Among the treasures for sale was a carved wooden Pieta - just the recumbent figure of the body of Jesus, depicted in death after having been taken down from the Cross. It was probably mediaeval and from Continental Europe; crudely carved but nonetheless compellingly beautiful.
I wondered where it had come from, and whether it was missed by the faithful members of the church there. And I thought of the many thousands of people over the generations who would have contemplated it and venerated it - not in an idolatrous sense, but as a tangible and visual reminder of deeply held faith. It was the sort of work I'd love to see permanently in All Saints - striking, expressive of profound emotion, with the power to speak to the depths of one's soul and invite one more deeply into the story of Jesus.
Perhaps I should wait until Holy Saturday before writing on this subject. But I've chosen today because I think there's a strong link too with Mothering Sunday. So often, the focus of that day is on the celebration of motherhood, perhaps from quite a child-centred perspective. It's easy to overlook the deeply-felt grief and poignancy of the day for mothers whose child has died for any reason and at any age.
Love can be the most painful of all our emotions. Grief is the price we pay when a relationship of love is severed by death, and it's a costly price. The felt absence of the child who has died remains for ever - testament to the strength of the bonds of love, testament to its tenacity. Yet there can be no card, no gift from beyond the grave. Of course there's hope and healing as the years pass, but at key moments of celebration the aching void becomes especially tender.
One of my earliest experiences of parental loss came whilst I was at theological college. I was on a residential placement in a remote rural area, and the Vicar had given me a list of people to visit. So it was that I called on an elderly couple whose daughter, still in her teens, had walked out many, many years before. They hadn't heard from her since, although their hope had never died. They had no way of knowing where she was, or even whether she was still alive. What can one say? Words are futile. The Pieta reminds us that sometimes, all we can do is to be with others in their silent grief.
If the Madonna and Child expresses the joy and hope of parenthood, the Pieta expresses its cost. A great work, such as Michelangelo's depicted above, carries an aura of stillness and a real depth of feeling. For some, the image is gruesome - but for those who share the grief of Mary, it can be affirming and comforting. Here, at the heart of faith and worship is an expression of their own experience, when as yet the Resurrection has not been revealed.
Too much Christian imagery today is trite and shallow: comic-book crosses in bright colours, stylised rainbows, cartoon sheep and doves. It's an in-code for those who know the meaning; a badge, a logo, achieving identity without substance. What a contrast when we're drawn to the Pieta: it's universally accessible, full of meaning, increasingly powerful as we share and meditate in its stillness.
O good Jesu, let me borrow
Something of thy Mother's sorrow,
Fount of love, Redeemer kind;
That my heart fresh ardour gaining
And a purer love attaining
May with thee acceptance find.
(Jacopone da Todi? Tr E Casswall)