This meditation was preached as a series of five interlinked sermons during Holy Week services by The Revd Canon Professor Graham Ward in March 2024.

  • Tenebrae 1: Evensong, Palm Sunday 24 March

    Tenebrae, darkness and, by extension, night – the time between sundown and dawn; the time of twilight. 

    What follows over these days of Holy Week will be five meditations on darkness arising from scriptural passages in which God is encountered at night. For darkness is a time when the Spirit moves more evidently, for us anyway. The day is full of busyness. The world is full of illuminated objects, certainties that offer assurance as we move confidently among them. The real things are visible things, and can be worked on. But with twilight and night, with tenebrae, we have less hold on our certainties. As the great Cranmer collect that ends Evensong prays: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord; and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Our Saviour from the darkness, our salvation in the darkness. 

    The Latin salus gives us the word ‘salvation’, and Saviour means not just the one who brings health, peace, and wellbeing; but the one who delivers from danger and brings security. In the darkness, moods change, we become more vulnerable, more aware of dangers, perils, more afraid, and more open to the secret workings of God within, around and upon us.

    Tenebrae plunges back into beginnings: “And the evening and the morning were the first day.” St. Augustine, reflecting upon the account of creation in Genesis, asks what kind of ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ this could be, when the sun and moon have not yet been created. Yet, there is light – the divine fiat of Christ as the light of the world. So, Augustine develops the idea of ‘evening knowledge’ and ‘morning knowledge’. ‘Morning knowledge’ is the dazzle of the Transfiguration and resurrection. The knowledge which is perfect and brings all things to that perfection. But as St. Paul said, we “see in a mirror darkly”, so most of our knowledge is ‘evening knowledge’ – half-formed, half formless; half visible, half invisible. We grope to understand. Like Jacob we limp along though limping on we must. Ours is a knowledge of the night hours and it is in the night hours that shadows thicken. We become more aware of the shadows around us and the shadows within us.

    Tonight, we will look at the movement of God in the life of Jacob and what it evokes. At night, Jacob, his family and his servants stand on the edge of a return to the land of his elder brother, the brother he had cheated of his inheritance, and the account reads: “And [Jacob] took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over all that he had. And Jacob was left alone.” (Gen.32.21-22). Solitude. However much we might enjoy coming to church and be blessed by being at church, it is in solitude that we are most aware of God working within us. We are never more alone than in the dark. Solitude has to face its fears. To be alone, to grasp that essential loneliness that we are and that makes us different from everyone else. That’s the beginning. To be alone, at night, not in the familiarity of our homes and furnishings but outside of all our comfort zones. That’s where God meets us. You, me, individually because individually we were conceived into the world and, individually, we will leave it. It is alone and in the dark that the wrestling begins – with our thoughts, with our demons, with our fellow creatures, with our angels, with God. And Jacob wrestled through the night until day broke.

    And what does Jacob discover in that wrestling in which fear and panic challenge the depths of human resilience? A new name. “’What is thy name?’ [God asks] And he said, ‘Jacob’. And he said ‘Thy name shall be no more Jacob, but Israel’” (32.27-8). He was called Jacob because he was, and the name means, the supplanter. He stole, by deception, his brother’s birth right. But this is where divine irony overturns human wisdom. For God honours not the elder brother Esau, but the supplanter, the deceiver; honours him by revealing his new name and a new destiny: Israel, the nation of the Jewish people. In the wrestling, with our pasts, our pathologies and degrees of success and failure, God works to bring about that morning knowledge. At the break of day, Jacob is a different person, with different future – formed in the darkness and his solitude. Tenebrae. A new meaning, a new understanding of oneself, issuing from a struggle in the dark. And the history of human creatures will never be the same. “And Jacob asked [God], and said, ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said, ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And blessed him.” In the darkness, in the very movement of God upon our lives, the one with whom we have to do, and with whom we have wrestled – that God remains unnamed. But the intimacy can never be forgotten. We will always long to know who this is, who is the one calling us out of nothing, out of shadows, in our loneliness, in our fears. Calling us by a true name. What follows from this longing is discipleship. For we have heard a murmuring which is not of the logics and sciences of the visible and the finite. And we know that, in some ways, we belong to what is invisible and the infinite. We belong because we are known. We are marked. Known by the one who named us and shapes our understanding of what that name means in the lives we will now lead. We will walk differently now, as Jacob did; walk in the wake of a newly understood fragility that tenebrae always brings.

