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Easter Sermon

In December 1875 a steamship sailed out from Bremerhaven. On board were a number of passengers, including five Franciscan nuns who were on their way to a new but exiled life in the United States of America. Bismarck, in his desire to create a unified Germany had passed laws which tried to control the political and social influence of the Catholic Church in Prussia, and which outlawed some religious Orders, including the Franciscans.

On its way out into the North Sea and the English Channel a terrible storm arose and the ship was driven on to a sandbank. There, stuck fast, huge waves smashed into her and for over twenty-four hours no other boats could get near. It was an awful sight and many, including the five nuns, were drowned. But when some of the survivors were eventually rescued they told how, during the height of the storm, one of the nuns had called out: “O Christ; Christ come quickly”

Meanwhile, over in Wales, a young English Roman Catholic priest, reading about the tragedy was deeply moved by it and decided to write a poem. That poem begins like this:

         Thou mastering me

      God! giver of breath and bread;

   World's strand, sway of the sea;

      Lord of living and dead;

Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,

And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

    Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

The poet-priest was Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the poem, thirty-five stanzas long, was “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

In Hopkins’ great poem his understanding of God is marked by an intense and unfathomable mystery, sometimes illumined with flashes of brilliant light. “Thou mastering me, God”, the opening sentence, sets the tone for the rest of the poem, and the flashes of light are found in phrases such as:

 “I kiss my hand

 To the stars, lovely asunder…”

In the twelfth stanza he struggles with the contrast between the ship setting out, heading for the Promised Land, full of hope and expectation and not knowing that it will founder. Can theology make any sense of the innocence and the awfulness of it? Where in such a case is God? He writes:

   On Saturday sailed from Bremen,

      American-outward-bound,

   Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,

      Two hundred souls in the round—

O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing

The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned; ?

 Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

He questions the omnipotence of God and suggests that God’s blessing might have been (?) somewhere out there overshadowing them…

Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

Hopkins finds God in the awful storm-wracked sea, and sees in the appalling deaths and especially in the nun’s anguished cry of “O Christ, Christ come quickly…” a redemptive beauty. He says of Christ: “He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her…”, and in a haunting stanza he uses two metaphors to outline our human situation: the metaphor of an hour glass in which sand cascades inexorably downwards through a small aperture, (is that small aperture death?) and the second, a metaphor of  hurtling down a mountain but yet being roped like a climber to Christ:

      I am soft sift

      In an hourglass—at the wall

   Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,

      And it crowds and it combs to the fall;

I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,

But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall

    Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein

Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ's gift

Now, you have not come here to College chapel to listen to the analysis of a poem, but to hear of Easter.  And yet…and yet…

I cannot get out of my mind this particular Easter-time, those young South Korean students drowning in a ship that took, it would seem, two hours or more to sink. The students had been told to stay where they were, so many of them did just that, until the water took them. The silent anguish and horror for those children tears (there’s no other word for it), at my heart and mind and soul. They are everybody’s child; everybody’s grandchild; everybody’s younger brother or sister.

I cannot celebrate the truth of Easter, unless Easter can also encompass the horror---which is why I turn to Hopkins’ poem. In his world-view he could posit a masterful God and, through the cry of the nuns, Hopkins glimpsed something of God’s terrible power and mystery.

He writes of God controlling the deep forces of the Universe; he sees Him as master of the immense tides of the sea and of time, and is in awe of his overwhelming power. He likens God’s mind to the swell and force of the ocean and then tumbles ideas about God against each other like the tumultuous roaring of the waves: Ground of being, and granite of it, sees God’s mind as “past all grasp…”  and  sees God as overwhelming even death itself…

    I admire thee, master of the tides,

      Of the Yore-flood, of the year's fall;

   The recurb and the recovery of the gulf's sides,

      The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;

Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;

Ground of being, and granite of it: past all

      Grasp God, throned behind

Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

And where in the poem is there a hint of Resurrection? It is in this next verse where the Risen Christ to whom he points is one who “with a love glides lower than death and the dark…” This is how he expresses it:

  With a mercy that outrides

      The all of water, an ark

   For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides

      Lower than death and the dark;

A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,

The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark

      Our passion-plungèd giant risen,

The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides

Somewhere inside those words and within the structure and rhythms of the poem I sense an awe-filled truth, though I do not have the words to express it: that in the wreck of the Deutschland and in the wreck of that South Korean ship…Christ submerges himself in the deepest waters, even the waters of death, and by his grace and terrible beauty takes each of those children into his wounded arms…

Now, at this Easter time, that is either absolutely, universally, cosmically true, or it is a pitiful, sad and self-deluding fantasy.

Each of us, according to the way we think, has to come to a mind about this. There is no escape from the question. I have, I believe, come to a position where the only God in whom I can morally and credibly believe, is one who enters the darkest and deepest of our sufferings in Jesus Christ. And though the suffering is appallingly real and though believing in Christ does nothing to take away the pain, somewhere down there, in the very depths of our humanity, is Christ, the Risen Christ.

Which is why, when even the horror of that sinking ship will not leave me alone, I can still celebrate Easter.

 Hopkins ends his poem with his stanza:

Dame, at our door

      Drowned, and among our shoals,

   Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:

   Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,

More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,

      Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,

Our hearts' charity's hearth's fire, our thoughts' chivalry's throng's Lord.

So, let him Easter in us, for that is the heart of our faith, the measure of our human existence and our hope for eternity.