Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Easter, 2015.

The shadow of the Great War seems to have lain particularly heavy across these last few months.  Perhaps it will not clear until 2018, and probably we would be sadder and wiser if it did not.  Several things have led me to brood on it: listening to a great deal of English music from that era (Grainger, Quilter and early Howells), my ever-deepening interest in Edwardian poetry, including those who were in fact lumped together as the 'Georgians' (Masefield, W.W. Gibson, Edward Thomas, Bridges, Drinkwater, etc.) and also an awareness of my own age, which a hundred years ago would surely have destined me for the trenches.  All of these - music, poetry and youth - that war wounded, even where it did not stamp them quite out.

Even Easter is darkened, and though I feel reluctant to post the following poem of Edward Thomas, I think there is a duty to read it this year, and indeed to learn it by heart [1]:


The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

These lines need to be read twice at least, because there are at least two phases to the blows with which, one by one, they smite the reader.  The writer and journalist Peter Hitchens has on several occasions written powerfully about this poem, and about how 'it gently takes you by the hand and then suddenly, fiercely makes you weep' [2].  Indeed it does, and in several ways.  For one thing, it seems to rest upon three wholesome English words, 'left', 'should' and 'never', whose plainness seems to rarefy into gleaming rock under the poem's immense weight.  Nevertheless, the poem's full sense is hidden until ruthlessly unveiled by those very last words 'never again'.  

Then even these words let fall a second blow, as modern readers realise with Hitchens that 'No Englishman gathers flowers for his sweethearts in the woods any more. That world is dead. Everyone who lived in it is dead, having had no time to pass on its customs to his sons and daughters' [3].  This poem measures and records the extent of the war's pernicious reach: into the very earth of an English woodland floor and, almost unseen, into the present day.  Most men these days, no doubt along with their girlfriends, would squirm and scoff at the idea of gathering flowers - and at the old music and old verse - and we know they would - and that war is why.

Flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood, Easter, 2015.
Everything in this poem's vision is upside-down and back-to-front, so the unexpected presence of those flowers becomes the proof of the unnatural, indeed inhuman, absence of young men, and an encounter with a clump of flowers begets thoughts of distance, dissipation and death.  It is also worth remembering that the poem was written in Eastertide.  Thomas has not only the ordinary life of ordinary folk in mind; he surely sees a hideous inversion of Easter itself.  Where Mary Magdalene came upon an empty tomb that proclaimed the nearness of the resurrected Christ, Thomas finds a flourishing flower-bed declaring the end of England.  Where Easter was the day of Christianity's birth, was the war the death of Christendom?  

This is Peter Hitchens's view: he gives the Great War as the first point at which Britain, and indeed Europe, ceased as a whole to believe Christianity seriously.  He thinks it 'safe to say that the two great victorious wars of the twentieth century did more damage to my own country than any other single force.  The churches were full before 1914, half-empty after 1919, and three-quarters empty after 1945.  And I would add that, by all but destroying British Christianity, these wars may come to destroy the spirit of the country' [4].  I suppose there is little surprise that the British people as a whole lost their faith afterwards.  I may not praise them for it, but neither do I feel willing to blame them.

And yet, and yet... there is still a faith to uphold; the churches await us still; there is a crucifix in them all; the empty tomb remains; the old question is still asked of us.  It may be that the Great War has so changed the course of history that it will in time bring this country, even Europe, to an end.  This seems likely, for in many ways ours is a dying civilisation, and there is much sorrow in store for those of us who are fond of Britain.  Believers in God, however, must take themselves in hand.  There is plenty of hope in this country still, if sought in the right places, and the Church as a whole is alive and healthy, and forbids us to despair.  And even if all civilisations rise and fall, Easter remains undiminished.  All the sins of men were paid for on the Cross; even the Great War was paid for on the Cross, and Easter triumphs over even the Great War and even all the sins of men.  That is not said glibly by me, but plainly by Christ.  The vision of Easter remains clear, if we can manage, and have the courage, to behold it.  


[1] Thomas, Edward.  Collected Poems. (London, Faber, 2004).  p. 63.  See also 'The Cherry Trees', p. 112.
[4] Hitchens, Peter. The Rage Against God (London: Bloomsbury, 2010). p. 57.

Friday, April 03, 2015

They Laid Him There

They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, following the Jewish burial custom.  At the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no-one had yet been buried.  Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there.
John 19.40-42

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Lord, do you wash my feet?

Having one's feet washed by one's parish priest is a cold and ticklish experience.  At the appointed moment the twelve men, having been sought out quietly before Mass, make their way into the Sacristy in a dignified fashion.  There they lurch and stumble around in a very undignified fashion, stifling cries of woe, tugging helplessly at their shoes and socks.  Nevertheless, great care is taken to dissimulate any reaction to the freezing wooden floor.  A reminder is given that both shoes and socks should be removed, since 'this is the Washing of the Feet, not the Washing of the Foot'.  Then the signal is made to go back into church and find a place on the chairs arranged before the altar.  The floor of the sanctuary is marble, and this really is freezing.  Again, none must falter: the disciples might as well be walking around in their bedroom-slippers.  Then the priests (my parish has three) get slowly down on their knees and, assisted by a pair of altar-servers each, pour surprisingly warm water over their parishioners' feet, and dry them with a white stole.  The ticklish set their jaws against giggles.

It all seems rather comical.  To Simon Peter, too, it seemed rather comical.  I think there is a laugh of disbelief in the words 'Lord, do you wash my feet?'.  Likewise, when Our Lord, insisting on washing Peter's feet, tells him that 'If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me', the answer ('Then, Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!') reveals both Peter's characteristically impulsive missing of the point (which is always heartening for us), and also his strong suspicion that, as his feet are being washed, his leg is being pulled.

It is true that the comic often relies on ordinary things being turned upside-down, but if the supposed comedian's face is straight as he turns to his disciples and asks them: 
'Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Master and Lord, and rightly: so I am.  If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other's feet.  I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you',
John 13.12-15
then here is a funny kind of comedian indeed, particularly if He is also God.  Well might the twenty-first century parishioner think it ridiculous for his priest to kneel down and wash his feet.   Two thousand years later the joke is not old yet: it is both indeed very ridiculous and also a serious duty, and so yet another resounding Christian paradox.

There is also something to be said about the aiming of this lesson squarely at men in particular.  I cannot quite grasp it, still less articulate it, but two thoughts occur to me.  The first is that it is more of an effort than might be imagined for men, who have always stridden around priding themselves on their strength, to let someone else serve them in this way.  The second is the particular manner of this small vocation, to have one's feet washed on Maundy Thursday.  It may be for men only, but is not so in a jealous or triumphant way, but in the same mysterious, and mysteriously correct way that some things are for women only.  The twelve men have been taught a lesson this evening about manhood: not merely about manly forbearance of chilly tiles, but about the heeding of callings.