    This is the cost of venturing with God through the night; the maiming of our confidence in all things human. The hollow of Jacob’s thigh is shrivelled. He will limp into his unknown future, humbled. In the darkness, he has faced his own isolation from all other creatures, faced his fears and his inner shadows, but he knows now that in this life he walks on water. He walks knowing his own vulnerability, the understanding he lacks, the understanding he seeks. “What is thy name?” What is my name?

    We are not who we think we are. We are more than the names we have been given at birth. I am a question unto myself, Augustine writes in his Confessions. In his book The Limping Pilgrim, the Czech painter and poet, Josef Capek, wrote this: Boundlessness “does not begin out there somewhere, on the other side of a border, beyond the end of something; we are right here in it now…You asked where I am coming from and where I am going. We are on the same journey: I am hobbling through the Gateway to Eternity.” Josef Capek, Czech painter and poet killed in a Nazi concentration camp.

  • Tenebrae 2: Evening Prayer, Monday 25 March 

    Tenebrae: darkness. Psalm 19.2, “night unto night sheweth knowledge”. 

    We’re exploring how God speaks to us, calls our names, and transforms us through the dark hours, from twilight to dawn. Darkness need not be limited literally to day and night. There are times when the darkness is spiritual, and we sense an emptiness inside we can’t disguise and is so much more than boredom and being tired - because it chews us over. Nevertheless, when the light declines and is even extinguished our physiologies change. The energies we have expended through the day are diminished and diminishing further as we prepare to sleep. Our grasp on things softens, and allows other aspects of our mental lives to emerge. We believe differently. We imagine differently. Distant memories take on sharper edges and we allow sounds to sound through us. In this way, other possibilities open, visibilities, invisibilities, impossibilities. We experience the world differently, through what we are afraid of, what we think threatens.  Only in these hours can we enter into the music within Shakespeare’s words: “in the night, imagining some fear, How easy is a bush supposed a bear!”

    Tonight, we enter into Samuel’s experience in the darkness. We note again solitude and the vulnerability it brings. Here the vulnerability is compounded by Samuel being a child and the shadows in which he lies down to sleep. And yet there is trust; trust even in an old priest whose eyes are dim and his discernment of God poor. It is in this vulnerability and solitude that the strange will be encountered. For, we are told, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, neither was the word of the Lord yet revealed unto him.” Some commentators have read Samuel’s story, as he lay in Temple, as an example of the ancient practice of dream incubation. This practice is best known from sources in the world of ancient Greece, where those seeking healing in the Temple of the God of Healing, Asclepius, slept overnight on the floor of the sanctuary. In sleep, it was supposed, the god appeared to them. It was not a Hebrew practice, and nowhere in the story is there a mention of sleep or awaking from sleep. Nevertheless, Samuel’s encounter with the voice of God takes place in the Holy of Holies and before the Ark. Early Rabbinic commentaries show surprise at where the story places Samuel. The Rabbis were scandalised that he lay in the Holy of Holies, and they made attempts to relocate him. But there it is, bold and scandalous as it might be: “’ere the lamp of God went out in the Temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was,” Samuel lay, the great gilded angels looming over the mercy-seat, their wings spanning its length and never touching. We might imagine, as generations of Jewish people and Christians have imagined, the play of shadows as the lamp smokes and splutters, the smell of incense, and the weight of holiness that seems to fall in places where prayer has been said for centuries.

    As we saw last night in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, here too what is at stake is a name given, received, passing between God and a human creature. “Samuel. Samuel.” Unlike, with Jacob, there is not a change of names, but exactly like Jacob, with the calling of the name by God, a destiny unfolds. For with Samuel, there dawns a great change in the history of Israel: the era of the Judges ends, and a line of kings begins – first with the anointing of Saul and then with the accession of David. Samuel is pivotal in a change of relations between the Jewish people and God, and world history. 

    Samuel’s name did not need changing because God, El or the plural Elohim, is written into Samuel’s name. So, although we are told Samuel “did not know the Lord”, the Lord knew Samuel, intimately. A profound intimacy marks this scene. The divine presence envelops the child. Although there is a reference to the Lord standing in the Temple, Samuel sees nothing. What he receives, he receives by hearing; a voice, a repeated breathing of soft consonants – schin, mem, lamed, s, m, l – that float through the Holy of Holies, through the open wings of angels, and sound through him, this child. His destiny as a prophet is formed in this sounding. For as a prophet, he will speak what has been spoken to him. This is the intimacy of God that is received before it is known and understood. It will take more than a lifetime to understand what God speaks within us, as us; we, who are known before we know. And the knowledge is not information or even language. It is the breathing of our name, the name by which God knows us, calls us, created us. The breathing that allows us to breathe, and bear witness. We are transformed by learning how to breathe like this; how to enter an intimacy such that, like the el in Samuel, when the name is called it is as if God is speaking to God through Samuel. God speaks and the speaking sounds within us. It names who we are and who we will be.

    All Samuel can do is respond with “Here I am.” hin·nê·nî – that’s the Hebrew word. You need to breathe out to say it and what it means is “Behold”. There’s no ‘I’ in there. This isn’t Luther’s bold self-assertion before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand!” It is an acclamation of both wonder and prostration. Hardly a word at all. More a stuttering of nuns, n’s. hin·nê·nî . And yet - everything with respect to God, begins and ends here: all ministry, all witness, all proclamation; all acts of love, mercy, forgiveness, hope; all goodness, truth, beauty and justice. It is the word that poets search for; the word that speaks and transforms the world. The Verbum, Logos, Word of God, breathed and shaped in the human mouth, by the human voice. This is the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert in his poem ‘I would like to describe’:


    I would like to describe the simplest emotion

    joy or sadness

    but not as others do

    reaching for shafts of rain or sun


    I would like to describe a light

    which is being born in me

    but I know it does not resemble

    any star

    for it is not so bright

    not so pure

    and is uncertain


    I would like to describe courage

    without dragging behind me a dusty lion

    and also anxiety

    without shaking a glass full of water


    to put it another way

    I would give all metaphors

    in return for one word

    drawn out of my breast like a rib

    for one word

    contained within the boundaries

    of my skin


    hin·nê·nî: behold. The only word possible when God speaks to God, sounding intimately through us and naming us and setting us out on our destinies, transformed. Tenebrae: the darkness in which something new is birthed.

  • Tenebrae 3: Evensong, Wednesday 27th March

    Tenebrae: darkness. Night-time disorientates. 

    Edges lose their sharpness, corners shadow. Time and space warp under the pressure of mood and sleepiness. The clock continues to tick, even in the ancient world when chronological time was only sketched through three or four watches of the night; especially in the night when the threats were not always visible. Jewish and Roman watchmen were the guardians of time, marking out its segments from sun down to dawn. Time is experienced very differently in the darkness. Its rhythms are different; no longer dictated by routines of work, the meetings to attend, the appointments to be kept. Daylight business bolts a structure in place, but darkness weakens that structure. Reality flickers: its surfaces disturbed. Between the onset and dwindling of darkness, the past, present and even future loose the contours they have in daylight. Ghosts, in the ancient world, always made their presences known in twilight hours. The spirits of the dead retained some degree of materiality and so some light was needed for them to be seen. Ghosts often prophesied what lay ahead. The borders between the eternal and temporal, the far and the near, the dead and the living, shift through the night. Fears stir.

