the dead body of god: a meditation at jesus’ tomb

there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid jesus there.” (The Bible)

What to do with this? With the dead body of god?

We know it is finished. We know redemption has been bought, ransom paid, evil vanquished.

But here we have the dead body of god, carried by a man who until today had kept his following of jesus a secret out of fear, wrapped in spices and linen, and laid in a tomb.

What was he doing between now and Resurrection Day? Did his soul descend into hell and wrestle captive souls free? Did he rest? Did he … ?

We don’t know. he was dead. It’s a question I’ve been asked before, and each time I’ve replied as honestly as I can. I don’t know. We can’t. We’re not told. Maybe in eternity we’ll know; or maybe not, maybe god will choose to hold some parts of the story back from us just to keep us humble. We. Don’t. Know.

We want him to be doing something. Hence the tradition of jesus’ soul departing his body and freeing souls from hell. But there’s nothing to suggest that is so. This desire for jesus to be doing something even as he lies dead speaks to something deep and profound. It speaks to our desire to break awkward silences; to do something, anything in a moment of crisis; to make a joke to leaven the tension. It speaks to our desire that god always be in control – and for us, to be in control means doing something. No, this control exhibited from a lifeless body comes from the same sort of place which enabled him just yesterday to wrap a towel around himself and wash messy feet in the menial work of a servant.

In fact, the dead body of god here is in perfect keeping with the miracle of incarnation. From virgin tomb to virgin womb. The same jesus who takes a boy’s few loaves and fishes, blesses and breaks them and uses them to feed 5,000; the same jesus who sent his disciples out to herald the kingdom in need of food and a place to stay. In death he is carried, bound, silent and borrowing a virgin tomb.

We expend energy and money on grave-stones and memorials. What will it look like? What will it say? That speaks of our pretension, our desire to outlast. jesus has no control over any of that, speaking of both the temporary nature of this grave and the fact that for now he has nothing to contribute.

This silence, this coldness, offends us. We want to fill it, put a grid on it, explain it, tell a story in it. We can’t. he is dead. Totally, utterly, completely dead.

This day is a gift to us, stripping us of agendas and narratives and ideas and lists of things to do, confronting us with coldness and silence and death, daily realities for us all if we’re honest.

There’s been shouts of praise and crucify; of derision and agony; and there’s shouts of awe and resurrection to come. Shout we must. Shouting, though, needs silence. A constant register in the key of shout ends up as clanging gong, irritating and discordant. Sit in the silence awhile waiting, wondering, it instead becaomes a gift in itself; allowing us to hear the whisper of our name in the garden’s morning mist.

This post is an adaptation of the final meditation I gave from a Three Hours At The Cross service at St Peter’s Mowbray, Cape Town on Good Friday 2013.

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In praise of … counter-cultural sport

Well that’s a ridiculous title. Is there a field of endeavour less counter-cultural than sport? By its very definition it habitually elevates to ridiculous levels of acclaim and fame the young, the physically disproportionately able and the (often) atypically beautiful. Elevating the cult of personality; a seemingly endless lust for more attention, more money, more everything; ultimately utterly pointless in the eternal scheme of things yet to so many taking on an unnatural level of importance. Counter-cultural?

Yes, it can be and often is. It may be in the burgeoning and increasingly respected paralympic movement; it may be the sports club run by volunteers in inner-cities; it may be the romantic stories of winning against the odds. Sometimes, often, sport is and can be beautiful and life-enhancing.

For now, let me talk about test match cricket in that context. Strip cricket down to bare essentials and it is a ridiculous sport. All sports are ridiculous in essence; but cricket is so absurdly contrived, so littered with a history of English colonialism, so often rooted in class privilege, as to stand out as especially absurd. It’s suffered recently and has adapted in response. Dwindling audiences for domestic cricket around the world; the one-day 50 over format suffering; the seeming ubiquity of the instant thrills of Twenty20 versions of the game bringing in attention, coverage, money and even glamour to a game sometimes seemingly teetering on the brink of irrelevance.

