An Easter Poem
Easter Sunday, 8 April, 2012
Fr Hugh Kempster, Senior Chaplain, Geelong Grammar School. Delivered to the school community at their Easter Service.
"As yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead" John 20:9
I'd like to share with you the story of one of New Zealand's popular saints. James K. Baxter is a household name to most Kiwis. He is one of our best-known poets and was a somewhat controversial figure before his premature death at just 46 years of age. His mother, Millicent Brown, was educated at P.L.C. in Sydney, the University of Sydney and Newnham College. His father, Archibald Baxter, is best known as a conscientious objector in the First World War. It was a big deal to take such a stance at that time, when acts of pacifism in time of war were rewarded by being arrested by the armed forces, transported to the front line of the battlefield, and then tied to a fence in the line of fire.
James K. Baxter has been compared to Australian poet Francis Webb, and like Webb purportedly began writing poetry at the tender age of seven. He went to university at 17 and that year published his first collection of poetry, Beyond the Palisades. He later dropped out of university and famously took up a job as a humble cleaner at the Chelsea Sugar Refinery, before marrying Jaqueline Sturm in 1948 and around this time converting to Catholicism.
After becoming a father and building a life as an academic and successful poet, in 1968 Baxter had a profound spiritual experience; he claimed that God had instructed him in a dream to "go to Jerusalem". He took this call quite literally, left his university position and went to a small Maori settlement on the Whanganui river, called "Hiruharama" or "Jerusalem", where he set up a Christian commune. He lived in extreme simplicity, continued to write poetry, and made frequent visits to Wellington and other New Zealand cities where he worked with the poor and spoke out publically against the injustices of society as he saw them.
It was an idealistic and a gruelling life of poverty that he chose for himself, and after just four years it began to take its toll. In January 1972 he was forced to leave the community he had founded at Jerusalem, and on 22nd October he suffered a coronary thrombosis and died. He was buried on Maori land near his beloved community of Jerusalem, and is one of the few white New Zealanders to have been given the honour of a full Maori tangi or funeral.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, partly because James K. Baxter is an inspirational twentieth-century Australasian poet who you should know about if you don't already, but primarily I have summarised his biography in order to introduce one of his poems to you. It is an Easter poem; but it comes with a warning. It is not the sort of Easter poem you might expect. The Jesus Baxter writes of is not your neat and tidy, nicely orthodox Jesus; neither is Baxter's theology of the resurrection quite what the professional theologians might present. It is rough and down to earth, controversial even; much like Baxter himself. But in his poem "The Maori Jesus" I think Baxter captures something of the scandal of the cross and the terrifying uncertainty of the resurrection, in a way that only a poet can.
The Maori Jesus by James K. Baxter (c. 1966)
- I saw the Maori Jesus
Walking on Wellington Harbour.
He wore blue dungarees,
His beard and hair were long.
His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa.
When he smiled it looked like the dawn.
When he broke wind the little fishes trembled.
When he frowned the ground shook.
When he laughed everybody got drunk.
The Maori Jesus came on shore
And picked out his twelve disciples.
One cleaned toilets in the railway station;
His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores.
One was a call-girl who turned it up for nothing.
One was a housewife who had forgotten the Pill
And stuck her TV set in the rubbish can.
One was a little office clerk
Who'd tried to set fire to the Government Buildings.
Yes, and there were several others;
One was a sad old queen;
One was an alcoholic priest
Going slowly mad in a respectable parish.
The Maori Jesus said, 'Man,
From now on the sun will shine.'
He did no miracles;
He played the guitar sitting on the ground.
The first day he was arrested
For having no lawful means of support.
The second day he was beaten up by the cops
For telling a dee his house was not in order.
The third day he was charged with being a Maori
And given a month in Mt Crawford.
The fourth day he was sent to Porirua
For telling a screw the sun would stop rising.
The fifth day lasted seven years
While he worked in the Asylum laundry
Never out of the steam.
The sixth day he told the head doctor,
'I am the Light in the Void;
I am who I am.'
The seventh day he was lobotomised;
The brain of God was cut in half.
On the eighth day the sun did not rise.
It did not rise the day after.
God was neither alive nor dead.
The darkness of the Void,
Mountainous, mile-deep, civilised darkness
Sat on the earth from then till now.
It is easy to forget how scandalous the person of Jesus was to those in first-century Palestine. He was a working-class man. His followers were not academics or judges or even upstanding religious figures. They were not even courageous, fleeing when Jesus' hour came. Only the women remained weeping at the foot of his cross and outside the tomb.
Baxter's resurrection Void is perhaps a little shocking, not quite the ending we would expect. But it is an important reminder of what resurrection is, and what it is not. Jesus' conquering of the grave was unlikely to have been the instant reprieve that we often depict in our Easter liturgy; happy times on demand. It took time; resurrection takes time. Historically it probably took much longer for the Risen Christ to truly manifest than the three days we now have in stylised form in our sacred texts and liturgy. Gradually, for those traumatised and grief-stricken disciples, into the Void came a spark of hope. Like the glimpses of healing and normality that eventually impinge on our own grief, the risen Christ gently appeared to his disciples and those closest to him.
In due course we are all able to enter into the beautifully crafted resurrection drama of John's gospel. Like Mary and the other disciples at the tomb, so often we don't really understand the profound reality of what God has done for us in the person of Jesus. But slowly it dawns on us. Mary sees someone she supposes to be the gardener: "Sir, if you have carried my Lord away, tell me where you have laid him". And then Jesus says to her "Mary!" The drama finally unfolds and she is able to see Jesus for who he is. "Rabbouni" she says with such mutual love and tenderness. She then has to rush off and tell everyone the good news: "I have seen the Lord".
Resurrection comes in many different ways, and in God's time. I have to confess I still feel a little stuck in Good Friday today; like Baxter's resurrection Void perhaps. I love my work as chaplain at Geelong Grammar School. Part of me is very excited about taking up the Incumbency of St Peter's Eastern Hill in Melbourne, but another part is not quite ready to go yet. Like Mary at the tomb, my task is to sit and wait. Resurrection will come, and no doubt from unexpected places; like the beautiful sparks of the Easter Fire in our midst.
May we all be open to the sparks of resurrection-life these holidays; open to love, to stillness and contemplation; open to others, especially the needy and unlovable; open to God and to the life of the Risen Christ. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.