity rather than an error.

I venture to suggest that we might benefit as Christian disciples from staying with the text and what it describes before moving on too quickly. Which means watching these women as their world begins to shake beneath their feet.

On one group visit to the Land of the Holy One, we were taken to a convent in Nazareth where we descended some recently excavated steps down into the earth. At the bottom was a tomb with the door-stone rolled back. When it was excavated they found a mummified body of a bishop – suitably attired – keeping watch over what was, to him and his community, holy ground. It is thought this might have been the burial site of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Apparently, when they first opened the cavity, the smell of ointments and perfumes, kept sealed for centuries, wafted up and out. I still have the photographs I took of a real tomb with its stone removed.

Looking at it, I remember making sense of these women who made their way to the garden where Jesus had been buried, asking “Who will roll away the stone for us?” As I said, it is a perfectly reasonable question.

But, as they found themselves confronted by emptiness and alarm, they also discovered that Jesus cannot be imprisoned, manipulated or contained – by prejudices (about how the world is or why it is the way it is), by past experiences (death is the end of everything), by our sin and failures (of which we need little reminding), or even by death itself.

In fact, what these women find is that God has already found them. He has gone before them, brought order out of chaos, seeded new life out of death, a new beginning out of the ultimate of endings, a new future from the ashes of the past.

This, I think, is powerful for us in our world at this particular time. We need no reminding that the coronavirus pandemic has brought death and misery across the planet – caused in part by our careless exploitation of the planet as if it is ours and not that we are stewards of it. Every community will know the cost – in every sense – of the last year. And when we ask the entirely reasonable question “Who will roll the stone away for us?”, we will find ourselves challenged to think afresh – what the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann calls being “freshly faithful”.

You see, resurrection has become a useful metaphor for new life and hope – like bunnies and seeds and so on. But, to leave the resurrection there is to leave the stone unrolled. It is to lack either curiosity or seriousness. The resurrection is certainly not less than a metaphor for what, again, Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”; but, it is certainly much more than a metaphor. Something happened to Jesus, the disappointingly dead man.

Clearly, the Romans could have stopped the new and completely challenging Christian movement on day one – by producing the body. They didn’t. Is it really credible that the first friends of Jesus went through unimaginable struggle and suffering for what they knew to be a lie – if they had hidden the body? No, the women found an empty tomb; the men didn’t believe their story, so eventually saw for themselves; and the women became the first evangelists – quite fitting as they were the ones to stay with Jesus to the bitter end.

And what do they find? Jesus is the same, but different. Jesus knows them by name. Jesus bears the wound marks in his risen body. And, as the story develops, they find that it wasn’t just a grave stone that had been rolled away, but also their understanding – their assumptions – about God and the world and themselves.

This is why at the heart of the Christian faith is not some vague optimism about the future – no lazy or seductive ‘pie in the sky when you die’ crutch with which to navigate life. Nor is it some spiritualised faith that disconnects God from the material world and splits human being into compartmentalised bits. No. At the heart of the Christian faith is a real cross planted in a real rubbish tip outside the city walls … and an empty tomb that, if we can’t find an explanation, still cries out for a response.

At Easter we don’t just celebrate a ritual that makes us feel better when life is tough. Rather, we unashamedly and unapologetically plant ourselves with the friends of Jesus who, bewildered and maybe even afraid of the implications of all this stuff, offer the world a different way of seeing and believing and being. That is why we eventually sing alleluia. This is what makes sense of those people in the gospels – often disregarded women – who find in Jesus that they need not be imprisoned in their past, nailed to a reputation or fear that pins them down and traps them behind a stone. Here is life. Here is hope. And a community of Christians who have been grasped by grace and love and mercy has no option but, with a confident humility, to live it out in generosity, forgiveness, love and mercy towards our neighbours.

The Easter fire will not be put out. The Easter candle might sometimes flicker and fade, blown by the draughts and pressure changes around, but it will stand proud, bearing witness to the stubborn conviction that death does not have the last word after all.

What these women went on to experience was that this same Jesus, by his Spirit, empowered them for all that lay ahead. When in the Eucharist we proclaim: “The Lord is here, his spirit is with us!”, we are not just mimicking the old banner I saw in a photograph in Pravda many years ago – a banner hanging in a Soviet factory exhorting the proletariat to work harder at the five year plan: “Lenin is here; his spirit is with us” would have been the English translation. (Was it a promise or a threat, I wonder?) No, the Lord who is with us is the one we read about in the gospels, pouring himself out in love and mercy for broken people.

And this is why tonight, as we celebrate the rise of the Easter Son, we can bear the name of Christ with confidence and faith; for, as I have framed it many times before, we are not driven by fear, but drawn by hope.

The Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology in Prague, Tomáš Halík, made the point recently in an address to clergy in the Wakefield Episcopal Area that the resurrection did not herald a return to how things were before crucifixion. The world has changed and so must we be changed and change … if we are to be faithful to the transformative power of the risen Christ.

As we emerge into a changed world, our hearts, minds and imaginations grasped by the haunting mystery of the resurrection, let us be faithful to the call of the risen Christ to walk with him and together into an uncertain future – just like the first Easter people.

I conclude with a verse from a song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Winston Churchill is famous for many things and renowned for his way with words. It is a little ironic, then, that what I always associate him with is a brick wall.

If you go around the back of his house at Chartwell in Kent, there is a walled garden. One wall was built entirely by him as he tried to cope with the black dog, his deep depression. The first time I saw this wall I wondered: why a wall?

Well, it struck me eventually that if you are building a wall in solitude – and remember there would have been silence rather than the ubiquitous noise and talk and music we carry around with us today – you have to stop thinking about other things, focus on one point, and pay attention to detail. It slows you down, narrows the focus for a time, shuts out the distractions that can debilitate a fragile mind. You have to look and stare and coordinate hand with eye and material stuff.

Silence and paying attention to one thing.

Around the world today, Good Friday, Christians will contemplate the events and meaning of the day when Jesus, having celebrated a final meal with his friends – a meal, ironically, heralding liberation – is brought to trial before an imperial governor. It is clear where power lies in such an encounter. Yet, Jesus remains silent in the face of questioning and, subsequently, goes to his execution.

Betrayed, denied and deserted by his close friends, he suffers in silence. Today many Christians will sit in front of a wooden cross and, in unhurried silence, look at the wood, recall the events of the first Good Friday, and let their imagination run while the questions are fed by the mystery of meaning.

But, this is no idle staring at some material idol. Rather, it is the quiet space in which we refuse to fill the gaps with noise or words, decline to run away from the agonising reality of human suffering, resist the powerful urge to avoid the pain. Contemplation of the cross is no empty escapism; in fact, it is the opposite.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas, in his poem The Letter, writes: “I gaze myself into accepting that to pray true is to say nothing.” This is the same poet who once wrote: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

Today’s gazing and silence creates a unique space in which, coloured by the story in the gospel books, I can face the realities of a fragile world, own the undeserved suffering of too many people, and refuse to give in to easy answers.

Navigating our way through this current virus-induced catastrophe is not exactly a walk in the park, is it?

I went for an actual walk in an actual park yesterday evening and came across this:

I assume it once protected a path – an entrance to the garden of a long-gone house, maybe. Now it stands by the brook, next to a tree. And it serves no purpose other than to intrigue the imagination and make for a nice photo.

I also wonder if it is the sort of image that casts some light on our current predicament. Reports this morning (especially in the Sunday Times) do not point to a government in any sort of competent control of our national response to the virus crisis. Ideology, ambition and incompetence appear to be the drivers. Which makes the constant repetition of “the government has been absolutely clear” mantra by ministers at the daily press briefings even more bizarre.

The clarity of a message is gauged by how it is heard and received by the audience. The first rule of communication is that what is heard matters more than what is said. Saying we have been clear is not the same thing as actually being clear. It would do no harm for politicians to ban the use of the word ‘clear’ from their lips and use the time gained to work hard at how words might be being heard and understood.

And here is the challenge. There have now been so many flip-flops by government and local authority messaging that it is hard to keep up with what is the latest ‘guidance’. Clarity is sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

The gate in the photo is strong, resistant to the forces around it and clearly once had a simple and single purpose. Now it is a picturesque curiosity – a useless, redundant bit of historical architecture that serves no practical purpose. One can only wonder, in the face of reports of today’s rudderless leadership, whether the UK’s polity is the same.

