from Revd. Malcolm Hickox
Easter - ‘A Holy Embrace’
I have always appreciated the work of Mary Fleeson from the Lindisfarne Scriptorium on Holy Island, in Northumberland. Mary produces some extraordinary pen and ink work, often using Celtic images and with biblical texts or reflections. One of her cards, which I find particularly moving, has the following prayer:
Embrace me Lord
as the loving parent to a new born
as the gentle wave on a windswept shore
as the summer breeze lifts the soaring bird
as the pure note of song caresses an ear
as the clear starlight falling on a deep still lake
as the familiar words of a memorised poem
Embrace me O Lord
Thirty years ago a small book was published entitled, ‘The little book of hugs’ and it quickly became a popular gift, particularly for those who wished to show support for a friend. A few years later another book appeared entitled, ‘The Hug Therapy’, which recognised that embraces contribute to our physical and mental well-being. Most of us instinctively recognise that there are times when a hug can say far more than any words. In fact, it’s at those times of great joy or deepest sorrow when there are no words to express what we are feeling that a hug can convey an empathy which reflects our shared humanity and care for each other.
Whilst a hug is a physical embrace, enfolding someone in your arms, you can also embrace a person without that physical contact by including and accepting them. When Christine’s mum was very ill a few years ago, following an operation, we had emails crossing the world sharing the news, offering words of support and assurances of prayer. It was a profound experience of being embraced or held within the love of others. Many people have given testimony to the fact that they have only succeeded with a difficult task or come through a traumatic experience by knowing that they have been ‘held’ by others.
Nelson Mandela’s aptly named autobiography, ‘Long walk to freedom’ took almost twenty years to write, having been started in 1974 whilst in prison and eventually finished after his release in 1990. It charts his early life and his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and gives a powerful insight into how he was able to sustain his life during the 27 long years of imprisonment, knowing that others were embracing his cause. Eighteen of those years were spent on Robben Island, where he was forced to do hard labour in a quarry and confined to a small cell at night, with the floor as his bed and a bucket for a toilet. Those were the wilderness years for Mandela, not just a time of great physical and emotional hardship, but also a time of reflection on who he was and what the future might old. It was like the most dramatic and intense experience of Lent, which became the crucible that transformed him. Mandela went to Robben Island as an angry young man who was being drawn to violence in order to seek freedom from the oppressive apartheid laws, but he was to discover that he could never be truly free unless he forgave those who had wronged him. That was why amongst the ‘great and the good’ at his inauguration as President, Mandela had invited his former prison guard. Their embrace was a sign that forgiveness and reconciliation had to be characteristics of the new South Africa.
The gospel for the second Sunday in Lent includes the well-known verses: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ John 3.16 & 17
That is God’s holy embrace - God’s acceptance of humanity. In Jesus, we see God’s affirmation of humanity by his total identification with us, even to the point of accepting and embracing all that is evil through the self-giving of his life on the cross. And then incredibly, Jesus not only embraces the criminal beside him, promising that he will be with him in Paradise, he offers forgiveness to the very people who have crucified him. Here is a ‘holy embrace’ which understands human frailty, and the nature of suffering and loss; an embrace which can hold us through the darkest of days of sorrow and pain and loneliness.
For the friends of Jesus, Holy Saturday was a day of emptiness, which followed the deep, agonising despair of Good Friday. For some today, it’s an experience which can last for days, months, even years. And yet, the promise is that there will be resurrection, because on Easter Day we see Jesus embracing new life and a hope which can transform everything. May that experience of new life be yours this Easter.