Yet ultimately the highest level of the sport – international test match cricket – remains gloriously, essentially counter-cultural. A test match is the name given to an international cricket match played between two teams over 5 days. If the game runs to full-length with no weather interruptions, that’s 30 hours of sport. 30 hours. There are only 9 teams playing it globally at the top-level. They won’t just play one test match – they will play a series of occasionally two, often three, sometimes 4 and between certain opponents 5, matches. That’s a long time. Often a winner will emerge. Sometimes it won’t, and therein lies the format’s counter-cultural beauty.

As I write, a three-match series has just concluded in New Zealand. It should have been straightforward. An eighth-placed New Zealand team in turmoil hosted the number-two England team. England were widely expected to romp to victory, weather permitting by an overall score of 3-0. In the first match weather saved England from losing a match New Zealand deserved to win; the result was a draw. In the second match weather prevented England from completing a victory they had just about earned; again, a draw. In this third match, New Zealand totally dominated for 4 days. On the fifth, New Zealand threw everything at England. One English player stayed on a score of zero for well over an hour. By all rights New Zealand should have won. Somehow, miraculously, England clung on – for a draw – in a match in which they were indisputably inferior. Thus at the end of a 3 match series, 15 days, a possible 150 hours of sport, the score was 0-0. Yet it was breathtaking, nerve-shredding, emotion-draining, gripping. A five match series  – such as is played out between England and Australia known as The Ashes – is all those things, multiplied exponentially. 0-0 after 150 hours Ridiculous. Yet in an age of the instant answer, when some church cultures promise solution and resolution, when politicians think of short-term vote-winners, this tells us something vital about not always getting what we want or even deserve and yet how that is somehow more right than getting what you think you should get.

Ahh the Ashes. I’ve been to a lot of live sport – world cup football, my beloved Arsenal football club, the Olympics, American Football, golf, rugby … so much I have been privileged to see. The Ashes – especially live – is unlike everything for suffocating tension and intensity. Years of colonialism, years of history, of tactics developed to achieve the ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent; of other tactics to physically damage the opponent; all that and more erupts into a five-match series which captivates and entrances two nations and international fans. For England and for many others this reached a peak in the English summer of 2005 which became the most intense, tightly fought, but also fairly contested, sporting occasion most of us have ever or will ever see. Click that last link for an article hinting at that summer’s excruciating beauty.

But none of this still quite does justice. I could talk about the rich tradition of cricket writing which this post can’t touch; I could talk about the high levels of depression and suicide amongst professional cricketers; I could talk about broadcasters who can fill hours of air-time during rain delays with riveting, infuriating, moving discussions. In the end, for all these truths, its deeply personal. I love sport. I watch a lot of it, lots of different sports, and get passionate about it. It means much to me; sometimes too much. My football club Arsenal is mine, for better or worse. It’s part of me and my family. But put a gun to my head and give me only one sport, and it would have to be test match cricket. When I grew up in a sports-loving house, cricket was on network television and football wasn’t. So cricket was the sound of our summers, on television and radio during long car journeys. It was in trips to London grounds on summer-holidays. I was soaked, earthed, bought up with cricket in the blood and bones of my being as deeply as my own DNA. I can’t forget it, can’t get rid of it.

In my memory. when a Test match would start, something would happen. Traditionally in England that was a Thursday at 11 a.m., though sometimes that now changes. What would happen, in my mind anyway, was that my Mum would make some good coffee, and we’d sit down, sip our coffee and eat some shortbread. And the day would drift on, the summer would burble by with the cricket ever-present. I’m just old enough to remember an absurdly improbable series known as Botham’s Ashes in 1981, which cemented cricketing heroes, myths and legends in my eight-year old psyche.

That’s what it is for me. So when I’m having a bad day, something cricket related will do something to and for me. The languid, slow, intense rhythms of the game can be a strange agent of healing in my head in ways I can’t explain. It worms into my psyche and does something. If a test match, especially an England one, is starting and I’m able to watch, I will make coffee and grab a biscuit (ideally shortbread), and I’ll be connected to my family even though my Mum has died and I’m physically absent from the rest.

