It was a family long weekend and we headed out of town. They say that in Cornwall, the toe tip of Britain, spring comes early. Maybe we’d find good weather. Sunshine. Warmth.
Well, that was optimistic, and we did get soggy, but we also saw fields of daffodils, a church with a cross made of surf boards, and seas of every shade of blue there is. I’d assumed summer sun made the Cornish seas lovely, but it must be the stone instead because even in the rain, the water was incredibly blue. The churches in Cornwall are made of the same stone, rough and silvery-grey or oatmeal or sometimes pink, and driving through this new-to-us landscape, we craned our necks for strong square steeples, and wondered where to stop for lunch.
We chose Launceston, the ancient Cornish capital. The guidebook recommended a cosy, sofa-filled sandwich place, and the church was said to be well worth a visit. The café had changed hands, but the soup was still delicious, and the church was amazing. Every surface was covered with elaborate carving. There’s nothing else like it in England, not even in places where the local stone is softer and easier to carve. Built between 1511 and 1524, this church is a monument to phenomenal effort, artistry and vision. Everywhere you look there are patterns and flowers, minstrels with their instruments, ferns and faces. The Magdalen herself is depicted lying almost flat beside her jar of ointment. She is not lovely, and the rough stone is worn but the folds of her garment and the bend of her arm are full of life, and seeing her, I was reminded of another Mary, another stone statue and the words of Luci Shaw who describes the effect of flesh made of stone in her poem “Bread turned to Stone: Pietà.”
“No hearts under the carved cloth to pulse . . . How permanent is this paralysis? When should we expect the miracle? How will stone become bread, become Living Word again?”
Stone cold and still
There is a deep stillness to stone, even when carved by clever hands. There is no life here. We are deceived. Every hint of fiery warmth has long cooled and hardened, and time and pressure have changed every particle. No life at all.
Like hope on the first Good Friday. Or Easter Saturday. Or any moment of that first Easter weekend before the world knew and the disciples witnessed. Those days of Christ’s death were filled with fear and disappointment. In his last days, Christ’s disciples clung so hard to the Passover hope they understood, a hope of ancient days and God rescuing the people just in time. But this time, the rescue didn’t come. Maybe Jesus moved too slowly to be rescued and, after his arrest, he refused to move at all. His face was resolute, his silence, stony.
The church in Launceston is carved of granite, the hardest carving stone. Its name comes from the Latin granum meaning grain, and it is a coarse, grainy rock. Granite is a good building material, and it’s also often used for gravestones because it doesn’t change. Picture that stone, roughly hewn or carefully shaped, its grain, its colour, its surface marked by the long day’s light. Then watch as they strain and push, rolling it in front of a tomb’s open mouth. Imagine your hand on its rough surface. You feel its weight, its strength like grief, and know it will last the ages.
And Christ himself moves the stone.
When should we expect the miracle? the poet asks.
It will always surprise us.
How will stone become bread, become Living Word again?
By grace. By faith. By love. By moving the stone, he calls to us from beyond silence and meets us all in that newest, oldest, newest moment of transformation. Every church everywhere testifies to that moment, and in the Easter words of the Gospel story, we, too, are there.
Christ is risen. He is Risen indeed.
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