    On Sunday, we saw what changes occur when Jacob wrestles with God in the darkness. We saw on Monday night how God called Samuel’s name in the shadows of the Holy of Holies. God’s presence fills the present as it gathers up the past and opens new futures. Jacob will become Israel; Samuel will be the prophet initiating and anointing the genealogy of Israel’s kings. And here we are in the New Testament, again at night, with the disciples battling a storm on the Sea of Galilee. The isolation we noted with Jacob and Samuel, this time belongs to Jesus. He came to them out of his solitary prayer in the mountains skirting Galilee and, for a time, he watched the disciples struggling against the wind, rowing into the whipped waves. There is such strangeness in this dramatic passage and the focus is spliced by the narrator: on the one hand, we have Jesus walking through the wind and across the water to the disciples; and, on the other, the future founding blocks of the church battling to stay afloat in a fragile vessel on the unruly water. There’s an abrupt about turn in perspective. First, we view the boat from Jesus’s point of view and then we switch, suddenly, to the disciples seeing Jesus. Space gets criss-crossed; and sea was always a symbol of chaos in the ancient world. 

    We are not told how long they fought the elements. We are not told how long Jesus stood watching them. Time dilates and contracts until “about the fourth watch”, in the hours before dawn, he came. This was the time of hauntings and in Mark’s Gospel as in Matthew’s, we are told the disciples thought that were seeing a ghost [phantasma]. Jesus came to them like a phantom, stepping across the chaos. The ancient world was terrified of the sea. Drowning was the worst of deaths because the body was lost and there was no burial, no closure. Only gods could walk on water. But again, the narrator punctures the narrative: as the disciples watch him approach, Jesus “would have passed them by.” Knowing, seeing, the danger the disciples were in, the future church was in, Jesus “would have passed them by.” And the disciples scream out in their panicked terror – their terror of him, their terror of drowning, their terror of the darkness. “And immediately he talked with them.” The long silence of this episode where the wind and tide tears away words; the silence of Jesus’ solitude and his seeming indifference – is broken now. “It is I; be not afraid.” And the wind ceased, and he came into their boat. 

    There is nothing the disciples have to express or understand what has happened. Matthew has Peter come to Jesus on the water and the disciples worshipping as Jesus enters the boat. But Mark stays with their emotions, emphasising how disturbed they were: “they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.” For Matthew, this episode is a lesson in faith, a testing; how the church must grow in its faith, how Peter as the founding apostle had to learn how to be faithful. In Mark, we have something different; something raw and difficult to comprehend; something not explained. The encounter with the God who walks on water is plotted meticulously, but the event itself remains turbulent with meaning. The chaos of the storm does not go away; it is internalised by the disciples who were “sore amazed beyond measure.” Their fear of drowning, their fear of the ghost, their fear of the darkness plunges into speechless astonishment. The meeting, in the night on the water, is not a test. It is not about their faith. It is about a realisation that will take a lifetime to comprehend: that this man, who they have eaten with, slept beside, helped in his labours as they fought off the crowds – this man is God. That knowledge rips apart everything with which they are familiar. It blinds. Time, space, circumstance, history, location, who they were as experienced fishermen, ordinary Jewish people, sinners or saints – all of it collapses as they undergo a baptism into the chaos before creation, the chaos and formlessness that still pertains, and they are part of. And the darkness, tenebrae, calls it forth. They are saved, literally from drowning, spiritually by Christ’s presence in the boat with them. Saved not by doing this or that. Not by any obedience to the law. Not by any confession of sin. Not by any act of faith. Jesus “would have passed by them”, but they cried out in the middle of the night when the darkling world was overwhelming them. And God was there. Nothing was demanded of them. He came, the wind ceased, but the darkness remained - for the night wasn’t over. The disciples could never be the same. Not after what they had experienced; after who they had encountered.

    This is where God finds us: in our darkness, in all the twistings and turnings of our faithfulness and unfaithlessness, our desire and often our need to be strong when we are not strong, when we are on the edge of being engulfed. Gerard Manley Hopkins knew this:


    I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

    What hours, O what black hours we have spent

    This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

    And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

    With witness I speak this. But where I say

    Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

    Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

    To dearest him that lives alas! away.