In the Christian calendar today is called ‘Low Sunday’. Last week we exploded with joyful surprise at the resurrection and its impact on the disillusioned friends of Jesus. Today we settle down to the hard, sometimes tedious, job of carrying on with the journey, trying to work out what it all means for now and the future – for politics and economics, for public and private ethics, for my life and our lives together. The daily challenge continues.

And these questions cannot simply stand as a relic of some past purpose. A faith – just like a political settlement – that points only to some past glory is redundant. It is a mere curiosity – effectively pointless. Even if it makes for a nice photo.

Easter Monday. All sorted, then. We’ve had the glorious light of new life and the future is all bright.

Well, not quite. Like everything in life, the end is always just a new beginning. And the beginning will demand of us not some sort of relaxation into spiritual satisfaction, but a new engagement. The journey continues.

The text I always go to today is Luke’s account of the two friends of Jesus walking back from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. They are still trying to work out what the whole Jesus experience was about. He wasn’t supposed to die – that doesn’t fit the theological or political template for ‘messiah’. Now, you can come to terms with the finitude of death – after all, it is an incontrovertibly factual phenomenon. But, how are we supposed to make sense of the reports that the dead man is now appearing to his friends again – the same, but different; recognisable, but strange. And those wound marks …

How to make sense of this? How to fit experience into a fixed theology or re-shape theology in order to account for real experience?

So, as they walk together – possibly a married couple – they try to work it out and get nowhere. Then a stranger comes from behind and joins them on their walk through the hills. But, instead of simply telling them how to make sense of it all (which would have saved a bit of time and proved his credentials), he asks them what they are talking about. They tell him: the weird stuff that has been going on in Jerusalem. “What stuff?” he asks. “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?” they ask. Jesus willing to sound ignorant, irrelevant, out of touch?

Jesus lets them tell their story in their terms. Only when they have framed it in their way – noting that it doesn’t compute – does Jesus offer to re-tell the story of God and his people in a way that re-describes both experience and theology.

Yet, it is only when they get to the couple’s home that they eventually recognise who their accompanier was. Yes, the penny dropped while they were breaking bread together; but, what they noted was that their hearts had been burning within them while they were listening to him ‘re-describe reality’ (in Brueggemann’s phrase) and frame the Scriptures afresh.

And us?

Today we are invited to walk – maybe for the first time – in the company of others who don’t quite ‘get it’, asking the real and powerful questions and trying together to work it all out. No just saying “This is the word of the Lord” as we so readily do in church, but, rather, a wrestling with the meaning of this stuff as if our life depended on it. Taking it (and Jesus) seriously by arguing with him and listening to him. Not just passing on as if he is theologically interesting so long as he demands no shaking up of me or my thinking.

The Church’s calendar takes from Easter on a journey of re-discovering this Jesus – rehearsing the story and trying to hear it afresh. It invites us to find someone else, read the story again together, argue the toss about what it all means, and see where it leads. (Which might be back to Jerusalem, but changed by what happened on the way to our Emmaus.)

That is the point of the church in the days to come.And we can do this on the phone, on Zoom, on FaceTime, or in any other medium. We can do it over the garden fence or across the balconies. We can do it any way we like.

We just need to take it seriously enough to do it. The journey starts with a single step.

Easter Day. The day when Christians rise early, watch the sun come up and join together in numbers to celebrate the resurrection. We belt out those great Easter  hymns, listen to those breathtakingly dramatic Gospel readings, and, in my case, hold back the tears as the cathedral choir sings the Gloria from Mozart’s Coronation Mass.

Not this year. Today our churches will be empty and silent. There will be no cry of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” to which the congregation should always be tempted to respond “What?! You must be joking!” Instead, we will be in our homes, joining together remotely or in distant prayer.

In other words, the church of Jesus Christ will be living the Easter faith for real. What we really believe will be seen in how we, bearing the wound marks of sacrifice, offer hope to a weary world. For we are not afraid and we look at how to love our neighbours by keeping our distance from them. And we will learn whether we really do think prayer is worth the effort.

