Easter Sermon of Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross at the start of the Centenary week of the RMS Titanic
(Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork on Easter Day 2012)
Watching a ship sinking – a ship you’ve travelled on – is a very disturbing feeling. On 4th August 1991, Susan and I watched our television screens in disbelief as the Greek cruise ship MTS Oceanos sank off the coast of the Transkei, the Eastern Cape of Southern Africa. It was the famous incident (you may recall it distantly) where allegedly, having given the order to ‘abandon ship’, the captain was winched off first with his pet dog. A year to the day before this, Susan and I were enjoying a memorable holiday in the Mediterranean on that very ship.
Yesterday, one hundred years ago was Easter Day. At berth number 44 in Southampton the RMS Titanic, another ship doomed to sink, was at rest. Two days before – Good Friday – was, I understand, the only day she was ever ‘dressed’ – flags and pennants on the ship’s rigging – for two reasons: first, to mark Holy Week; and second, to honour the people of Southampton. On Easter Day the dock was deserted, the last quiet moments the ship and her crew would ever have.
On this day 8th April – a rainy and grey Monday – the food supplies were loaded, as were 4,427 tons of coal. Crewmembers were still being signed on. At 6.30 p.m. the ship had its last inspection by Thomas Andrews, who reported back to Harland and Wolff. No doubt here in Ireland, by 8th also, some of the 123 people who would embark at Queenstown – Cobh – were making ready to depart or were already on their way across our island to the transatlantic port in our United Dioceses.
A random examination by me of the Queenstown embarkation list yesterday revealed something of their human stories (mostly 3rd class passengers, some 2nd class and 3 people – the Minihan family – Americans returning home – 1st class). The list shows them coming from these places on our island, as well as many others: Athenry, Ballisodare, Killorglin, Castlepollard, Sligo, Athlone, Ballinalee (Longford), Mullingar, Killaloe, Ballycolla, Fermoy, Ballydehob, Glencree, Glanmire, Tipperary, Charleville, Clonee, Patrickswell, and, of course, Cork itself. You get the picture; it’s an indicator of how many and dispersed communities were affected by what was to happen. At noon on Wednesday 10th RMS Titanic set sail, arrived in Cherbourg at 5.30 p.m. that evening and by Thursday morning 11th, Titanic passed the Daunt Light Vessel, took a pilot on board,and was at anchor in Queenstown Harbour by 11.30 a.m. At 1.30 p.m. she set sail again past that familiar coastline we in this Diocese know so well: the Old Head of Kinsale, Galley Head, Toe Head, Cape Clear, the Fastnet – Carraig Aonair – ‘the lonely rock’ – ‘Ireland’s teardrop’ – the last sight of any land for the ship. (The Fastnet lighthouse itself was newly completed only 8 years previously in 1904).
You know all this already, and I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story, one that has been popularized in film, book, poetry, song, and been the subject of scientific pursuit and historical investigation. Within a mere 29 days of the sinking, the first film – Saved from the Titanic – was released, starring one of the disaster’s survivors – the emerging star Dorothy Gibson. That film has been followed by many others (at least 28 I’m told): A Night to Remember, Raise the Titanic, James Cameron’s Titanic of 1997 (now re-released as Titanic 3D); and the TV series now on our screens.
Am I alone in jarring at some of this popular culture approach to this tragedy? On TV3 last week I shuddered when the continuity announcer said, ‘Titanic continues on Easter Sunday at 9 on 3 and 3 Player’. There is a fine line, is there not, between tragedy tourism on the one hand, and, on the other, learning the lessons of history, and, above all, commemorating the human tragedy which unfolded then and for many in the years since?
RMS Titanic and its sinking is a key moment in history; it changed marine specifications and nautical discipline; it is one of a number of emblematic turning points of that period; and, as has often been said, it tilted the world on its axis.
I wanted to refer to this today in this centenary week, not least because of the proximity to this disaster, even if only fleetingly (a short two hour visit) to our sense of consciousness and place. As one tragedy, like all disasters (communal, national, international or personal) it does draw us, in human terms, close to our own vulnerability, and the tragedies, fears and grief we ourselves experience. These draw us to the grief Jesus carried in his life, on his way to the cross, and his own suffering which we so often look to as we ourselves suffer in our search for his solidarity, assurance and peace.
Writing this Easter sermon, still very much in the midst of personal bereavement, I am conscious that it is not only in Holy Week, but throughout the year, and in the midst of all of life, that any of us may end up in the middle and muddle of journeys which are demanding, painful and at times, unbearable.
It is too trite to say, as I frequently do, and many of us, so often do to those who are suffering, that the heart of the Christian message is that ‘after crucifixion, comes resurrection.’ The Church’s powerful and representative reliving and remembering of Holy Week and Easter, powerful as those are, compacts almost too neatly, too tidily, the encounter with suffering and, supposes that the experience of resurrection joy will come as quickly as a Sunday follows a Friday. We do indeed cling to the trust that resurrection follows crucifixion, whatever those experiences may be for each of us, but in human terms, it is never as glib, as convenient, as perfect or as whole as that, is it? The reality is, is it not, that we live lives interspersed and infused, on and off, randomly, with holy week and resurrection moments and experiences.
This shouldn’t surprise us. In today’s Gospel Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. She sees that the stone has been moved. She is upset and confused. The disciples run to the tomb. The one who gets there first bends down and sees only the grave cloths. He doesn’t go in. Peter arrives and brazens straight in. The picture is one of confusion and bewilderment – still not knowing, not understanding – not a ‘Great! That’s fantastic! I knew it!’ moment.’ It was more, ‘That’s odd! What’s all this about?’ The first one who had looked in ‘saw and believed’ but did not understand. Mary has been reduced to tears; she is standing there crying. And the interesting thing – the Gospel is quite clear that all this was happening so early on that day that it was still dark; the light would only slowly dawn. It is only after her strange encounter that she goes to the others and tells them ‘I have seen the Lord.’
And we know how the story continued– the ultimate, but not immediate new found energy of the disciples, lives mingled with achievement, disappointment, failure and tragedy; and, Paul’s missionary journeys with his successes and failures at personal cost. There were emerging Christian communities too with their strengths and weaknesses, agreements and disagreements, common purpose and division; and the history of the Church ever since – at times flawed, humiliating, self-serving and an instrument of ghastly oppression; but equally at other times truly servant-like and self-offering, a channel of God’s grace, nurturing God’s kingdom of love, justice and truth.
So today as we celebrate this Easter event – which tilted the entire cosmos on its axis – greater than any ‘titanic’ event in human history, we find that we are close to the bone of our own human vulnerability – joys and sorrows – Holy Weeks and Easters – crucifixions and resurrections. What gives us confidence is not only that we journey with each other (our solidarity with each other is important, and it helps). But what really can give us confidence and hope is that, again and again, in our own holy weeks, the suffering Jesus, the risen Christ, comes to us and as he did to Mary. As he called her by name so he calls to each of us also, by name. That gives us the faith, the hope and the courage to proclaim this day ‘Christ is risen!’