    So much, in that sonnet, turns upon that ‘we’ – “we have spent.” - hanging among the all those ‘I’s’ and a single ‘you’ like a lamp: “O what black hours we have spent.”  ‘We’ is a flicker of hope because it speaks of a relationship, a binding in the despairing. Time collapses in those “black hours”: “where I say/ Hours I mean years, mean life.” The darkness has consumed all sense of location and, even in his cry, it would seem Jesus “would have passed by”. These are the first eight lines of the sonnet. Another six lines follow. But the six lines that follow are not some assumption into the bliss and dazzlement of divine salvation. And neither were the disciples, in their salvation, launched by their encounter with God into mystical heights. The darkness remains. But there is a ‘we’; and the love in that ‘we’ is as strong as death. Even so, there is no avoiding the twisted olive trees of Gethsemane.

  • Tenebrae 4: Eucharist of Maundy Thursday, 28 March

    Tenebrae: darkness. “And it was night.” 

    Two of the most important British playwrights of the C20th are drinking heavily in a café on the rue de Montparnasse in Paris. The younger, Harold Pinter, the older Samuel Beckett. It’s late. They discuss the C17th French dramatist, Racine, and then turn to dramatic form. Pinter expresses his profound admiration for Beckett and his unending struggle to impose form on the mess of human experience. Beckett smiles from his profound inner distance and tells him of a time when he had been in hospital. In another ward there was a man dying of throat cancer. “I could hear his screams continually in the night,” he says. Then he adds: “That’s the only kind of form my work has.” Both wrote of a world in which there was no salvation; there was no love; no ‘we’ that we noted in Hopkins’ desperate sonnet last night. There was no innocence that was not soiled. “And it was night”.

    There is no account of the institution of the eucharist in John’s Gospel. There is no description of the agonies in the garden of Gethsemane. Pain, loss and break up are presented to us in a different way. The focus is on betrayal. “And when he dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot…He then, having received the sop, went immediately out; and it was night.” If, in recalling Samuel’s encounter with God at night, there is the quiet reception of a life-changing call, in our examinations of Jacob and the disciples on the sea of Galilee there is struggle, wrestling. These encounters are not without their violences. And so here: the violence of betrayal, plunges us into the lanterns, torches, weapons and lacerations in that benighted garden over the brook Cedron; all of which are a prelude to the more profound violences of the crucifixion. And Christ knew all this was to be: “The hour has come,” Jesus tells Andrew and Philip. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.” Alone. That little refrain again that we have noticed throughout these meditations: the solitudes that night brings; the presence of death and dying. All are faced squarely by what happens to Jesus the Christ this night, because the way of salvation lies through facing death and, finally, experiencing it. There is no other way to transform the worlds of Pinter and Beckett; the lonely, loveless worlds their plays portray with such painstaking artistry. 

    But how does God die? I don’t mean method. We know the method: a Roman execution. I mean the possibility. How does God die? I put the words together. They are words. We use words. But however much they grammatically make up a question, I have no understanding whatsoever what that question means. How it can mean anything? How can there be such a question? Our language makes things intelligible. This possibility of the God of eternal life dying is not intelligible. ‘In’, ‘with’, ‘from’, ‘through’, ‘to’, the Bible uses all these prepositions to try and orientate our relationship to God, but the movements they express criss-cross as, of course, they must: because how do you locate yourself in the infinite and eternal? What we do is follow the linear tracks laid down by language, the plot; and we imagine in and through the words of that plot what Jesus might be feeling as he approaches his death. In this liturgical season, particularly this week, especially tomorrow, we strain to empathise. But with this death of God (the fulcrum on which the history of creation turns) such imagining and thinking is facile. We focus on the man, on his humanity, because that’s the only thing we have some experience of. We have watched people die; people perhaps very close to us. We have seen what their death looks like, seen what a thousand deaths look like in Gaza, a hundred thousand deaths look like in Ypres and Nagasaki. We know something of what it is for a human being to die, sometimes heroically, mostly in different forms of degradation and befuddlement. Jesus was fully human. But he was also fully God. And that’s why we return to a question we can give a form to, as human beings, but never answer: how does God die?