Wherever we are and however we worship today, we will be confronted afresh by the shocking and outrageous “proleptic invasion of the end times in the present” (in the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, if I remember them rightly). It will only come as a shock, however, if we first have lived through the bewildering agony of Good Friday and the empty fear and disillusionment of Empty Saturday. Only then can we experience – imaginatively – the disorientating irruption of the extraordinary into the normality of life.

We appreciate the light when we have stayed with the darkness. We can be surprised by joy once we have loved with the loss and the pain.

The thing about the resurrection narratives is that they don’t do propaganda. Surely the risen Christ would have put everything right, wiped out the pain, turned disfigurement into glory. But, no, the gospel writers clearly lacked that sort of imagination. For, the risen Jesus still bears the wounds, the scars of torture and violation. A reminder of the past, or a glorious statement of the present reality – that this risen Christ is still earthed, no stranger to the horrors of human existence for too many people.

(I recall the late Dennis Potter, in his final interview, saying that “religion has always been the wound and not the bandage”.)

And, as Mary discovers in the garden, this risen Jesus cannot be held onto. He can’t be possessed or commodified. He can’t be corralled into my own securities or illusions. He can’t be appropriated to make my life happier or better or safer.

Yet, he knows Mary’s name. He knows our name.

Easter whispers to a world that isn’t expecting or waiting for him that violence, death and destruction do not have the final word in this world – or in our broken and seemingly fragile lives. God does, and the word is ‘resurrection’. Which is why, some years ago when wondering how to condense the mystery of Easter into a tweet, I wrote that “Easter means … being drawn by hope, not driven by fear.” Why? Because Christians, if they have truly been grasped by the resurrection, put their hope in the person of the God who raised Christ from real death, and not in some formula for guaranteeing personal security.

And that is why I can wish everyone a Happy Easter. To do so is simply to invite anyone to be open to the surprising possibility that the world is more than meets the eye.

Empty Saturday. The worst.

You know what it is like when you have been bereaved. You somehow get through the hours that follow and life is thrown out of kilter. There is a sense of real unreality about what has happened. The world has changed for ever, but the rest of the world just keeps turning as if nothing remarkable had happened.

Eventually you get to sleep. And when you wake up your mind plays games with your mind. And you gradually work out that the death was real and the loss is total. It wasn’t a bad dream; it is too real. Everything in us wants to make it better, heal the deep wound of grief. But, there is no magic sticking plaster, no easy healing.

In fact, as Asian theologian puts it in his ‘Three Mile and Hour God’, when we are led into this sort of desert of emptiness, the key is not to obey the instinct to get out as quickly as possible. We need to stay there, facing the pain and the grief and the raw loss – living with it and going through it, not running away from it. For, it is through the experience itself that eventually we will be ready and able to be surprised by the light of healing.

So, today I need to stay with the pain. Resist the temptation to run away or distract myself as some sort of psychological or spiritual anaesthetic. Stay at the tomb. Feel the confusion – it wasn’t supposed to end this way. Live with the questions and face the horror.

And wait. Wait. Wait.

Good Friday. Darkness. Loss. Suffering. Death.

When I was a vicar we used to start at the church door on Good Friday and walk around the building, re-telling the story of God and his people, Jesus and his friends, and end up leaving in silence to the sound of a nail being hammered into wood. It was visceral. This year we accompany Jesus and his friends as they experience distance, fear, disorientation, dispersal and aloneness. I think it is a gift to go beyond mere imagination and into the experience itself.

Most of Jesus’s friends deserted him. They ran away and hid. And Jesus, to whom some of them had pledged total loyalty and allegiance, went to his gallows alone, naked and abused. (Although the women seem to have stuck with him all the way.)

So, where is God in all of this? And isn’t this precisely the question many people are asking during these days of viral death and debilitation? It is the question – not always articulated – that always arises when life gets a bit (or a lot) rubbish.

The trouble is that the question assumes that God is somewhere else when things are bad. Yet, the biblical narrative tells a different story. It is a story rooted in the real world of material substance, physical existence, uncontrollable events in a contingent cosmos. Christians who think discipleship is about mere spirituality, somehow divorced from the real world, are simply missing the point. Disembodied spirituality can easily become a sort of self-orientating fantasy.