I, we, will always need the strange and alien beast that is test cricket. It takes time to learn to love it. Like all time spent, it profoundly, endlessly repays you.

Movies that move me 3: Pan’s Labyrinth

Sometimes you just know. I knew with Pan’s Labyrinth. I knew from what I’d seen and read and heard that I would like it. I wasn’t prepared for the effect it would have on me. Financially we were in a difficult place. In 2006 my wife as running her own business and as month’s end drew close, money habitually grew tight. Often very tight, occasionally too tight. Movies are oxygen to me; they’re a place of prayer and meditation; of self-discovery and of God speaking. So, at month’s end I gathered the fumes left in our bank account, took the underground the handful of stops from East Putney to Wimbledon in south-west London, to the only cinema in the vicinity showing Pan’s Labyrinth and handed over enough cash for a ticket safe in the knowledge there was enough in the fridge to see us to pay-day. Just.

It was a Monday night, and the small screen was only about half full. I sat in the back row, next to wall; immediately to my right was the entrance-way into the screen which divided the back 5 or so rows in half. As the trailers rolled a group of teenage boys wandered in, loud and laughing, clearly in the mood to poke fun at the film. Just the thing to set me on edge, nervous as I was anyway; I hoped beyond hope that the film would be worth the financial investment I’d made.

What unfolded before me needs some description for the uninitiated. It’s a Spanish-language film from Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, also the film’s writer. He’s a director most at home in the dark lands where fantasy and horror meet. Pan’s Labyrinth gives us a story set in Spain in 1944, in a rural backwater during the Spanish Civil War. The central figure of the story is a book-absorbed, imaginative young girl, the daughter of a woman recently remarried to the father of her unborn child, a sadistic army captain. They arrive at his base, where he’s leading a campaign against a small but dogged group of rebels; the daughter is visited by a faun, who tells her that she may be the long-awaited princess of a fantastic underground kingdom. She believes the faun, and has to undertake 3 treacherous tasks to prove she is the promised princess. Growing more fantastical with each task, the story of her maybe make-believe, maybe-real adventure runs in parallel with the drama of her mother’s pregnancy, her stepfather’s cruelty and his bid to quell the uprising.

In the space of 118 minutes a war story, mixed with family drama, mixed with fantasy and fairy-tale rolls across our vision. It tells a simple story well; the violence when it comes is real and hard-hitting but not too much. The fantasy is breathtaking, the mythical creatures tangible. The suspense is immaculate and unyielding, all the more remarkable for a film which gives us a key shot from near the story’s climax as the film’s opening frame.

Or does it? Therein lies the film’s power. Nothing is what it seems, and that’s what the film’s about. It’s about people, for better or worse, discovering who they are – just as a country sets a course of self-definition for the future. What is a civil war, after all, if it isn’t a country tearing itself apart over its own identity? The young girl at the film’s centre is at an age of discovery of who she is; her quest to discover if she is the mythical princess leads her to dark and scary places, as well as beautiful ones. She’s not unique, though; don’t we all visit similarly dark and beautiful places as we shape our own lives? It’s no coincidence that she’s guided through the story by a book of blank pages, the pages of which reveal their content as she needs it.

It all ends with uncertainty, fear, a flash of violence and a powerful shot of redemption. By the film’s end we still don’t know what’s real, but we know what’s true  – which is far more important. The period in which I saw the film was the outset of what turned out to be the hardest part of my life so far, a set of experiences through which I wouldn’t want anyone to live. They broke me, they shaped me, they made me. That Monday in a Wimbledon cinema as the film’s closing credits scrolled and the haunting score played, the audience sat silently, no-one moving for at least two minutes as we all absorbed the power and beauty of what we’d seen.

