Arguments for Easter: God can fill only the empty cup: The Bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Rev Richard Holloway, ends our series of meditations for Easter with this sermon, preached in St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh.

SOMETIMES the absence of a loved one seems to be more powerful than his or her presence. As my children left home, one by one, I would enter their rooms and try to touch the memories of their childhood and bring them back to mind. I knew a widow who kept her husband's chair exactly the way it was the night he died, with his half-smoked pipe still lying in the ashtray on a table beside it. Even whole cities can powerfully suggest the absence of one we love. A great friend of mine from Boston in the United States died some years ago and when I visit Boston I am overwhelmingly aware of his absence. The place seems empty, like the tomb Mary Magdalene found when she came seeking Jesus on the first day of the week.

Of course, we only know the absence of someone who was once present, once known and loved and now missed intensely. There is another experience of loss that is much more difficult to account for. There are certain places that evoke a sort of nostalgia for something we've never known. Holy places, for instance, can have this effect, even for unbelievers. They suggest a presence even though the place is empty. Mysteriously, many people sense the absence of God in this way. They have never known God, may not believe in God, yet they miss God's presence, sense the absence of something. But how can we feel bereft of something that never was? The very longing for God, the sense of being without God, is powerful testimony to the reality of God. How can we miss so piercingly, long for so passionately, someone who never existed?

Maybe human experience of loss can teach us something here. It is true that we lose our children as children but it is an even keener joy to get them back as adult friends. Even mourning for dead loved ones can be mysteriously transmuted into gratitude for the life they had. The yogis tell us that God can fill only the empty cup. If we wait patiently before the absences in our life new meaning will fill them, the way the Risen Jesus replaced the earthly Jesus for the disciples.

Recently, I've been meditating on how people change their minds about things, embrace new ideas, adopt new attitudes. Cardinal Newman used to say that 'Growth was the only evidence of life' and 'to be perfect will be to have changed often'. Strange, therefore, how some people pride themselves on the fixity of their beliefs. They are the kind of people who boast that they won't believe in such and such even though one were to rise from the dead in front of their very eyes. It's easy to overlook what you don't want to see. To see or hear a new thing we have to be open-minded, ready for

surprises.

We find new ideas difficult or uncongenial because we have grown fond of the old ones; we cherish and cling to the things that have been important to us. Loyalty of this sort is an important element in human faithfulness but it can also be a trap. It can keep us from growing morally and spiritually by trapping us in the past. There would have been no development in human history if human beings in the past had refused absolutely to entertain a new idea. Human institutions are like cars, they need accelerators as well as brakes. An African priest living in Britain observed recently that the Church in Britain was a most peculiar machine, because it had the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a juggernaut.

When new ideas, new approaches to things, new discoveries about human nature come to us, they come to us from outside our experience and challenge us to change. They invite us to examine our attitudes, ask us why we cling to what we know and are never prepared to look afresh at something that has, perhaps, been confronting us for years. That is the way many people are in their attitude towards the ministry of women. They simply refuse to look at it as a challenge that might be coming from God. They do not believe God can come to us from the future. The God they worship is tethered firmly to the past.

But some things take a while to dawn on us. The hardest wood takes longest to grow. Sometimes the loves that endure best took longest to develop. And there is a strange mercy in the slow triumph over adversity. I'm always moved by the knowledge that two of the greatest orators in 20th-century Britain struggled against speech impediments - Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan. Because there were certain words he found hard to pronounce, the young Bevan learnt synonyms he could pronounce - and greatly expanded his vocabulary in the process. Slowly overcoming difficulties can create great strength of character. Wrestling honestly and long with a new idea before blessing it can produce passionate commitment. Katherine Charnley puts it well:

Strange how grit

should turn to gift,

and yet it is so.

Some resurrections

are slow:

not easily won

but worked

from difficult stone.

What matters is that we shall want to know the truth even if it upsets all our preconceptions. Christians have often been bad at this, slow to adjust to new knowledge in case it made them disloyal to Jesus. Simone Weil once said that if it ever comes to a choice between Jesus and Truth we must always choose truth, because disloyalty to truth will always prove, in the long run, to have been disloyalty to Jesus. This also is part of the surprise and newness of the Resurrection. It calls us to a life of joyful struggle.

Mary Magdalene had to learn not to cling to the Jesus she had known in the past. She had to surrender that loyalty in order to discover the new reality of the Risen Jesus. It is only when we cease to cling to experiences, realities, relationships that have had their day, that we can move into and live in the future. The Resurrection teaches us that God is God of the future as well as the past. This is why Christianity has been a revolutionary agent in human history. It has given people hope for their own lives: they have learnt that loss is often the prelude to new discovery, new deepening of trust. They have been taught by the Resurrection that the God of surprises is waiting for them beyond loss, beyond death and nothing can keep us from the shock of his love.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn