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Reflection for Holy Week (2): A Body of Nails

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  Last night at the Maundy Thursday communion service at Moreton Church, we concluded the service with the powerful symbolic act of "the stripping of the altar".  In quick purposeful movements, elders removed the communion cloths, the pulpit fall and all the decorations and flowers from the church. Finally the lights were extinguished to remind us of the darkness and desolation facing Jesus the next day. As a symbolic act pushing us gently towards Good Friday, it never fails to move me. It is also one of the oldest and most widespread traditions of the Christian church, belonging not to one denomination (even Presbyterians can do it!) but, as the words of the invitation to the Lord's Supper had reminded people earlier, This is not the table of any one Church but the Table of our Lord Jesus Christ. Communion table, altar - call it what you will; from the great cathedrals of our land to tiny chapels, all over the world, the table has been "stripped" and the wood laid bare in preparation for today's services. (Being Presbyterian, we did compromise of course, not going so far as some churches do to close the organ and sing unaccompanied or cover the communion table in black cloth).

 The Christian church is all about symbolism, movement and gestures. I once asked a minister friend of mine why he supported Hibs? "Because as a Christian I am used to brave futile gestures" he replied. Except of course today's events at Calvary are not futile and do not end in relegation...

 And so today people will do things with nails. Physical nails. Real nails. Another colleague of mine kept four huge, ugly and fierce six-inch nails in his study, as a reminder of the physicality of today's events: nails not as some remote symbolism or sanitised crucifix but the kind of nails that could inflict serious damage on someone. Actually, I was not impressed - just as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ with its gallons of gore failed to impress me. Its not that I'm squeamish; but I am not sure if having nails as your "show and tell" in church today bring us into a deeper faith. Less is more. The darkness that descended at the close of our service last night did not need a Good Friday earthquake or rent-a-mob baying for Jesus' blood to make the point; it was token darkness (at 7.30pm very token), something to transport us not to a public place but to our private hearts and our minds.

 Antony Gormley has done something rather spectacular and much more thought-provoking with nails. As worshippers gather for the Easter services at Canterbury Cathedral this week, they will pass under his latest art creation, "Transport". It is a two-metre human figure constructed from old lead nails taken from the repaired cathedral roof. It hangs, suspended almost invisibly, above the tomb of the martyed Thomas à Beckett. Gormley is most famous of course for his "Angel of the North" that consoles you as you get stuck in the traffic on the northbound A1; and for "Another Place" not far from here where "men" are dotted along the beach at Crosby. "Transport" is on another, more spiritual, level. It seems to float, like an out-of-body experience, above Beckett's tomb. The body is not solid, but depicted only by the brutal nails that delineate it. And as the title suggests, "Transport" hints at flight. From nails come resurrection and a new spiritual body.

  Today is Earth Day as well as Good Friday. Secular artists will interpret Gormley's latest work as a statement of the earthly nature of the human body. Gormley, typically, hedges his bets: "The body is less a thing than a place, a location where things happen."

 Today, Earth Day, Good Friday, call that what you will, things happen. It's not the nails that matter. It's what you do with them.



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