…night possessed us and the shadow of death encompassed us, for we had fallen into sin and lost the power of sight which was ours by God’s grace, and by which we were able to perceive the light that bestows true life. Night and death had been poured out on our human nature, not because of any change in the true light, but because we had turned aside and no longer had any inclination towards the life-bearing light. In the last times, however, the Giver of eternal light and Source of true life has had mercy upon us.
Philip Larkin’s poetry is often bleak in various ways, but his uniquely beautiful voice draws me. So I borrowed a fat collection of his work from the library to peruse; it was fascinating. In a few poems, even though I don’t claim to see halfway to their depths, I catch glimmers of our common humanity and perspective, and am prompted to pray for him.
This one was unpublished in his lifetime.
Come then to prayers
And kneel upon the stone,
For we have tried
All courages on these despairs,
And are required lastly to give up pride,
And the last difficult pride in being humble.
Draw down the window-frame
That we may be unparted from the darkness,
Inviting to this house
Air from a field,
air from a salt grave,
That questions if we have
Concealed no flaw in this confessional,
And, being satisfied,
Lingers, and troubles, and is lightless,
And so grows darker, as if clapped on a flame,
Whose great extinguishing still makes it tremble.
Only our hearts go beating towards the east.
Out of this darkness, let the unmeasured sword
Rising from sleep to execute or crown
Rest on our shoulders, as we then can rest
On the outdistancing, all-capable flood
Whose brim touches the morning. Down
The long shadows where undriven the dawn
Hunts light into nobility, arouse us noble.
“The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery. You can search the texts of Holy Week for the word ‘pain,’ and come up with almost nothing. The mocking and the shame, however, color everything.
“The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ ‘became obedient to death,’ and adds, ‘even death on a Cross.’ The point of the ‘even’ is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame.”
In an article titled An Atonement of Shame Father Stephen discusses how our own shame and vulnerability before God are the key to our understanding what has been done for us on the Cross, and he points us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose father ran to embrace him while he was yet in shame.
“The first instinct of shame is to look down, to turn the face away and hide. Blood rushes to the face (it ‘burns with shame’). Shame is the very sacrament of broken communion, the most proper and natural expression of sin. When Christ enters our shame (and bears it), it is as though God Himself stands before us, takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes back to Him.”
“It stinketh,” say the Jews trying to prevent Jesus from approaching the corpse, and this awful warning applies to the whole world, to all life. God is Life and the Giver of Life. He called man into the Divine reality of Life and behold “it stinketh”…The world was created to reflect and proclaim the glory of God and “it stinketh.”
At the grave of Lazarus God encounters Death, the reality of anti-life, of destruction and despair. He meets His Enemy, who has taken away from Him His World and become its prince. And we who follow Jesus, as He approaches the grave, enter with Him into that hour of His, which He announced so often as the climax and the fulfillment of his whole work. The Cross, its necessity and universal meaning are announced in the shortest verse of the Gospel: “and Jesus wept” …We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus, that Jesus had the power of calling him back to life.
The power of Resurrection is not a Divine “power in itself,” but power of love, or rather love as power. God is Love and Love is Life, Love creates Life…It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life. This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus. In them love is at work again—recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!…” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the beginning of both: the Cross, as the Supreme sacrifice of love, the Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.
-Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Icon from Sinai, 12th century