6 April 2020
This week marks three years since I returned to Oxford as Chaplain of Queen’s. I was initially overwhelmed by the city’s bustle and energy: the crowds on Cornmarket, the revellers along the Cowley Road, the tourists and buses and bicycles at the front of College all apparently trying to occupy the same patch of street. How different now. If church services were going ahead this Holy Week, we would have been singing words from the Biblical book of Lamentations. It opens with the words 'How lonely sits the city that once was full of people…'
This Lent, we have all given up more than we ever anticipated. Many clergy, myself included, have drawn on that parallel in sermons and reflections. But now Easter is almost upon us, spring is bursting out all over, and yet new life seems a long way off.
I recall my disappointment as a child on breaking open my Easter egg and finding nothing inside. The minister at our school assembly tried to tell us that the hollow egg represented the empty tomb, but I was having none of it. Even at primary school, I was sceptic enough to know that my empty egg had nothing to do with Jesus’ tomb and everything to do with Cadbury’s profit margins!
But whether or not you have an Easter egg this year – and wherever you stand on whether they are essential items! – it remains true that Easter is an encounter with emptiness. The Good News of the Resurrection was announced by what wasn’t there in the empty tomb. Absence can be eloquent.
This Easter will be an Easter of absences. We will feel the absence of family members during a holiday season. Many are feeling the absence of normal routines and activities, the emptiness of days with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Some are missing their work, frustrated that they have no focus for their energy and purpose. For others, on the contrary, both homes and days are full to overflow. Juggling work and caring responsibilities, they are missing out on expected holidays and much needed space to recharge. We are running on empty.
But this too is an eloquent emptiness. The cloisters of the College stand empty out of concern for the safety of staff and students. The empty streets speak of solidarity. And our homes hum with hidden life, bursting out anew in compassion and creativity and connection.
The empty tomb itself came first as a disappointment. Mary Magdalen, going to visit the grave of her friend, was deprived of her anticipated opportunity to grieve – as sadly many will be right now, due to restrictions on attendance at funerals. She was deprived of closure, deprived of the comfort of being physically close to the one she loved. Those who visited the empty tomb did not go away rejoicing, but disorientated, not sure how to live in this new world.
If this Easter feels a little hollow, maybe it can be the emptiness of an open hand, ready to receive and to give. Let’s not be too quick to fill up the emptiness.
I’ll leave you with the hymn (listen to 'Love is Come Again' on Spotify) I chose for my first service in the Chapel three years ago:
Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.