Readers who have followed this blog for some time will know that in Lent I give up reading novels. I probably should give up reading, but can’t – my hair shirt is not quite as prickly as that.
In place of novels I read the Archbishop’s chosen Lent Book and one or two other improving, mildly sacred texts. For this year, the Lent Book was selected by the quondam-Archbishop Rowan Williams and endorsed by the new Archbishop Justin Welby. It is Looking through the Cross by Graham Tomlin, The Revd Dr Graham Tomlin is Dean of St Mellitus College in London, he is the author of several books, though I must confess to never having read any of them.
The book is a meditation upon several themes appropriate for consideration in Lent, but also throughout life. Atonement, reconciliation, humility, identity, power and suffering, themes which all of us should from time to time address as part of our own shaping for life’s trials and triumphs, but Tomlin takes us through to another dimension by refracting all these aspects of our character through the lens of Christ on the Cross.
By providing a new way of seeing or looking, Graham Tomlin leads us into a new way of understanding The Cross and what it really means. To quote from the introduction:
When I put on my glasses, as I do first thing in the morning, from that moment on, I am hardly aware that I am looking through them – they have just become part of the way I see. And yet I notice when I take them off. Everything becomes blurred, uncertain, hazy. My glasses enable me to see, but not by giving a kind of neutral, transparent film, as a window does, but by actually changing the way I look at something. I do not ‘see’ my spectacles, I do not ‘look’ at them – I look through them, and in the very act of looking, they change the way I see the world.
Thus, he explains how to use this book. Each chapter is headed by a quotation from The Bible and is followed by an exposition. The chapters are The Cross and: Wisdom, Evil, Power, Identity, Suffering, Ambition, Failure, Reconciliation, and finally The Cross and Life.
Any of those ring a bell in your life? Yes, it is a hard and difficult journey, you need a bible beside you as there are a lot of texts that are not written out in full, but this is a good thing because the very act of switching from the book in your hand to the text in The Bible causes you to pause, consider and reflect on what you are reading before going on.
Aside from this book I am also reading Stephen Cottrell‘s book Christ in the Wilderness. This is a meditation upon a series of paintings by Stanley Spencer. I distinctly remember seeing these paintings when I was about ten years old hanging in Cookham Church, unfathomably when they were offered to the nation we failed to grasp their significance and they now hang in The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. I didn’t know this and when I first went to Perth in about 1997 I came upon them by chance. They hang in a single row on a large wall painted in pale terracotta. If you do not know them I urge you to go on to a website which shows Spencer’s paintings.
Christ in these paintings is not a flimsy, romantic aesthete; this is a man who grew up with a carpenter, wielded a saw and adze, he has hands that have seen hard work and the arms of a wrestler with wood; this is a man who could and would carry a Cross. Yet at the same time, he has the most gentle of gazes as he stares down at the field of flowers, or rests leaning on his elbow beside a hen and her chicks.
This great series of paintings shows Stanley Spencer at his best. Christ is shown in a wilderness that very much mirrors the Macedonian wasteland that Spencer encountered as a medical orderly in the First World War, but also it gives us a startling insight into Christ manifest as The Reconciler of God and His Creation, the Man and the Divine completing the circle. By making us dwell on these paintings, Stephen Cottrell draws us into a relationship with Christ and shows us how to energise and refine our own discipleship.