Life is full of surprises! I certainly thought that when the Lord Lieutenant, Mrs Johanna Ropner invited me to become a Deputy Lieutenant, as reported recently by the region’s media. This is unquestionably a great honour and I look forward to supporting her in the invaluable work that she does so brilliantly for North Yorkshire people. It is pleasing when surprises bring joy. It is challenging when they don’t. The appalling scenes of Notre Dame de Paris in flames brought that home to us in the early days of Holy Week. Our hearts went out immediately in a generous tide of sympathy and sorrow for the cathedral community and the French nation. We can’t ‘see around the corner’ in life and regularly conclude that it is just as well. So, both joy and sorrow can surprise us.
Through Holy Week we have recounted what happened to Jesus from his entry on a donkey into Jerusalem to the discovery of his empty tomb. The various surprises that the week contained for the disciples brought confusion, grief, deep sorrow, fear and joy tinged with bewilderment. Two thousand years on, it can be difficult for us to experience the surprise. Many of us know the stages of this narrative and have bought our Easter eggs and lamb joint in advance, anticipating the happy ending. Holy week’s services and events at the cathedral and in churches across the region invite us to imagine ourselves alongside those first disciples, encountering the surprises.
What sort of a king, intent on victory and conquering his city, would arrive in almost comic style, riding on a donkey? And what sort of a leader would show such humility? In fact, if this leader is supposed to be the one who shows us God, what sort of god would show such humility? And if Jesus was supposed to be the Son of God, wasn’t he acting out of character when he stormed into the temple and created an unholy scene by turning over tables and sending money in all directions. Even those who know the story well can find that surprising, two thousand years later.
And what was Jesus thinking of when, at the Last Supper, he insisted on washing the disciples’ feet. Their spokesperson, St. Peter, was shocked and reacted firmly, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ He gave in, of course – no surprises there. Jesus, after all, was the servant king and those who would follow him must first allow themselves to be served by him.
The crucifixion was more than a surprise for those who saw Jesus as God’s messiah; it was utterly shocking. Would God really go to such lengths, suffer so grievously, to show the extent of his redeeming love for people like us? We can still find that surprising and struggle to accept it.
And we can still be surprised when we encounter the love and activity of God in everyday living. Early, on the day of resurrection, the women who went to the tomb found it empty. They were not expecting to discover the stone rolled back. Mary thought that she was talking to the gardener. She was surprised when he used her name; she then immediately recognised him to be Jesus. The resurrection brought joy, but also confusion and even fear for those who first saw the signs of it.
Holy Week and Easter are remarkable. We should be careful, though, before concluding that there are no surprises for us who already know the story. The surprises experienced by the disciples then suggest we could find ourselves surprised by God now. Those who think God is dead and gone might be surprised when they encounter him very much alive in strange, unexpected ways in their own lives. Those who imagine him as an elevated imperial power might be surprised when they discover our servant king humbly alongside them. Those who subject others to injustice might be surprised to discover the anger that God can show as he turns such unjust powers upside down. Those who feel themselves to be in desperate situations with no hope, might be surprised to find how the God who can raise the dead to life is even capable of changing their situation or, at least, able to provide them with strength to cope. And the great feast of Easter helps us to see that God’s surprises are full of life.
This is all worth celebrating. Please do join us at Ripon Cathedral for any of our services; details are on the cathedral website.
Have a very happy Easter!