St. Botolph’s Parish, Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), 9 April 2017
If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him (John 11.10).
A thud in the middle of the road. Something round and soft. Rubbish, you tell yourself. An old bag of kitchen scraps. A fox must have dragged it halfway into the street, then run off. ‘It’s nothing, Sam’, you call from the rear. ‘Drive on’. ‘Yes, M’lord’. A subtle, steady voice. In the rear view mirror, you make out the contours. Too small for a rubbish bag. Maybe, it was the fox. Light red, blood-matted fur flattened by the wheel of your 2011 Cadillac Ciel. Strange, however. No high-pitched yelp. No whimper. Like the Jack Russell you ran over, a week ago. Must have been a rat. Squeals of a brown rat, faintly, faintly echoing. How in God’s name can you tell? ‘Are we driving extra slowly, Sam?’ you ask the chauffeur. ‘No. Not at all, M’lord’. A twin turbo, 425 bhp V6 engine goes too fast for you to see. Besides, it must be … Check the red numerals in front of you. Midnight. On the stroke. How could you make out anything on the road? This late? Pour yourself a shot of Macallan from the minibar behind the passenger seat. At the first sip, you seem to hear a low moan. Groan, rather. ‘Uhhhh …’ Intermittent wails and whines of pain. Edging off into that low, creaking, grinding sound of a rocking chair. Agitated like a restless child, you enquire: ‘Are we near home, Sam?’ Sam says nothing. In the driver’s rear view mirror, you spot a feature or two of his face never noticed. A grin tightly drawn. An eye oddly sunken. No pupil in sight.
As the heavy, brass gates gradually open, the cadillac makes its way slowly up the drive. Anguish gnaws. ‘Is everything in order, Sam?’ you ask. ‘All in order, M’lord bishop’.
Bishop of Chelsea and Chiswick, Greensborough, and Gerrard’s Cross, Lecturer in Early Christian Pseudepigrapha, you rarely spook so easily. ‘A conjuring trick with bones’, you cite an esteemed colleague. ‘Resurrect?’ a wry smile rests on pallid lips. ‘It’s a metaphor. No one resurrects. The lessons of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Yosef go on past his … demise’. In the crematorium nine miles west of Slough, you watch a small, blue casket, winding its way down the conveyor belt. ‘So, Maria’, you nudge your most obstinate student’s elbow. ‘Will those bones rise up and haunt me? At the stroke of midnight, perchance?’ A single, soul-probing tear wets her cheek. ‘Will skin, bone, muscle reconstitute themselves, as it were, in the grave?’ Eyes wet and sullen stare into yours. ‘My baby shall rise again’, she replies with infinite resolve. ‘In the Res … ?’ you ask. ‘Let’s avoid the “R” word, shall we?’ ‘What are you afraid of, bishop?’ she corners you. ‘I wanted to bury him. Then you convinced, no, you bullied me, to burn him. But you too shall rise. For all that you try to hide from death, you too shall rise!’ Changing topics, you ask: ‘What was his name?’ ‘Lazar’, she states. ‘Lazarus’. Four years to the day, that Balkan beauty wailing her lament for a lost child vanishes into memory. ‘Sam’, you groan abruptly. A pain pulsating down your left arm. ‘Where were we driving tonight, when we hit …?’ ‘Homeward, M’lord’, Sam replies. ‘Don’t call me M’Lord, Samuel’, you correct him. ‘What was that soft, round object in the road?’
‘My name is not Samuel, M’lord bishop’, he says, ‘but Samaël’. ‘That object? Why, that object was … your soul’.
Round contour. Soft edge. A gospel not of Samuel but of Samaël. His archangelic wings, faintly shadowing the rich and self-contented. The mild muddle of middle-class minds. An eye sunken, a fleshless grin tightly drawn. Samaël. Not God-has-heard but God-is-blind. Scouring roads for blood-matted kill, squeal of a rat run over – or else, rocking in his chair. He who lives on wails and whines of pain. Samaël, the accuser. The archangel of death. Go tell a grieving mother that her child’s bones shall not rise – the subtle voice of Samaël gently lulls you into unwaking sleep. Ignore a little body, broken on the road. Incinerate it. The steady hand of Samaël closes around you. But look death straight in his eye …
Say, ‘Blessed is he that comes to break you open’. Samaël-Satan turns and flees.
On the borders of a village called Bethany, in the darkest recess at the far end of a cave, Samaël sits. His eye oddly sunken, his grin tightly drawn. He has his prey. Four days, the body of Lazarus lies bound. Smaller, simpler forms of life, single-celled organisms invade the tissues. ‘By now, he stinks’, wild-eyed Martha grieves bitterly. ‘If you cared’, she wails her lament, ‘my brother would not have died. Now, he shall not rise until the …’ ‘I am the Resurrection’, replies the Lamb of God. ‘Take away the stone from the door of his tomb’. His eye wet with weeping, unshaken in its infinite resolve, stares ever so sullenly into the tunnel. His voice of harsh contours and jagged edges echoes in the walls of Hades itself: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ Six days before Passover, when lamb’s blood smeared on the lintel keeps the angel Samaël at bay, the Lamb of God sits at a table with Lazarus his friend. In his cup, Martha pours wine. His lips never touch it. Mary anoints his feet with costly nard. ‘Waste of precious funds’, Judas protests prudently. ‘Sell it, give the funds to the needy’. ‘Let her be’, says the Lamb. ‘She anoints me for the final struggle’.
Over the pavement stones of the Holy City, a young colt, the foal of an ass, winds its way. The Lamb of God rides, his eye sullen and infinitely resolved. Beside him walks Lazarus. Dodging palm leaves, branches, bishops – ‘chief priests’, as it were – who seek to kill him. ‘Why do they hate me, Lord?’ he asks. ‘You walk in the day’, Christ replies. ‘They walk in the night. You see light where they see none. Where they die, you live’.
Beloved in Christ: this late in the evening of time, shadows lengthen on the streets of the city. Jerusalem that shouts ‘Hosanna in the highest’ – and soon shall shout, ‘Crucify him’. Where is he now, this Vanquisher of death? Where the enemy least expects him. In a fox, blood-splattered, or a child’s pet run over on the road. In the groaning of a baby too weak to cry. In the chief priest who looks away, caught under the wheel of his cadillac.
Awakening at midnight, only to find himself … his own road kill.
In all things dead and dying, the Vanquisher is there. Sullen-eyed, intense. His mind fixed on a single goal. On behalf of every soul wailing in the night, every moan, every whimper and cry of pain until eternity swallows up time, he descends … into the deepest recesses of all that is. Watching him riding on, the archangel Samaël hides in vain under the fold of dark wings. From him who binds the angel of death and sets his captives free.