I don’t have a favourite film; the answer to that often-asked question is too dependent on mood or feeling or stage or life to be definitive. But I have re-watched Pan’s Labyrinth many times since that Monday in 2006 and I still consider that for me it’s as close to a perfect film as I’ve ever seen. I can’t see a single error in it, not one mis-step. Maybe I’m biased, maybe it’s too wedded in my mind to the stage of life at which I saw it. So be it. Still, it nourishes and moves me, which is why I continually revisit it. My list of favourite films is a long and varying one, changing with mood and season and experience. In 7 years this film hasn’t shifted from my list.

Those teenage boys? Within 5 minutes of the film’s start, their vocal bravado had gone and I heard them no more. They sat silent at the film’s end with the rest of us, and as they walked quietly past me on the way out I saw each of them subtly, privately rub away at eyes which seemed suspiciously moist.

I rated this film 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Other posts in this series:

An Introduction

Movies that move me 1: Trainspotting

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

 

Silver Linings Playbook

Some movies just shouldn’t work. They should, if you strip them down to their constituent elements, be run of the mill stories which flow along predictable narrative lines. There are many movies which do that; only a few have a plot that’s entirely predictable but still manage to engage and move. We’ve had a few of those in recent times – take Zero Dark Thirty or Argoboth of which had entirely predictable narratives which still more than kept the attention. Silver Linings Playbook is another.

At its heart it’s a conventional romantic comedy based on a popular novel. Bradley Cooper is a teacher returning from a stint in a mental health facility having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; we find out early on this was precipitated by his violent assault on the man his wife was having an affair with. His marriage was on the rocks; he comes out and forms a friendship with Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow, a woman who on losing her husband had slept with every one of her co-workers. She agrees to help him reconnect with his wife if he’ll help her out by learning to dance and dance with her in a competition she’d always wanted to enter.

From a bare description you know where this is headed. There’s not a single plot-spolier there, but you can fill in the blanks. There’s so much to like here, though. You know already about the performances. Bradley Cooper is playing an awards-fodder role, but he still does it well. Jennifer Lawrence is simply superb – again. In her young career she’s showed star-power and variety in the roles she’ll take on. Her’s is a necessarily more still performance, low-key to Cooper’s major, but holds the film together.As a woman who dances to heal and express herself, it’s a role fraught with the danger of cliché or the dreaded ‘life-lessons’; her awards are richly deserved because you simply believe her. She’s going to have a special career if she keeps choosing roles with the wisdom she has done.

What I really liked, though, is the earthiness of the presentation of mental illness.When you’re suffering, when you’re in the depths of depression, when the black dog is barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth; when it’s like that, sometimes it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. The film revolves around the achievement of some things are desperately ordinary  – watching a game with the family; getting an average score, getting to have a conversation with someone you love. None of these are major, but for those under dark clouds they’re the defining thing, the summit to scale. In showing believable, ordinary people and families struggling just to get to normality, the film does a great service. To do so  – and lovingly, gently point out the irrational coping mechanisms of the so-called un-afflicted along the way – removes stigma, enhances understanding and does so with a smile and a knowing glance. All that in a conventional romantic comedy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to a simple thing well.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com

The Impossible

Eddie Izzard has a comic routine about mass murder. The British stand-up comedian riffs on the idea of our response to multiple losses of life; he relates how we’re sickened by one life being taken in cold blood. We’re moved to tears by a few lives lost. A school-shooting which cuts short young lives numbering in the 20s or 30s makes us first numb with shock, then we’re angry as well as tearful. At some point higher than that, and he argues the precise number isn’t a universally fixed one, we find ourselves moving from negative emotions to a kind of blunted awe which can border on the impressed. Presented with millions lost at the hands of a dictator we become not so much approving as admiring a kind of sick skill, awed by the efficiency it must have taken to get the deed done when we ourselves can scarcely make it out the door on time and have breakfast. It’s a brilliant routine, simultaneously achingly funny and chilling. It’s both at the same time because on some important level it’s true.