    Tenebrae: darkness. We enter here into obscure and hidden depths in the Godhead where all our best theology stutters and stumbles. We cannot call it ignorance because something is known. We might call it the horizon in which finite knowledge (Augustine’s ‘evening knowledge’) is effaced in the infinite (‘morning knowledge’). But only the dead know what this darkness means and how, somehow, as John’s Gospel repeats throughout, in this event the Son of Man is glorified. We enter here into our own encounter with Christ, in our solitude. For each of us dies alone; no one else can die our deaths. Faith, hope, love, they will abide, but their abiding has to pass into the night, through the darkness, through the utter unknowing. Otherwise, there is only placebos and consolations; and no one is saved by consolations.

    For the moment, the story captures us; drives us forward and into the Garden of Gethsemane and, in John’s Gospel, the haunting question called out in the darkness to the “band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees”: “Whom do you seek?” That question lies at the very heart of the darkness, tenebrae, the encounter with God. “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I am he.” In Greek ego eimi, the name God gives himself to Moses when he calls to him from the burning bush. And, once again in this encounter, a theme reoccurs that I have spoken about in the earlier addresses: a mission, a destiny. “Who shall I say sends me?” Moses asks. We’re back with Sunday night and Jacob’s all-night wrestling, “What is your name?” Ego eimi: I am. That’s what we encounter. The Gospel narrative continues. “As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward and fell to the ground.” Fully God and fully human. The Gospel of John never lets us forget that. But this prostration, this worship, stops nothing. Jesus will be arrested and killed.

    But how does God die? It’s a question of the incarnation, in reverse: how does the creator and sustainer of all things living enter into the finitude and limitations of creation, into the loneliness and lovelessness of the world as two of our greatest modern playwrights have staged? We have no answers to either the coming or the going of God. Just as we have no answers to how we are redeemed; what took place between the Father and the Son and the Spirit such that we and all creation are saved. We don’t even know what that salvation really looks like. What we see is a world of war-mongering and power struggles in which millions are caught in some cross-fire we didn’t start and we didn’t want. What we see is rampant injustice, unalleviated suffering, desperate attempts to flee and find a better place, deep mental unease and deep spiritual confusion. But whatever salvation is, we know it will be full to overflowing with faith and hope and love – because that is the nature of the ego eimi: Christ the “I am he”. 

    But this is where we are met, in the darkness, amid the violences of betrayal and arrest, and with the question “Who do you seek?” And the answer, insofar as we can ever grasp this answer: “I am he.”

  • Tenebrae 5: Choral Reflection for Good Friday, 29 March

    Tenebrae: darkness. Over these five meditations for Holy Week we have been meandering through dark places, night-time encounters with God, twilight hours. And now we come to the darkest place. 

    “And death shall have no dominion”, Dylan Thomas wrote. It sounds biblical. But it’s not biblical. It cannot be biblical. Because it does; death does have dominion. Darkness will have its day. “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over the whole land unto the nineth hour, And about the nineth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, eli lama sabachthani’, that is to say ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” We carry the dead within us – my grandparents, my mother, probably my father (though I haven’t seen him since I was fourteen), two of my brothers, a good friend. And we carry our own death within us too. Tonight, we stay with the dead. We stay in the darkest place, for as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “the fear of death has bound us all our lives.” That fear takes many forms, but denial follows all its forms. We cannot face and cannot conceive not being here. It questions the meaning we give to our lives. It is denial that Dylan Thomas first expresses in the opening line of his poem, but as the refrain gets repeated, at the beginning and end of each of the three stanzas of the poem, the line becomes increasingly ironic. For death shall have its dominion.

