“Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth; Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust; Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace; Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe.”
That prayer, which you may have heard before, was written by Satish Kumar, a Jain monk from India, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who left his order to settle in England and work more widely on issues of spirituality and ecology. It’s a prayer I have often used myself, but I think that when you use any prayer often, even the Lord’s prayer, it is all to easy to become just a habit and lose its meaning. But this prayer was brought alive for me again last Monday. I use the USPG prayer diary when I say morning prayer, and as I was reading the article for Holy Week I was struck by a quotation from the fourth century Church Father Evagrius Ponticus who said that that we can only encounter God if we are prepared to encounter ourselves in truth. When we can acknowledge and accept our own darkness, then we are able to accept others.
And I think that is one of the things Holy Week is, or should be, about: going through the darkest time for our Lord and in the process confronting the darkness in ourselves. Only so, I have found, at least, can we truly rejoice as the Light returns today. Only so can that light and peace fill our hearts so that we can take them out to fill our world.
Our bible readings this week have taken us through that dark time – and we need to begin before last Sunday, really, with the Gospel reading we had two weeks ago: the story of the raising of Lazarus. In that story Lazarus was raised, quite literally, from death to life. But it is John’s understanding of the course of Jesus’ ministry that it was the raising of Lazarus which was the final straw as far as the Jewish authorities were concerned and led directly to Jesus’ death.
On Thursday night we went with Jesus and his disciples to the upper room, where he spoke of the great love for his friends that was about to lead him to give his life for them. On Friday morning, some of us followed the stations of the cross and in the early evening heard John’s account of the course of the last day of Jesus’ earthly life.
It was a long story, but the whole story of the Passion in John is even longer. In fact, of the twenty-one chapters of John’s Gospel, eight of them deal with the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. If you were writing a conventional biography of a famous person, you would hardly allocate such a large portion of your book for a discussion of their death. It might well be the natural conclusion of the story but it would hardly be likely to be the central focus, as it is in the Gospels.
But then, the Gospels say something about death that no other biography is able to say. They tell us that though death is a natural part of life, yet it is not life’s conclusion. Our Lord and Saviour himself endured death, possibly the most agonising kind of death anyone could ever face – though, of course, not uniquely so. Death by crucifixion was a common occurrence in the Roman world of the first century. And as he died, so must all of us, but in him we can also be raised to new life.
We don’t, any of us, like to think about death unless we really have to. It is something most of us, perhaps all of us, if we’re really honest, fear above anything else. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, when asked what his book was about, often resisted the question, but if pressed, he would say that it was about death, and the fear of death. Of the races which populate his world of Middle Earth, most grow old and die. Only the elves do not age, neither are they subject to illness, though they can be killed. Most of the conflict in the history of Middle Earth comes about as a result of human beings being envious of this unending life of the elves. The ring of power, which Frodo receives, and then has to go on a quest to destroy, gave, amongst other things, this gift of unending life. And yet, Tolkien said, it was hardly a gift, for the person who bore the ring didn’t receive any more life, they simply continued while their life grew thinner and thinner.
Bilbo Baggins, the first of the hobbits to find the ring, and to keep it for many years, confesses at one point to the wizard Gandalf that although he doesn’t look old he feels it. He describes himself as being stretched: “Like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” And although there is nothing explicitly Christian in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien himself was a devout Roman Catholic, so you know there is something going on here. The elves, too, eventually grow weary of their lives. They speak of death as a gift of God to men. Though the human beings in the stories usually find this sentiment utterly incomprehensible. And perhaps so would we.
Or, at least, we would while we are young and healthy. Dylan Thomas wrote a famous poem to his father who was old and dying: “Do not go gentle into that good-night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yet sometimes, those who are near to death do go gently. Ten years ago, my father did go gently, and my mother went in much the same way last year. But more important than the gentleness of their passing was the fact that they were both committed Christian and trusted in the promises made to them by Our Lord: “ Be near me, Lord, when dying, O part not thou from me,” as the Bach chorale puts it, “and to my succour flying, come, Lord, and set me free!”
The Easter Gospel tells us only the beginning of this story of being freed from sin and death. In some of the Gospels we find several women hearing the news of the risen Lord. John’s is, I think, the most moving because it is the most personal. Male or female, we can all identify with Mary’s Easter experience, her personal journey to faith: a journey we each have to make. Here is a vivid account of how one person moved from fear and doubt to a deep faith in her risen Saviour. It begins with weeping and ends with Mary’s voice of conviction: “I have seen the Lord.”
Just think of the despair which Mary would have been feeling that morning. We know how the story ends; Mary didn’t. We have this service of the Eucharist to remind us, week by week, that the death on the cross was not the end, but the beginning: the beginning of a new relationship with God. Mary didn’t know this. For Mary that morning, there was only grief. Her master and friend was dead. She had watched him die a painful death. Then she had been confined, by the rules of the Jewish Sabbath, to remain at home. As soon as she could, perhaps even before it was light on Sunday morning, she rushed to the tomb. And what did she find? That the body of her loved one had not even been allowed to rest in peace. Just when she thought her grief could get no worse, here was another heartache. No wonder she wept! The angels who asked her, “Why are you weeping?” knew there was no longer cause for her to grieve, for Jesus or for herself, but she didn’t, not yet.
Mary then met, she supposed, the gardener, and he too asked her, “Why are you weeping?” Through her tears she didn’t even recognize him, not until he spoke her name: “Mary!” And this is what makes the story so special: Mary is one of those who belong to the shepherd and who recognise his voice. As soon as Mary heard him speak her name, her grief and doubt, fear and sorrow, vanished. She was freed from the prison of despair, freed into a new relationship with her Saviour: one in which she no longer needed to cling to the earthly Jesus, but went out to tell the good news of the risen Christ, sent by him to be the very first apostle of the Resurrection.
John also tells us of a personal encounter later in the day – not to just one person this time, but to the disciples as a group. He comes to them in their fear, fear of what those who killed Jesus might want to do to them. Death, and thoughts of death, were still heavy in the air.
But Jesus had promised them at the Last Supper that he would give them his peace, and in this first resurrection appearance to them he breathes into them that peace; and this is the way he takes away their fear and their sorrow. And we know from the stories of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the stories told elsewhere of the early martyrs what a dramatic difference this personal relationship with the risen Christ gave to this previously frightened group of men and women.
That relationship, and the power of the Holy Spirit, inspired them to work for all those things Satish Kumar mentions in his prayer, which makes it a good prayer for us on this Easter Day:
“Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth; Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust; Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace; Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe”