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Chaplain's Reflections
A reflection for Easter

This week we commemorate a grim anniversary: twelve months since the start of the first national lockdown. Each day brings new recollections, as the Church’s calendar ticks round again to the date of the last service held in Chapel before covid restrictions, and the magnolia tree in the gardens buds once more, promising flowers that last year went hidden behind the College’s locked gates.

When I wrote my Easter reflection for 2020, there was a tangible sense of energy and new life. Human creativity and solidarity were bursting out of adversity just as spring began to burst and blossom from the dark earth of winter. Creativity has not been absent from College these past weeks, thanks to impressive efforts from the JCR’s Arts Week and the Eglesfield Musical Society! But let’s be honest: most of us are just exhausted. Last Easter, we were living at the emotional extremes – fear and hope, grief and gratitude, the emptiness more bleak and the blessings of the natural world more glorious. Today, everything is flattened out. Even the calendar itself is slipping and coming unmoored, occasionally in fabulous ways (Christmas decorations still clinging on in corners of the College!) but more often in ways which are draining, especially for College staff. I’m thinking also of the proposal for schoolchildren to ‘catch up’ over Summer. There is a wisdom to keeping the rhythm of term and vac, feast and fast, work and Sabbath.

 

This time a year ago, our hope was to get ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible. We imagined life would snap back like an elastic band, resuming its natural shape as soon as restrictions were lifted. But our social bonds can only be stretched so far before they lose their shape. For better or worse, we’ve formed new habits, new expectations, settled into new rhythms of life and work. As one colleague put it, we are scarred. But at this Easter season, the image of scars immediately speaks to me of the scars on Jesus’ hands and feet, the marks of Good Friday still visible on his resurrection body. The very scars by which his disciples recognised him as the friend they had lost.

Over these last few days before Easter, we are invited to walk the Way of the Cross with Jesus. It is the Christian claim that the way to resurrected life goes through the cross; Easter does not undo sin and suffering, but transforms it. In the same way, the life of the College after the pandemic will not be the same as if all this had never happened. The disciples recognised the risen Jesus as the same person they had known, not because he looked the same, but because he bore the scars of the suffering they had seen him undergo. So in the year to come we will recognise ourselves as a College community, not because our life together looks exactly as it did before, but because we recognise in each other that we are what we are because of what we have been through together.

The Revd Katherine Price, Chaplain
23 March 2021

 

If you want to try the imaginative exercise of ‘walking the way of the Cross’ I would recommend The Things He Carried by Stephen Cottrell, now Archbishop of York and the College’s Visitor.

You can hear the College Choir singing William Byrd’s setting of the traditional Easter Anthems on the album Christ Rising. 

The image of Christ crucified on a lily is taken from one of the Chapel windows. The lily is associated with Mary and with the Feast of the Annunciation (also known as Lady Day) on 25 March.

Reflections from 2020
  • An Easter Reflection from the Chaplain

    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.

  • A reflection at the start of Trinity Term

    27 April 2020

    Life in Oxford is dominated by the University Calendar, with its rhythm of terms and vacations. Normally, the break is a time to draw breath before the tide turns and term hurtles upon us with a great crash of collections and club nights. But this is a very different start of term, and the start of a very different term. For undergraduates and tutors, there will at least be the schedule of teaching (though lectures may have been ‘delivered’ already, to an audience of one webcam). But for some of us it’s hard to believe term has begun at all.

    The Church has its own calendar, and in this period after Easter many of the Bible readings are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. This is St Luke’s account of how the growing Christian community sought to organise itself in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Their principles were immediately confronted with practical questions of how to take good decisions, include people from different backgrounds, and share limited resources. It seems particularly resonant this year, as we experiment with what community might look like for the College and for wider society as we come through this epidemic.

    These weeks after Easter are also marked by the tension between presence and absence. In the first Virtual Chapel service, we heard the story of the encounter on the Road to Emmaus: Jesus’ unrecognised presence revealed in the breaking of bread. Towards the end of term we mark the feast of Corpus Christi (from which another college takes its name) which likewise honours the ongoing presence of Christ in the sacrament of holy communion. In between come the two feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, when Jesus’ bodily presence is exchanged for a new way of encountering the divine through the Holy Spirit.

