Last July we were spending a few days in a village in North Yorkshire – Stainforth, near Settle – and when we arrived we were told that salmon had been seen that day jumping a waterfall just a few hundred yards away on the River Ribble. So we hurried there the next day and sadly there was no sign of the salmon – just my luck, like my attempts at fishing – the fish always see me coming and scarper. Anyway there were no fish flinging themselves up the falls and none waiting in the eddies below them. So we had to conclude that they had found their way further upstream to negotiate more falls and rapids and fierce currents ahead.
We all know the remarkable story of salmon. After swimming around in our oceans for several years they find their way to the river of their birth and then fight their way up it to the pool where they had hatched and began their lives. Their instinct drives them on despite injury and the elements lined against them. They lay their eggs and then, exhausted, most of them simply die. But out of their struggle and their deaths a new generation is born and the cycle begins again.
Today is Passion Sunday and we start to look towards the events leading to Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection. In today’s Gospel reading from St John Jesus is looking ahead to the fate which awaits him. He is already in Jerusalem and when some Greeks come looking for him he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. In truth I tell you a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest”
Jesus is quite resigned about what is going to happen to him. The grain of wheat dies in the ground and is transformed into a new green shoot that pushes its way up through the soil to yield eventually a harvest. New life emerging from a death.
Sometimes our faith has been criticised for being obsessed with suffering and pain and certainly some images we have seen in churches of bleeding hearts and the wounds of Jesus and crucifixion scenes with excruciating agony might bear this out. But this emphasis is not in the Gospels and misses the main point of Jesus teaching and example. We are not obsessed with suffering and pain; we are obsessed with new life springing up after death.
The images of new life emerging after the death of salmon in the River Ribble and the ear of grain in the ground are symbols, if you like, of the death of Jesus leading to the Resurrection and the birth of the Christian Church.
They are also images that we should use for ourselves in our personal growth and personal journeys.
In our personal lives we have to die to what has gone before and come alive in a new way. If we believe in this process there is no room for ego and we have to look for ways to grow. It takes courage to let go of a grudge or a disappointment; it is hard to leave guilty feelings behind and establish new levels of friendship. We can all get trapped in the past or with obsessions that have taken us over. We are easily floored by illness and knocked low by a family death. But we have to move on. It’s like the emptiness felt when children leave home, or the tensions when we changed jobs or moved house. It was all like the process of dying – but then we came alive again. A sort of resurrection takes place.
And another thought. Perhaps the same idea applies to the Church. Perhaps the Church needs to die in some aspects and come alive in others. Our Archbishop, Rowan Williams, has been trying to move us on together, but too many uncompromising elements have been lined up against him. It is a sad state of affairs for all of us who worry about the future of the Church. We can only pray and hope for a strong leader who has a vision of a reborn Church.
Anyway, we can all use this idea of dying leading to new life. The salmon, the grain of wheat and Good Friday leading to Easter Day.