The biblical story recognises the reality of being human in this contingent world. Suffering, pain, injustice and death. “What did I do to deserve the death of my loved one?” Nothing. It has nothing to do with merit or desert. If we live as mortal beings in the world, then we are subject to all that this world can throw at us. No exemptions. And being Christian means plunging into this world and not trying to escape from it.

The point here is that it is God who keeps opting in. In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve mess it all up, it is God who comes walking in the garden in the cool of the day, asking that eternal searching question: “Adam (mortal being), where are you?” God doesn’t wait for them to come looking for him. They hide, fearing that they can now be seen through (‘naked’) and finding that to be a threat rather than a liberation. But, God takes the initiative. As he does again in the prophets. And then, Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of his people, by coming among us as one of us. He gives himself for the sake of the world and then calls those who bear his name to live out what was fulfilled in him in the first place.

In other words, God opts into the world – with all its violence, death and destruction – and does not exempt himself from it. So, our response when life is rubbish is to know that we pray – baring our heart and soul and grief and anger and confusion – to one who has no illusions about what we experience. Faithfulness is not an opt out; it is a commitment into. And it is there we find God.

So, our response is to scream and shout and weep and grieve – to complain and lament and stare into the abyss of loss. Not to avoid it, but to know that through this we will find that death does not ultimately have the final word.

Today I will contemplate the cross, entering imaginatively into the aloneness of the hunted Jesus of Nazareth. I will ask myself where I stand in this story: with Jesus as he suffers and dies? with his mother as she watches helplessly? with the friends who have run away and despise themselves for their cowardice and bewilderment? with the onlookers who wonder why someone might not do everything to stay alive rather than walk openly to their death?

I am not sure where I belong in this. but, I do know I have to stay with the emptiness for as long as the darkness persists.

Maundy Thursday. It’s all closing in. Jerusalem welcomed Jesus and his friends when he rode in on Palm Sunday. But, the tension is growing, the drama heightening.

In my diocese we would normally be joining together in one of my cathedrals – Wakefield this year. The clergy would re-affirm their ordination vows and all of us – clergy and lay – would recommit ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. We would bless the oils and celebrate Communion, then being sent out to journey through Good Friday, Empty Saturday and Resurrection Day. Not this year. There will be an online ‘service’ from the cathedral, but physically we will be separated, distant, dispersed.

While not welcome, this experience of disorientation and dispersal might just help us enter imaginatively into the experience of Jesus and his friends – particularly his friends. They come together to celebrate the Passover, the foundational story of God’s liberation, but Jesus re-signifies the whole business for them. And it seems they don’t quite comprehend it.

To make it worse, Jesus says some strange things about betrayal and desertion, rejection and death. And, while doing all this, he kneels in front of his friends and washes their feet. In this simple and costly action he overturns their expectations of status, leadership, sacrifice and service. Remember, he kneels at the feet of Peter, Thomas, James & John, and Judas.

Those who claim to follow this Jesus must be people who kneel at the feet of their friends and enemies, their deniers and betrayers and doubters, and serve them. In other words, as in the story of God and his people from the beginning of the biblical narrative, godliness means giving yourself away. Sacrifice. Cost. Really hard.

What strikes me this year is the question: what does it mean for me to love my neighbour – to wash their feet – in a context where I cannot see or touch them in a common act of worship and commitment?

I think the answer is deceptively simple, but very costly. Foot-washing this year means not washing feet, keeping distance, prioritising the needs of vulnerable people by staying at home, not going into church, playing my part in ensuring that no transmission of any virus can happen through me. It is strange, but loving my neighbour means keeping away from him or her. And this takes priority over my yearning for worship, familiar sacred place or spiritual encouragement.

This year I have to ask how those most vulnerable can be served through a church that takes this Jesus seriously. It means that our churches who are doing amazing work with foodbanks, community care, keeping local people connected, are doing some serious foot washing. Not denial of Jesus, but denial of our own comfort for the sake of others.

And the question for me today is this: whose feet do I find it too hard to contemplate washing? And who are the people who, for reasons for which I am responsible, will find it difficult to wash mine?