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Extraordinary Easters

I have vivid memories of three extraordinary Easter services, in diverse places, in three periods of ministry, across 37 years.

Kajiado is a semi-arid area south of Nairobi, Kenya, and I was a mission partner with the Church Mission Society; Salisbury is an ancient city in Wiltshire, and I served as Bishop of Sherborne; Cambridge is a university town, where we now live in retirement and ministry.

Kajiado 1986

On Easter Day 1986, I baptized Samuel Kasiane, a Maasai infant, in Kenya’s Kajiado County. He was the firstborn son of Daniel Sankete, a Maasai moran (warrior), and of Rosemary, his wife, and is my godson. The church, which met in the primary school building, was only two years old but already had 20 members.

I was staying with Daniel and his family for six days over Easter. He was one of our third-year students and the first member of the Maasai tribe to train for ordination at St. Andrew’s College, Kabare.

The Maasai are a nomadic, pastoral people who live in small, low houses made of branches and cow dung, which take about four days to construct. At first, it seemed very dark inside and smoky from the wood fire, but I soon adjusted to it. I slept comfortably next to Daniel on a cow skin, laid over a raised bed of branches. I remember that the first thing we did on rising each morning was to wash our eyes (kuoga macho). The smoke left its mark. The second thing was to clean out teeth with the root of a tree, which had white juice.

Several houses of the extended family formed the manyatta. It was surrounded by a wide thorn fence, which protected the people, cows, and goats at night from leopards and lions. I wasn’t too worried, because Daniel had killed a lion when he was in the warrior age group.

Cows are the wealth of the Maasai and are milked in the early morning by the women, using long gourds as containers. These are cleaned by thrusting lighted olive twigs inside them. The milk and yogurt (maziwa lala, “milk which has slept”) are kept in separate gourds and both have a tasty tang of olive wood.

Daniel and I walked for miles and miles. I remember brushing up against a tree, which caught hold of me and held me back. He laughed. He explained, “That tree, in our language, is called ‘wait-a-bit,’ because of its hooks.” Daniel’s manyatta was near a place called Mile 46, named by the railway company to show the distance from Nairobi. This 2023 video, by the Norwegian Art for Change Foundation, brings the area alive.

Salisbury 2010

On Easter Day 2010, early in the morning, David Stancliffe (Bishop of Salisbury), Stephen Conway (Bishop of Ramsbury), and I (Bishop of Sherborne) celebrated Easter in Salisbury Cathedral, which was built in the 13th century.

Throughout the previous night, from 9 p.m. on Holy Saturday to 5:30 a.m. on Easter Day, an Armenian series of readings from the Hebrew Scriptures had been read in the cathedral, which had been open to the public. At 5:45 a.m., David Stancliffe led those to be baptized and confirmed into the Chapter House and the readings of the Exodus were expounded

The service was a symphony in six movements. The first began at 6 o’clock in the early morning chill, with readings from Psalm 105, Psalm 106 and Exodus 14 outside the west end of the cathedral when the Easter bonfire was lit.

The second was just inside the great west door in the dark, with light flickering still from the bonfire outside. After a short homily, those to be baptized made their promises and were anointed with oil in the shape of a cross on their foreheads and the Paschal Candle was marked and lit.

Third, the deacon processed with the Paschal Candle to the nave altar and sang the Exultet and the bishop proclaimed “Christ is Risen,” announcing the resurrection of the Son of God, accompanied by the energetic ringing of hand bells and loud peals on the organ. I remember ringing my Tibetan bell, a gift from my youngest daughter, so vigorously that the small clapper came off, narrowly missing someone nearby. It is still lost.

Fourth, we moved back to the magnificent font of still-yet-flowing water, designed by William Pye, in middle of the long nave, for the readings and another short homily. My words were based on my poem, “Easter Prayer,” and I trailed a finger in the water of the font:

Lord Jesus Christ,
we follow in your trail,
blazing through life;
we sail in your wake,
surging through death;
we are your body,
you are our head;
ablaze with life,
awake from the dead.

The surface of the water was flat, even though it flowed — so much so that tourists sometimes put their bags on it and, unwittingly, baptized them. New Christians were baptized, and sprigs of rosemary, in the hands of the bishops, sprayed baptismal water over the assembled Christians, in remembrance of their baptism.

For the fifth movement, we processed again to the nave altar for a final homily and confirmation and thence, for the sixth movement, to the High Altar for the Eucharistic Prayer and giving of Holy Communion. Those who had been baptized and confirmed circled the altar.

As a coda, champagne was served in the cloisters and breakfast in the Chapter House for all.

Cambridge 2023

On Easter Day 2023, at St. Andrew’s Chesterton, Cambridge, our local church, during the service I wrote the first draft of a poem, “Raid,” on a blank sheet of paper.

It was the third poem I had written that week: the first was “Confluence” on Maundy Thursday, the second was “Crossed” on Good Friday. All three were published later on Covenant.

On the following Sunday, April 16 I preached at St. Andrew’s Chesterton at our all-age service of Holy Communion. At the start the sermon, I asked the congregation to read out the dialectic oxymorons of “Crossed.” Those on the left of the nave proclaimed each of the positive first phrases (beginning with “Delight of the Father”) and those on the right pronounced and denounced the second word (beginning with “darkened”). I remember the poignancy of the final word, “buried,” which everyone said together.

Crossed

Delight of the Father, darkened.

Begotten, unmade;

Glory, gorified;

Chosen, forsaken;

Filler, emptied; Immensity, squeezed; Gatherer, isolated;

Teacher, distraught; Walker, lamed; Welcomer, woe-begone;

Renovator, degenerated; Healer, pained; Joiner, dislocated;

Devoted, devastated;

Protector, bludgeoned;

Bridger, downed;

Blesser, cursed;

Humility, humiliated;

Founder, lost;

Heaven, in hell;

Joy of the Earth,

buried.

Then I asked some young people to come up to the front to act out the “Raid.” Two boys played “Death,” next to the lectern. Their widening and closing arms were like crocodile’s teeth. Another boy played the dead Jesus in the jaws of Death.

A boy, the Holy Spirit, next to a girl, the Father, in the pulpit, was sent down to earth to take away the gates and fences that kept Jesus locked in Death and he then returned to the pulpit.

Death is

de-gated, unfenced,

dispossessed, deposed,

by the Spirit.

Finally, the Father swooped down from the pulpit, picked up his beloved Son and repatriated him.

Dead Son is

declutched, unclasped,

snatched out, scooped up,

by the Father.

Repatriation.

Conclusion

God met me deeply and movingly in all three of these Eastertide services, when I was 32, 56, and 69.

In Kajiado, I learned profoundly about living simply and close to creation and rejoiced in infancy, walking, and new life. In Salisbury, I discovered the power of procession and delighted in how the awe of architecture and liturgy can combine to proclaim the risen Christ. In Cambridge, I loved the way the medieval Doom Painting, above the chancel arch, presided over the modern imaginative drama of Good Friday and Easter Day being acted out by young people.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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