So there I am, I’ve made it the quarter of a mile on a cold dreary February morning, cheered, heartened even (Ok I might have to start fining myself for these heart clichés as I did with a friend during the run up to surgery), heartened by the sound of the bells. Standing in this ancient building and feeling almost as old as her. Somewhat overwhelmed by the number of people pleased and surprised to see me back at church. I had been home from hospital about three weeks and wanted to return to church as soon as I could.
I was touched the week before that Peter had offered to bring communion to me at home and the way he made a temporary table out of the ottoman in my sitting room. A beautiful and intimate experience with a true “companion” – remembering the origin of the word being, ‘with bread’ and so someone you share your bread with. I again found myself thinking back, this time to when Peter and I met. I was an officer in the council and I was showing – if I may say – a somewhat sceptical and frustrated Peter how he could have a voice in the planning process. Never could I have imagined that some years later he’d be sitting on my sofa as friend and priest sharing communion with me, following open heart surgery. In some small way I’d like to think that I have helped him on a testing and meaningful journey with his ministry to the university and beyond. He has certainly supported me on this physical and spiritual journey of preparation, surgery and healing.
Back in Great St Mary’s on that winter’s day I realise that the walk and indeed the week had taken more out of me than I first thought. Having stood for the first hymn, I then sit for the rest of service. It felt strange to be participating in a different way. To have my view blocked of the altar as the last supper is reenacted and celebrated.
A couple of weeks later I am standing with the rest of the congregation for the hymn when I am suddenly overwhelmed by it all: the pain; the expectation; the uncertainty, and the tears flow and I crumple down on the pew. The person next to me, in their kindness, sits with me and gently places their hand on my shuddering shoulder.
I realised later that Jesus was surely in that moment, as much as He was in the breaking of the bread that I couldn’t see for all the folk standing. In my weakness He shared. With and in my pew mate, he quietly comforted me.
Vulnerability and weakness are perhaps not very popular right now and as some present an image of strength and stability I wonder if we pay a little more attention to brokenness and empathy with those that are, we all might be a little better off.
As the weeks passed I gained in my physical strength and confidence, but with that came the challenge of increasing expectation from others that belied my emotional frame of mind. That said I was chuffed to be asked to take part in the telling of the Passion story on Palm Sunday. The comments about my performance were very kind and encouraging but it was interesting to me that whilst I had a very prominent position as a narrator standing in the pulpit, I was also able to lean on it and receive support from it.
The Maundy – “mandate” or “command”- Thursday saw the beautiful and simple act of love and service as the clergy washed the congregations feet. I know that it was a privilege for Peter on his last Holy Week at Great St Mary’s to be given that task and I shall treasure the smile he gave me as he gently washed mine.
I stayed for an hour or so of the vigil that followed the service and as I sat in the chapel, beautifully lit by candles, it felt right that my eyes grew heavy and thoughts wandered. I felt in solidarity with the first disciples, who needed rest and left Jesus alone to pray, as I left in need of sustenance and sleep. In my healing state perhaps I felt a little more attune to their vulnerability and fear.
On the corner of the market square the next day it felt good to join with other churches to stand with the crosses. The looks on some of the shoppers were interesting , some a little confused , some a bit irritated that they had to negotiate their way through the crowd and some even stood still for a few moments.
But crowds and people are always mixed and complex. After all, it was the same crowds that welcomed Jesus with palms and branches and a few days later demanded his blood.
Some of this crowd followed the cross into Great St Mary’s. I decided from the start that I would sit for the Good Friday reflections and service.
“The cross as uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but through it we find reconciliation and solidarity” . As I sat there listening to the reflections of Rvd Dr Stephen Cherry (Dean of King’s College), as well as deciding that Victorians must have had smaller bottoms and shorter legs given the size of the pew, I could see what he was saying. Not least with the global and indeed local turmoil of present. It’s difficult to think of a time where a world needed accompaniment in its suffering and love in its division more than this one.
And at the personal level in some small, but very tangible way I felt more connected to the Good Friday suffering than on previous years and when I went up to the looming cross where the altar normally sits, I knelt and instinctively touched my heart and the wood in front of me.
A few days later awake at 4 am and moving very quietly around the house (not to wake my parents who were with me for Easter), I showered and then put the finishing touches to the Easter breakfast table.
As I walked (still not strong enough to cycle) my chest was heavy in the cold dawn air. The look on the somewhat worse for wear, puzzled clubbers walking in the opposite direction was memorable.
Arriving early, I talked in the darkness with those setting up inside the church. At 5.30 the priest sang and the Easter fire was lit outside – burning in the darkness and illuminating the faces of those gathered around it and from that, the Paschal (Passover) Candle was lit. We entered into the dark church and as the beautiful service continued the building was gradually filled with light as the Easter candle lit each of ours in turn.
There’s been rather a lot of darkness and fear in my own life of late and as I walked home to join my parents in their Easter breakfast I couldn’t help feel that the cross of Friday meant so much more to me as the sun shone on that Sunday.