As we enter into Holy Week, it is easy to fall into the patterns of remembrance, repentance, and expectation, leading up to the great celebration of Easter Sunday. This ease of observing the liturgical patterns is not necessarily a bad thing. It is good that we have these familiar patterns year after year, as the Church remembers the events which establish what Christian faith, hope, and love are all about.
But to become comfortable with these patterns of thought and worship, and with the realities that they express, is to fail to grasp the totality of the comfort which the Resurrection offers. Gerard Manley Hopkins offers us a stunning depiction of what the Resurrection really means, and what it really does, in his brilliant poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection:”
Cloud-puffball, torn-tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air—
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fueled, nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.[i]
The world of nature that Hopkins shows us here is beautiful and chaotic, in constant flux, and humanity is caught up in the middle of this ever-changing cosmos. Humanity is a magnificent part of creation, and yet it is just a part, and a small part at that, and is destined to vanish into the wildly changing universe. We get the sense of this as the poem descends from a celebration of the boisterous clouds into an entropic spiral downwards towards humanity’s end.
But then, very suddenly, Hopkins stops this spiral. He doesn’t even wait to start a new line of poetry. The Resurrection intrudes on humanity’s slippery slope towards nothingness and puts an end to it, with a cry of “Enough!” This sudden, startling movement is what Hopkins wants to show us about the comfort of the Resurrection: its comfort is rooted in its shattering all the patterns and altering the entire cosmos. Not very comfortable, but very comforting.
Much of what we remember through the patterns of Holy Week remind us of our descent into despair and nothingness as a fallen human race: we consider the realities of greed, betrayal, hatred, suffering, death, and despair. But before us, we always have the familiar and beloved reality of Easter Sunday shedding light on the darker days of the week. And of course, we should. The Christian life is a constant remembering and looking forward to the Event of Easter. Perhaps, though, we would do well to forget that part of the story for a moment, and to let ourselves slip into that spiral towards death, to remember what it means to be uncontrollably falling down that slope. And then, come Easter Sunday, we’ll be met with that startling cry of “Enough!,” and will enter once again into the truly surprising comfort of the Resurrection.
[i] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 180-1.