    It is through our tradition of breaking bread together that Christians experience both the presence of Jesus and our own presence with one another, as the community of the Church. Oxford, of course, has no shortage of its own traditions! I notice that #MayMorning is due to go ahead online later this week, including 6am singing from our neighbours at Magdalen, and I look forward later in term to seeing what virtual trashing may look like! As we come to terms with the strange tension of presence and absence represented by our virtual interactions, we may find our traditions (digitally reimagined) more important than ever.

    The Catholic priest and missionary Vincent Donovan in his book Christianity Rediscovered describes what he learned from the Masai Christian community in East Africa. Coming to the Christian faith without Western cultural presuppositions, they described the Mass as ‘making church’. Through them, he recognised church as neither a building nor a group of people, but something that is actively chosen and created.

    Christian communities in the UK are now facing the question, what does it mean to ‘make church’ when we cannot meet to break bread? The College too is facing a question of identity. What is The Queen’s College when it is not a cluster of quads in the centre of Oxford, when we do not eat together in hall or look out at the same view or walk in and out through the same lodge? I hope we will be gentle and patient with ourselves and with one another, as this term we learn new ways to ‘make college’ together.

  • A reflection on Ascension Day 2020

    When I was first invited to become your Chaplain at Queen’s, I told the then-Provost I would have to sleep on it. I wasn’t just playing hard to get! I needed to decide whether this Chapel could be my spiritual home for the next five years. Having never attended a service in the Chapel, all I had to go on was the building: tall and stately in baroque plasterwork, and dominated by the ceiling painting of the Ascension.

    The painting is by Sir James Thornhill, one of the most celebrated mural painters of his day. He was responsible for the paintings in the dome of St Paul’s and the Painted Hall at Greenwich, and worked at Blenheim and Chatsworth. He was the first British-born painter to receive a knighthood. Not that I knew any of this then! My hesitation was not so much about the style of the painting as its topic. Why this Feast? Why not the better-known feasts of Easter or Christmas, or even All Saints, to which the Chapel is dedicated? What would it mean to centre the faith of a community not on the incarnation - God with us; nor on crucifixion and resurrection - God redeeming us; but on Ascension: God, well, leaving us.

     

    One possible approach is to see this as an affirmation of human dignity. Jesus takes our humanity up into heaven. This is the ascent of human reason – a very fitting topic for a College Chapel! – and also of the human spirit. The Collect (prayer) for the Feast of the Ascension expresses this hope: “like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend.” In his excellent lecture on the Chapel’s 300th anniversary last year, the Revd Canon Dr Andrew Braddock spoke about how the consecration service in 1719 expressed the community’s hopes for its new chapel, central among them the ‘ascent of the heart’ in worship.

    But I’ve also increasingly come to value the sadder side of today’s feast. This is a parting. No matter how close he may be in spirit, the loss of Jesus’ physical presence with us is a real loss – we understand that now perhaps more than ever. But I’ve come to see Jesus ‘stepping back’ as an affirmation of human dignity in a more practical sense. This is Jesus trusting us to continue his work.

    In the College, we are reaching the mid-point of term. In the nation, too, we are (we hope) coming over the peak of the current crisis. We are hitting what has been called the ‘third quarter phenomenon’, over the worst but newly aware of how far we still have to go. The disciples may have faced an acute crisis on Good Friday, and come through it to the glory of Easter joy, but it is the Ascension which marks the beginning of the long haul.

    "O GOD the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen."

     

    For information about Sir James Thornhill, I’m indebted to Jeremy Barker for sight of his pamphlet “Sir James Thornhill and the Painting of the Ascension in the Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford” which is published by The Friends of Sherborne House.

    You can read my theological reflection from 2018 on the Thornhill painting and the Ascension on the Mary Magdalen School of Theology website.