A film-maker taking on an event in which countless numbers lose their lives faces this kind of problem in order to make it all emotionally affecting rather than leaving us stuck in a kind of pitch-black awe. The key is to personalise it – make us zero in on an affected couple or family. From there, when the focus occasionally pulls back to lines of body bags or mass graves, we have a context for grief and a route into tragedy. This is the approach chosen by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona in The Impossible, the first major film to tackle the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. How do you portray an event on film in which killed over 230,000 people in the space of a few hours? You focus in on the remarkable story of one family. Bayona is well equipped for this – his previous film, 2007’s low-key horror-chiller The Orphanage is no masterpiece, but works well because it focuses in on just a few people to deal with a sinister theme.

He also knows how to handle shock and fear, which stands him in good stead for The Impossible. We join a rich British family flying into a Thailand beach resort for a Christmas holiday from their Japanese home. We get brief glimpses of their lives, a sense of their relationships – sincere, squeezed by work pressure but still what they’re really about. Then the tsunami strikes, and it’s all about the suddenly split family fighting to survive and find each other – if they’re still alive, of course. The recreation of the tsunami itself is claustrophobically, terrifyingly brilliant. It’s almost too much – which is of course just right. For some it will be too much – but if some of us have been numbed by the numbers involved, then we need a sharp slap. The tsunami sequence itself gives us that. By keeping it personal – focusing on the fear and physical pain of a few – we start to get a sense of the scale of what has happened. The post-tsunami landscape is also brilliantly recreated – it’s eerie and laden with fear, shying short of the tasteless suspense a director with his roots in horror may have been tempted to. Also brilliant are the performances – the children’s are nothing short of staggering; Naomi Watts fully deserving of her awards nominations and Ewan McGregor portrays a man descending from control of his life to total fear and passivity, then back into action again, with great bravery and simplicity. The scene where he emotionally crumbles into hysterical, sobbed, conversational updates on a hurried phone-call home is heart-breaking and not easily erased from the memory. Nor should it be.

So far, so good. The film has two big problems, though. One structural, the other ethical. The clue to the structural issue lies in the title – trying to avoid plot-spoilers it’s still fair to say the film actively points up the remarkable, the impossible in the family’s story. This is subtle at first – why does one tree fall, another not? Why is THAT car carried by the water’s current, the other not? Is that scene which includes the shillouette of a flailing elephant hallucination, dream or reality? What about that boy? Is he even real? So it goes, so it builds. Of course, the resolution relies on coincidence. That’s fine, because coincidences do happen in events of such terrifying scale. Statistics, laws of averages dictate that they must. Attribute to God, chance or human spirit if you must, but they do happen. So they’re not impossible. If they were impossible, they wouldn’t happen. In The Impossible, by the time the should-be-impossible-but-in-fact-just-improbable occurs, you’re ironically numbed to a kind of happily relieved disbelief.

The ethical problem is different. Bayona and his team have changed the nationality of the family from Spanish to English. That’s an understandable, if sad, economic decision so he doesn’t have to make a ‘foreign language’ film. Doubtless other details are changed for narrative and practical reasons. That’s film-making. The ethical problem is that in a diaster which affected 14 countries around the Indian Ocean the victims we see are primarily white Westerners. Locals are angels of mercy and Good Samaritans, not suffering, dying, hoping, grieving, reuniting. The devastating, catastrophic local loss of life is in the occasional pull-back, the journey round the wards. Despite that The Impossible leaves us with the distinct impression that this is Western tragedy in a hotter climate.

There must have been a way round this; either a remarkable story to tell from local people or simply a selection of stories. Those choices aren’t taken, though, and that’s simply lazy. It’s not that this story shouldn’t be told; it’s just it needs more context, more local texture with it. Bayona gets away with it by cinematic slight of hand – so terrifying is his tsunami recreation, so astonishing is the story he has to tell that we don’t have time to think about what actually happened around us. The Impossible is improbable, not impossible. It’s very, very moving in moments – I was on the verge of tears on several occasions. There’s much to admire. It’s just sad, and in the end inexcusable, that a film like the masterful Beasts Of The Southern Wild has an outlook of more justice than this one. That was an entirely fictional film which gave a voice to the voiceless. The Impossible gives a voice to those with a megaphone, holidaying in a paradise staffed by the poor – a paradise dependent on those with the megaphone for jobs and income. Tragedy hits rich and poor alike – but the former get amplification and insurance.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com. To think more about issues of justice and inequality, check out Beasts Of The Southern Wild and have a read of When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting The Poor..and Yourself

