Our first service of the day is at 4 a.m. During winter this means that the entire service takes place in darkness. After the service we have a time of silent personal prayer. We remain in our choir stalls looking East towards the Tabernacle in the Apse.
Very slowly, the stained glass windows of the Apse begin to transmit the light of dawn. It is like an unfolding of the petals of a flower; the light begins so slowly that you don’t notice it actually starting. But the first part of the window to start transmitting this light is a white flag with a red Cross; the white glasswork is one of the brightest colours within all of the windows. At the very beginning, there is just a white shape in the midst of darkness, and gradually the light from the rest of the great windows begin to emerge.
This white flag is Christ’s flag of victory. Once the windows are lighted by the dawn, we see that Jesus is holding the flag aloft as he rises out of the tomb. We can assume that the glass artists knew that this would be the first part of the window to light up. And it provides a daily reflection for us monks, every day of the year.
It is one of the jobs of monks and nuns to pray on behalf of the world. And the early morning prayers which are undisturbed by exterior noises are often the most difficult. As we sit there in the cold, dark church, we can imagine the disciples who were sleeping when Christ asked them to keep watch. We are tired, and our bodies and minds are telling us we need to be in bed. We look towards the east, not towards a blazing light, but towards a tabernacle that we cannot even see because it is pitch-dark. Gradually, ever so gradually, the triumphal flag of Christ’s victory appears amidst the darkness. And then, from around it, comes the rest of the scene with the light of the new day. We see Jesus in white robes, an empty tomb, the soldier looking shocked and, in the background, three crosses on a hill.
Unusually, the glass artist has made a dark, thunderous sky out of smoked glass, through which we glimpse the dark outline of the three crosses. Once dawn has arrived and our church is bathed in light, the brooding view of Calvary is like a memory of the darkness we have just come from.
These Windows provide a fitting reflection on life. In the midst of darkness we long for light. And it comes through the Resurrection of Christ. And when our lives are bathed in the beautiful light of Christ’s life, there is always that hill of Calvary to look back on, to remind ourselves of the sacrifice that Christ made for us.
On this Easter morning we are being bathed in this beautiful, multicoloured light. The light of his Resurrection has come down the centuries and illumines our way as children of God. As we look in the Resurrection Window to that dark corner, we can remind ourselves that we too are asked to walk up the hill, sometimes daily, and sacrifice something of ourselves.
Sometimes we look at the thunderous sky of our world – the thousands dying of coronavirus, the inequality, the violence, the poverty – and we become consumed by it. But we must remember that this is the only part of a bigger picture. It is part of the story that we have just reenacted in the Easter Triduum. The most important aspect of that story is the victory of Christ, which is also our victory. And, just as the flag of victory is the first light that we see in our Abbey Church before dawn, so Jesus remains our light in our life, amidst all the darkness that we live in.
Today and over the Easter period is the time to concentrate on that light, so that we can bring it forth into every other day throughout the year. As it is said, ‘we are an Easter people and alleluia is our song’. Let us, in our shouts of ‘alleluia’, be a fitting people of praise. Let our praise live beyond the church buildings, as we concentrate on bringing Christ’s light to all of the world. Amidst the presence of our daily Golgotha, let us remember Christ’s flag of victory, and how he holds it aloft for us, the children of God. Amen.