There is an emotional complexity to this wonderful painting by Swiss artist Eugène Burnand. I know very little about him, apart from the usual resort of Wikipedia. But he manages to capture a moment of almost frantic inquisitiveness, as Peter and his young, fellow-disciple John rush in the golden sunrise light to the burial garden. Their faces seem filled with anxiety, confusion, hope, wonder, and longing all at once. Hoping against hope, but fearing a con, or something worse? Could Mary Magdalene, first to visit the tomb, possibly have been right…? (See John 20:1-10)
We can pinpoint the moment even more specifically, though. It is just before John charges forward to reach the tomb before Peter. His hands are clasped, presumably in prayer, while Peter is perhaps trying to make sense of the turmoil of the week’s events yet again. Neither could possibly have been fully prepared for what they would find.
A. E. Housman was a British contemporary of Burnand and was renowned for his brilliant scholarship and insight. He had become an atheist while still a teenager, which perhaps makes the subject-matter of this posthumously published poem a little surprising. Yet rather like novelist Julian Barnes’s poignant lament from his book ‘Nothing To Be Frightened Of‘, he doesn’t believe in God but he misses him.
Housman addresses his poem to the (presumably still) dead Jesus. But both verses hang on the operative word, IF. And what an IF. Housman uncannily evokes the apostle Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians, which also hangs on IF.
Who cannot relate to that final line? A longing for the world to be different, for Jesus, if he’s who he’s claimed to be, to come and just sort everything out. Just as Bono sings in Peace on Earth. written in aftermath of the Omagh bombing.
But then the irony, of course, is that IF the resurrection happened, then coming to bring order and justice to the world is precisely what he guarantees.