Friday, 18 April 2014

Sunshine and shadow

“That’s a big, fierce dog you have with you!” The young couple laughed. “Yes. He terrorises the whole neighbourhood.” With that, their tiny puppy squirmed and wriggled with delight at being the centre of attention. He could not wag his little tail faster or more energetically if he had tried. Even jumping up to lick the offered hand did not lift him far above the short grass. With another laugh, the puppy’s owners led him away to another new and exciting adventure.

“I do not know what it is,” the elderly man commented, “but there always seems to be a different type of walker in the early morning.” He watched as his two golden labradors fossicked amongst the fallen leaves, searching for the source of interesting scents. “Do not get me wrong. They are all nice, but somehow, early in the day, people are more relaxed and willing to spend time chatting. I come out at this time every day, not always taking the same path, walking the dogs and talking to the people I meet.” Adjusting his glasses, he continued speaking. “Every morning is beautiful. Every day is a good day. When I was 50, I thought life was good. In my 60s, life was better. In my 70s, life was better still. Now, in my 80s, every day is a gift and every morning, beautiful and to be treasured. I have cancer and do not know if my prognosis is accurate. I am receiving chemotherapy, but that is alright. The nurses at the hospital are great. I am happy to go there and, in between my bouts of chemo, I walk the dogs and enjoy my life, however much or however little of it still remains to me.”

Alongside the lake, a fisherman pulled in his heavy line, the rod bending and moving from side to side as the fish tried to escape. With infinite care, he drew the orange-bellied fish into the net. It was big. No doubt the man’s wife could have prepared at least one and perhaps two meals. She would not have a chance to attempt such an exercise: her husband bent down to remove the hook and release his catch back into the lake. He resumed his seat and picked up his preferred breakfast of a bowl of cornflakes.

Further along the same lake, a magnificent male swan swam gracefully and silently towards the water’s edge. Watchful and protective of his mate on her nest, he prepared for the unnecessary likelihood of defending her and her precious eggs. For her part, she sneezed and buried her head underneath her wings. She was safe and knew it. Soon, the male relaxed and resumed his guard duty, a responsibility which would remain his until the eggs hatched and the cygnets were themselves ready for independence.

The elderly man was right. There is something special about an early morning woodland walk.

The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, asked the question, “What is spring?” He answered himself. It is “growth in everything”. There is something wonderful and almost magical about a country walk where young lambs skip beside their staid mothers and heavily pregnant mares wait in anticipation of giving birth. In this part of the world, it is hard to think of a better symbol of Easter and its new life than the glorious beauty of our countryside. Even in the city, amidst the busy streets and bustle of traffic, wayside trees stand with swelling buds and leafy mantle. “What is spring? Growth in everything.” Primroses are making way for bluebells. Yellow dandelions have replaced the white snowdrops, daffodils and colourful crocuses. In the early morning sunlight, as one dog walker remarked, “We are truly blessed with unique beauty and an unmatched countryside.”

Yet, in spite of the sunshine, there is also darkness. Out of sight in the Central African Republic, Christians and Muslims try to eliminate each other, usually with great brutality. An Archbishop and his Iman friend tour the country in an effort to show both sides that they could live in harmony and understanding. Nigeria has once again witnessed bloodshed as Muslim extremists detonated a bomb in a busy bus station in Abuja, the country’s capital. Syria somehow continues to exist in the middle of appalling violence, its victims disproportionally innocent children. A Pakistani court recently dismissed the case of a nine-month-old, who was charged with throwing stones and attempting to murder a policeman. At the time of writing, Ukraine is frighteningly close to becoming the border of a major war between Russia and the West. Search and Rescue ships and planes still scour the waters of the Indian Ocean as they look for the vanished Malaysia airlines plane. Close to the shores of South Korea, divers desperately search a capsized boat, hoping against hope that they might find a child hanging on to life in an air pocket.

Sunshine and shadow. On Palm Sunday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass and toured the vast crowds assembled in St Peter’s Square whilst carrying a wooden cross made for him by Italian prison inmates. His action echoed his visit to the town of Lampedusa after a boat, laden with illegal migrants, sank, drowning most of its passengers. There, his cross was fashioned from pieces of wood salvaged from a shipwreck. On both occasions the joy and celebration of those present at the Mass was touched by sadness. On the one hand, however culpable the prison inmate might have been, incarceration divided a family. On the other, unrealised hopes of a new life caused a family to pay perhaps everything it owned to unscrupulous traffickers with little care for the seaworthiness of the boat to carry them from North Africa to Lampedusa.

Good Friday led to Easter Sunday. Without one, the other could not have happened. Sunshine and shadow, light and darkness. Some of us have the freedom and the time to appreciate and to cherish the world around us. Others wonder when their pain and suffering will end. Nothing matches the agony of a parent when a child’s life is endangered. It is all easy to see Mary at the foot of the cross and, somehow, to think that, for her, everything was different; everything would be put right because of the resurrection. For the rest of her life, she would relive the sights and sounds of her son’s suffering and death. The joy of Easter Sunday would never obliterate the memory of preparing Jesus for his burial. Good Friday changed Mary. We can glibly say that it was an experience which taught her compassion and understanding. That is true. However, for all time, she is a mother who suffered, who shed tears and who found herself in a place where, left to herself, she would willingly have escaped. It is unjust to her to explain her journey in terms of salvation history and to ignore the reality of her motherhood. Yes, Good Friday prepared for Easter Sunday, but Easter Sunday somehow included Good Friday.

The people of the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria and Ukraine, the relatives of the plane crash, shipwreck and the prison bars will never be the same. Please God, their Good Friday will become an Easter Sunday.