On top of the world, looking down…

Mountain-tops. I don’t often get to them, but I know they inspire people. All that majesty, perspective, isolation … not to mention the sense of achievement in getting there. Then there’s the sense of proximity to God. I empathise. I’ve been to one or two, but tend not to make a habit of it. For a start I’m not a fan of heights. In addition, I have arthritis of the spine which can make getting up there a little too sore (I say ‘a little too sore’ in the sense of English understatement … really I mean more a sort of raging agony for the next few days); and I find it easier to draw close to God in urban environments as opposed to rural or spacious ones. So whilst mountain-tops may be great, I don’t visit them often. There’s also the fact that no-one lives on top of a mountain. So at best, a mountain-top can only be a short-term option. Wonderful for some, maybe, but only for a time. You still have to come down and get on with life.

Mountain-tops. If the spiritual life is a journey across a varied terrain, then it’s fair to assume it will contain some time on metaphorical mountain-tops. Moments, experiences of spiritual exaltation and exhilaration where prayer seems easy, God is tangibly close and we feel like we’re alive in every sense. Mountain-top environments are in the Bible too. Elijah calling down fire, Moses downloading the 10 commandments – much of significance takes place on literal mountain-tops. Others wrestle with angels, get life callings, experience bizarre healings  on the metaphorical mountain-top. Yes, spiritual mountain-tops are from God, and they are good.

You can’t live on a mountain-top, though. You come down, and realise life needs to be lived. You get the 10 Commandments up a mountain but only so that you can go back down and live them out in mundane world of donkeys and neighbours, husbands and wives. Or you come down and realise that whilst you were having a fine time up the mountain with God, the people you lead have gone and made a golden calf whilst you were gone. Or no sooner has the blood of Baal’s prophets soaked the ground then you’ve crashed and burned. Peter may want to put up at tent up where Jesus was transfigured, but that was probably his way of ignoring the fact that he wasn’t yet ready to follow Jesus to the point of death.

Yes, mountains are glorious, dangerous places.

We all know the temptation, I think, to put up a tent on spiritual mountain-tops. Actually, mountain-tops are cold and lonely places if you linger there too long. They exist, for now, for short term energising and perspective. A glimpse of what can be and could be, but for now isn’t. We all know, I’m sure, people, places, maybe even whole churches trying to live there nonetheless. They may not even realise they’re doing it, but the price is a hard one to bear. The people who find they can’t breathe the rarefied mountain-top air for as long as others tell themselves or are told by a few that they’re not good enough, not spiritually fit enough, not close enough to God.

That happens, and it’s sad when it does. Ironically the ones saying ‘Come down off the mountain’ are the ones who are really close to God, really Christ-like. After an Old Testament full of people going up mountains to God and missing the point when they went back down, the New Testament tells us about God hitching up His cloak and breathing the not-so-rarefied air of the everyday, spending thirty or so years showing what it’s really all about in a world of parents and jobs and taxes and sex and games and fish. He didn’t get much of a hearing and ended up on a terribly ordinary wooden cross for His trouble.

Still, He persisted. The New Testament letters like Romans, theological mountain-ranges all, end with lists of ordinary people living ordinary lives for whom the letter-writer is grateful. Paul may be able to articulate the mystery of sovereignty or call people to imitate Jesus, but his sign-off is Euodia and Synthce squabbling. Get that right, and you’ve got a real insight into sovereignty.

So, mountain-tops. They’re real, and they’re good to visit. Visit them, but live in the breathable air of the everyday, the stuff of life, the Long Obedience In The Same Direction, as Eugene Peterson has titled it (itself a line borrowed, incredibly, from Neitzsche). There will always be someone, beckoning to you to pitch a tent up there somewhere.

Invite them to join you, then just get on with it. Because down in the valley is where Jesus lived.