Bishop of Chichester
Easter Day Sermon 2017
I am not, and probably never will be, a gardener. This does not mean that I don’t like gardens: I do, but mainly when they are somebody else’s responsibility. But one of the things I like about gardens is that they are great for playing hide and seek, which is what today’s gospel is all about.
In fact, the whole of St John’s gospel is a brilliantly constructed unfolding of the unseen God who is hidden revealingly in Jesus Christ: it’s an eternally significant game of hide and seek. And John’s literary method is also brilliantly captured, in art, by Graham Sutherland’s depiction of the hide and seek moment that is central to this Easter celebration.
Sutherland’s 2-dimensional garden is a jewel-like work that is filled with memories of the garden of Eden where we enjoyed but seriously damaged, our friendship with God, according to the book of Genesis. The prize it holds out to us is finding a way back into that garden of friendship for real, and not simply as a theoretical proposition.
If you have time after the Eucharist, go and find this icon of the resurrection. It’s at the far end of the south aisle. Go and pray; light a candle and rejoice in the opportunity to seek and find the image of the risen Christ. And here are five details that are hidden in the picture; finding each of them, and using them like a lens, might help you to seek God in this life, to find his presence and to share it with others. The five things are simple: a wall, a key, a door, a green dress, and a shadow.
First, a wall. The picture is mainly wall; the garden is obviously hidden and we are being invited to seek the way in. The wall is part of a house which I suspect is inspired by Sutherland’s modernist house in Menton, in the deep south of France. You can feel the Mediterranean heat in its red masonry (though Sutherland’s house was white) and it has an energetic texture to it, like fire, the symbol of the divine love and creativity. This is a living, contemporary façade on which the work and drama of creation is being played out. This says: Rejoice! Seek how the drama of the risen Jesus colours the truth about life in the modern world, in all its achievements as much as its conflicts, hatred and injustices.
Second, a key. It hangs in an opening in the wall. It is the key which unlocks the entrance back into the garden and to freedom from the powers of death. Jesus who said, “I am the way the truth and the life; no one can come to the Father except through me” has used this key, forged from the nails and spear of his crucifixion, to gain us this access. His right arm stretches up the handrail of the stairs and he points to an opening in the masonry of the house as he says, “ I have not yet ascended to the Father”. The opening he points to represents the eye of God the Father, seeing all that we are and all that we do, and loving us still. This says, Rejoice! The all-seeing God invites us to seek an ever-expanding knowledge of his love in the intimacy and the enormity of our lives.
Third, a door. This now stands wide open and is the way into the garden, though access feels denied to us the viewers, as it also seems to be to Mary Magdalen. The garden and its foliage are depicted in a translucent blue, communicating a sense of infinite expanse and depth. The body of the risen Jesus is framed by the doorway that opens into this eternity. He seems to draw us beyond the brutal heat of the house into another dimension, and it feels as though the foliage in the garden is claiming him as it blends with the newness of his resurrection clothing.
In a provocative twist of imagery, the garden foliage seems to reference the thorns that had adorned the head of Jesus. This oddity of a crown, but made of thorns, is what John’s gospel refers to as Jesus being lifting up in glory on the cross – the moment of his self-oblation, love and triumph. Sutherland was fascinated by thorns and spikes as a figure of art. Thorns, like barbed wire, made him think of the carnage of the second world war. But he also began to explore how something more hopeful could emerge from what he’d witnessed as a war artist. He wrote in 1951, “My mind became preoccupied with the idea of thorns and wounds made by thorns – on going into the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns as they pierced the air”.
The capacity of thorns to pierce the air prompted our artist to imagine them tearing a hole in what we see, as though you’d sliced through a screen on which you were watching a film, glimpsing beyond it another time and space. It’s like the tearing of the veil of the temple at the death of Jesus: beyond this hot and brutal world, we spy into the rich tranquillity of heaven as our destiny. This says, Rejoice! Seek how the risen Christ claims for our mortal bodies dignity here and life hereafter in the perfection of freedom and beauty.
Fourth, a green dress. Don’t miss the symbolism of the colours. Mary Magdalen is clothed in green. It’s a verdant, fertile colour – in this instance watered by the tears of grief, penitence, and desire refined in the crucible of divine love. In Christian symbolism, green is the colour of initiation and the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. The oil used in baptism is represented by green, and this is also the colour used for the cover of the book of the gospels.
Mary Magdalen is our sister and our exemplar in these two aspects of the apostolic life: bringing new people to know and love the risen Christ, and telling them the story if his life and teaching. On this Easter morning, this says, Rejoice with her! Seek the green, fruitful gifts of revitalisation and faith that tumble out of the 50 days of this Easter celebration of new life.
Finally, the fifth and most awe-inspiring detail of all: a shadow. It’s a detail in the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalen that gives this work it’s Latin title, Noli me tangere – “Touch me not”, in the more accurate translation of the King James Version.
As you look at the painting you will see that the hand Jesus extends towards Mary casts a strong shadow on the steps, as the rest of his body does on the wall behind him. This is a simple statement about the truth of the resurrection. Jesus is not a vision or a ghost: the risen body has material quality. Like any other body, his still casts a shadow in the sunlight. This is the shock of a new reality that defies locked doors, contemporary fashion, international barriers and the internet; it totally subverts the way we think we have got reality under control.
Writing about his artwork in relation to modern society, Sutherland, a devout catholic, observed in communicating a new vision, something unseen, like faith, “the mysteriously intangible must be made immediate and tangible”. That is also a profound description of what we do in this Eucharist.
A shadow is a compelling statement of the presence of a reality and substance that might itself be unseen. But in the Christian tradition, we audaciously claim that the shadow we can see, bread and wine, communicates to us the reality from which it comes, the risen Christ himself in the substance of the Eucharist. Here, in fulfilment of his command and promise, Jesus Christ is so intensely present that the reality of bread and wine is overwhelmed and transformed into his body and his blood. What we cannot see or touch is made “immediate and tangible”, put into our hands and to our lips in the act of communion.
With the eyes of faith, we can overcome mistaken identity in the confusion of time and place. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas, this is the “Godhead here in hiding, whom we do adore, masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more”. Today we are invited again to seek, to find, to recognise, and to rejoice in Jesus Christ, the God who already knows each of us by name and who loves us in the intimacy of that knowledge.