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We come once more in the Christian calendar towards Holy Week, when we hear again some of the stories that we think we know so well.

I’ve always loved stories. One of my most vivid memories from Infant School is the teacher taking us all into the ‘Story Room’, where we would sit on the carpeted floor and be told a story. Sometimes it would be a story from the bible and I remember being particularly taken by the story of the calming of the storm. It was so real for me, and it’s still so real whenever I hear that passage read out in church. I am there in the boat on that dark and stormy lake with the waves crashing around us. And no matter how many times I hear that story there are always new details, new insights to be discovered. I used that reading in my reflection on the Irish Chaplaincy Summer Retreat and spotted a detail I’d never noticed before, that Jesus lay down on a cushion to sleep. What was he doing with a cushion, I wondered? It looks like he wasn’t just having a little nap; he was putting his head down for a proper sleep. And even more insistent was the question that had been puzzling me for decades: how on earth could he be sound asleep in a storm? The answer came to me suddenly one day: he must have been really tired! All those people demanding just one more miracle, just one more healing, just one more word of wisdom. The poor guy must have been exhausted.

Our shared stories are one of the things that bind us together as people, as communities, as nations. Whenever I meet up with the guys I used to play football with there will be an inevitable question, ‘Do you remember when…?’ So too now with my cycling club. After our last ride we were having a coffee and talking about some of the steepest hills we’ve gone up and those hills get steeper and steeper with each re-telling! Some of them will soon be almost vertical!

Stories inevitable change a bit with time or vary according to the teller, or indeed the listener. One of the most famous stories in the gospels is the feeding of the crowd, but the accounts vary. Was it 5,000 people who were fed, or was it 4,000? Were there five loaves of bread, or seven? Does it matter? I’m not sure that it does. What’s most important surely is that, by some miracle, a very little amount of food fed a very large amount of people, and that Christians are still inspired and nourished by the story 2,000 years on.

The Ukrainian people will have plenty of stories to tell in generations to come of how they stood up to the Russians and those stories will bind them even closer together in their national identity. I can imagine people years from now sitting in the pub and saying, ‘They had a line of tanks 60km long and still they couldn’t take Kyiv!’ And I can imagine that line getting longer and longer in the re-telling until perhaps people are saying, ‘They had a line of tanks stretching back to Moscow and still they had to turn back!’

During the many years I spent at L’Arche one of my favourite days of the year was Holy Thursday, on which we came together to retell both the story of the previous year in the life of the community and the final evening Jesus spent with his friends. We would have a Seder meal and we would re-enact a Jewish Passover tradition, where the youngest member of the family asks certain questions of the eldest member. ‘Why do the people of Israel eat bitter herbs?’ ‘Why do the people of Israel eat unleavened bread?’ etc. The word ‘remember’ literally means to put together again; and it has been said that the reason the Jewish people have been able to survive through the multiple persecutions and pogroms over the ages is because of their ability to tell and re-tell their stories, to put together again.

Part of our Holy Thursday liturgy was also a washing of the feet, in which we formed circles where each washed the feet of one person and each had their feet washed. It was always very moving, so too the sharing of the meal of bitter herbs, pitta bread, lamb and wine. Then on Good Friday we would re-enact the Way of the Cross in the large garden of Little Ewell, the place where L’Arche in the UK had begun in 1974. The part of Jesus was usually taken by one of the learning-disabled members. One year it was a man who has a chronic skin condition and whose body seems to cry out with discomfort (I once spoke to his mother, who explained to me that, due to the skin condition, she didn’t like to hold him as a child; and perhaps the 1950s stigma around learning-disability played a part in that as well). We hear every year in the Good Friday liturgy how Jesus fell once, twice, three times and those words can kind of wash over us. One year on a grassy bank at Little Ewell, this man playing the part of Jesus carrying his cross really did stumble and fall, and the suffering and vulnerability of Christ on his way to his death was plain for all to see.

We would gather again in the chapel at Little Ewell on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. There would be an empty tomb, the large wooden cross that had been carried around the garden two days before would be laid out on the chapel floor bedecked with daffodils, and we would listen once again to the story of Jesus’ rising from death. But any story or ritual can become a bit stale, and sometimes we just need to re-tell our stories in different ways in order to keep the meaning fresh. One year I had the dream of everyone dancing out of the chapel at the end of the service and doing a big circle dance on the lawn. That duly became a L’Arche Kent Easter Sunday tradition for many years, taking its place alongside the shared meal, the easter egg hunt and the game of football!

When we were debating the possibility of closing Little Ewell the biggest objection on the part of one of the Board members was, ‘Where are we going to do the Way of the Cross on Good Friday’? ‘We’ll find somewhere,’ I replied. Things move on, but the memories and the stories remain and they can still retain their power centuries after the actual event, even if some of the precise details may have changed with time.

Blessings to all for Holy Week and Easter.

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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