Pastoral Message 2nd Sunday of Easter, 2014
The paintings all represent scenes from Spencer’s experiences during the First World War. Spencer was not fit enough to fight in the trenches and so enrolled in the Royal Army Medical Corps; the pictures reflect his experiences in a hospital near Bristol and also on the front in Macedonia. He saw fighting first-hand and its results in the hospital, but his pictures are remarkably peaceful and radiate hope. Many of them are explicitly religious, and depict quite mundane and ordinary activities; titles include ‘Scrubbing floors’, ‘Filling tea-urns’ and ‘Bedmaking’. In the last of these, one of the hospital orderlies is stretching a sheet out, and the obvious reference is to the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross.
In these paintings, Spencer expresses hope in the midst of war and that hope is in the resurrection, even where death is violent and cruel, and the result of humanity’s own foolishness and aggression. That same hope in the resurrection is explicit in another of his paintings in Tate Britain in London. It is called ‘The Resurrection at Cookham’. Cookham was his home village, and the painting shows his friends and neighbours waking from their sleep of death in the graveyard by the church, under the eyes of God and the saints, and recognising not just one another, but their new situation. They then make their way down to the River Thames and board a pleasure boat to sail off to a place of eternal peace.
But the paintings in Chichester suggest something more than just hope. They suggest that redemption, the experience of resurrection – new life – is to be found in ordinary and mundane things. Things like making the bed and washing the floor. It is in ordinary, daily experiences like this we recognise the new life that Christ has given us. The orderlies in the paintings are serving soldiers who have suffered both physically and mentally, and it is a wonderfully Christ-like gesture to ensure that the urns are ready for tea or that bread is buttered.
In today’s gospel, we have the well-known – too well-known – story of poor ‘doubting Thomas’ and how he missed Jesus’ first appearance to the other disciples. On that occasion, John’s gospel tells how the disciples were ‘filled with joy’ when Jesus appeared in their midst. Thomas does not have that same experience; instead he has the rather embarrassing experience of having to prove it for himself in a very physical and even unpleasant way, as Jesus invites him to put his hand into the wound in his side. So again the resurrection experience comes down to something very basic and ordinary. It is not a blinding flash of recognition that the disciples on the road to Emmaus had when Jesus broke the bread at table. It is looking at holes in a man’s hands.
It is a sad and challenging fact that a number of those who have been received into full communion with the Catholic Church last week may not be with us next year. Often it’s just because the experience of Church is something of an anti-climax; it promised to be exciting, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t felt particularly welcomed, and this is the challenge to all of us. But it may also be a mirror of our own experience of Easter, that it is all something of an anti-climax. We have five weeks of Lent to prepare, and then suddenly it’s all over and we feel just the same as before.
Spencer didn’t paint heroic acts of courage when he painted war. Nor did he try to portray its full horrors. Instead he painted men who had suffered, and others whom were looking after them. I must say I found the exhibition an incredibly uplifting experience, and one that gave me a great deal to reflect on. It speaks quietly of the resurrection as an experience of today, even the day when very little seems to be happening, or – worse – when things seem to be going from bad to worse. The triumph of Christ over suffering and death is perhaps even more relevant and important in the latter case. But it’s real every day and in small and great ways. It’s there in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, too: “they shared their food gladly and generously.” A small gesture, but one that points to an overpowering reality.
So I wish you a quiet and peaceful Eastertide, a time when you can find the Risen Lord in the small things of life, in the tiny gesture of kindness and in the minor disappointments that crowd our lives. When God appeared to the prophet Elijah, it was not in the mighty wind, the earthquake or the fire; it was in the gentle breeze. Find God in the small things, in making tea or beds.
I hope that you can get to see Spencer’s paintings. As I say, the exhibition finishes on the 15th of June, and it’s half-price on Tuesdays. I may even see you there myself.
With my prayers and good wishes.