    In 1521 Hans Holbein the Younger painted a very disturbing picture of ‘Christ in the Tomb’. If I tell you the canvass measures just over six feet long and eighteen inches high, you will be able to picture the corpse as it would have appeared had a side of a coffin been taken away. The narrow space intensifies the claustrophobia of death, though the dead Christ lies not in a coffin but on a slab. The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky saw the painting in the Basel museum. He was appalled. Rigour mortice has set in, the body is painstakingly painted in greens and browns, bruised and wounded. It is painfully thin, emaciated. The mouth is open, the beard unkempt, the eyes half closed. The model was possibly a Jewish suicide fished from the river. Christ’s dereliction, his forsakenness, is overwhelming. In his novel, The Idiot, Dostoyevsky has the main character Prince Myshkin try to convey the impression it made upon the author. Myshkin’s faith is shaken. “[T]here was no trace of beauty,” he says. “Truly, this was the face of a man who had only just been taken from the cross.” What follows is sharp: “how could they [the disciples, the women who followed him] possibly have believed that this martyr would rise again, confronted with such a sight?”

    Tenebrae: “a religious service of Western Christianity held during the three days preceding Easter Day, and characterized by the gradual extinguishing of candles, and by a ‘strepitus’ or ‘loud noise’ taking place in total darkness near the end of the service.” The light of the world is extinguished, and we sit now in a dark place with that fear which has bound us all our lives. We sit through today and through tomorrow until the Easter candle is lit once more, and the Exultet sounds. “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the nineth hour,” Matthew’s Gospel tells us. And the orders of nature twist and writhe as the earth quakes, graves are exposed, the dead walk the streets and the temple curtain - once before the ark of the covenant and separating off the Holy of Holies - is torn in two. The First Century Jewish writer, Josephus, tells us the curtain was a vast tapestry depicting “a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea.” The crucifixion was an apocalyptic event.

    In Holbein’s picture there is only tiny gesture that points beyond all this suffering, all this darkness, all this death. A bony right hand, clenched and claw like, has one finger extended and pointing. But it is not pointing upwards. There is no rising above the human condition and his Christ does not evade its final consequence. The finger points down and beyond the slab on which the body has been laid. In the words from Ash Wednesday, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” And I could leave it there, for tomorrow, with Holy Saturday, the Word falls silent. Myshkin falls silent… That it is not the end, of course. We know the story. The Gospel narratives continue.

    Psalm 49 reminds us: no one can redeem the soul of his brother or his sister. The wise one, the fool, the brutish all die and leave their wealth to others. While, their “inward thought is that they shall continue forever”. But they can’t and they won’t. We are mortal, and I don’t want to end this series of addresses on some cheap consolation. Those who know bereavement, fight their way towards hope. But I return to a question posed last night: How can God die? For this is Christ, and throughout his ministry however much he sought solitude in the mountains he was never alone. There was, there is, the Father who sent him. Staring at Holbein’s painting, that remains: a relation, a love. This man, this Son of God was love in, through and beyond His dereliction. It’s a love incomprehensible as we stare at the corpse. An intimacy we do not know. All our feelings, words, memories, figures of loving turn brown and dry before this love, this intimacy. Dostoyevsky knew moments of dreadful despair. The bereaved know moments of dreadful despair. As we face that, all this work, effort, desire, ambition, failure, success, joy and anger is ending too for us. No doubt we will also know moments of despair. Faith falters. It has to falter because it has to be stripped of fantasy, projection and will-power if it is to know even as we are known. There is an abyss between life and death. But something remains. Something that can never be cancelled even when life and sin have done their worst and the crem awaits. God is love. God is love. It is love, and a loved one, that lies there on the slab Holbein painted. A love unknown to us. An intimacy unknown to us. We don’t know what we mean when we talk so frequently about it. It’s this love that is stronger than death.

    Tenebrae. Darkness. Death. Gerard Manley Hopkins:


    It ís the blight man was born for,

    It is Margaret you mourn for.


    It is the inner child we long for, the Christ of Christmas Day. Meanwhile, as the Psalmist writes: “[God] made darkness his secret place” (Ps. 18.11). For us, it is in this place that we come to understand the absolute mystery of life and death, being hidden with Christ in God. One goes to a dark place to see the stars. “Have you descended to the springs of the sea or walked the unfathomable deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Have you seen the door-keepers of the place of darkness? Have you comprehended the vast expanse of the universe? Come, tell me all this, if you know.” (Job 38.16-18). In the end, the sheer incomprehensibility of death, Christ’s or our own, leaves us humbled.