Preacher Revd Neil Summers
There are many reasons why Easter Sunday, with its liberating story of transformation, is the most wonderful day of the Christian year, not least because it comes as such a relief after the sombre heaviness of Passiontide and Good Friday. But we have now reached the third Sunday of Easter, two weeks after the day itself, and with another four Sundays of the season still to come! And sometimes, oddly perhaps, once the excitement of Easter Day itself is over, we can be left with an odd sense of emptiness. By the second week, the bubbles of the Easter alleluias can begin to fizzle away. By the third week, we might have lost that initial Easter euphoria altogether – assuming, of course, we felt it in the first place (and I very much hope we did). Relentless joy can be such hard work, don’t you think! But the fact the church calendar gives us all these weeks to process Easter, to focus on what Jesus’ resurrection might mean in our everyday lives, makes the point that Easter was never intended to be a one-day wonder.
But as we continue our journey through this season of new life, paradoxically many contemporary events seem to be taking us backwards again to suffering and death. Both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury urged us, in their Easter messages, to pray for those Christians facing persecution for their faith. Just last week, a BBC programme called ‘Kill the Christians’ told us that Christianity is facing the greatest threat to its existence in the very place where it was born. Across the Middle East, in some of the holiest places in Christendom, hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing Islamic extremists, conflict and persecution. From the Nineveh plains in Iraq to the ancient city of Maaloula in Syria, the programme revealed the story of how the religion that shaped Western culture and history is in danger of disappearing in large parts of its ancient heartland. Then, in the already tragic circumstances of mass African migration into southern Europe in recent days, the horror is compounded as we hear of a young Nigerian Christian on an already deflating rubber dinghy praying for his life. He was told by fellow refugees who were Muslim that ‘here we pray only to Allah’, an argument that left twelve Christians drowned, thrown overboard by their fellow refugees. Faced with these terrible realities, somehow it seems much easier to revert to the notion that the upper hand belongs to the darkness of Good Friday and its resonant human themes of fear, betrayal, pain, friends who desert you just when you need them most, those who would denounce you, wound you and, yes, even kill you. It can seem so much easier to reflect on the death of Jesus, than on his resurrection. Perhaps it’s something to do with a deep-down consciousness that we’re more familiar with pain and death, while we may not be quite so certain whether we are as familiar with resurrection. But the paradox of the Easter mystery is that the resurrection is not a vague conjecture into an after-life, something we have to wait for when we die. Rather, it is a living hope to be realised in the life we live here and now. Like Jesus’ disciples long ago, touched by this awesome mystery, but also confused by it, we too search for the meaning of Easter in the very ordinariness of our everyday lives.
Art galleries are full of images of the passion: it seems something about the suffering of Jesus resonates with the artistic temperament. But it’s not quite so easy to find memorable images of the resurrection. Of course, there are some – but people have never found it as easy to depict what happened that first Easter morning like they do the crucifixion. You can find, though, that the theme of resurrection is portrayed in other ways, in paintings which may not be obviously religious at all, but which relate more to ordinary life. One that comes to mind is ‘The Awakening Conscience’ by Holman Hunt. It depicts the smart Victorian drawing room of a middle class gentleman in a place, I suppose, not unlike Hampstead, or even Richmond. The owner of the room is seated at the centre of the picture in his chair in front of his piano. Rising from his lap, where she’s been perched, is a woman. She’s much younger than him – and you don’t have to be all that worldly-wise to realise that something dodgy has been taking place between them. She’s definitely not his wife – more like someone he’s picked up and had a liaison with. He still has an arm across her lap – but the painting shows her in the very act of rising and breaking free. Her face is a picture of awakening, of self-realisation. It’s just dawned on her who she is and what’s been happening, how his man has been using her. It’s come home to her with such force that she rises quickly from his lap and is clearly entering purposefully into a new phase of release. The windows behind her are open, the curtains are billowing in, and outside all is bright and new and golden. You can see that from this moment on she’s a new creation. It’s an evocative depiction of what resurrection might look like in ordinary, everyday terms. Easter is the season in which our curtains can be drawn back and new light can stream into our darkened places, when we wake up to new possibilities, where life seems different because life is different. Transformation can happen.
Our spring weather is still lurching from warm sunshine to cool wind, isn’t it? Some trees are already green, while others remain in late winter mode. Birdsong crosses this way and that, as the new season continues to find its feet. Some tadpoles in our pond are already swimming strongly; others remain in the inky-black blob they will eventually break free of. Spring is rising from the earth in our hemisphere: it doesn’t happen instantaneously, though, but unevenly. I would suggest Easter does pretty much the same. There are many places where its reality has yet to take root. In one area of our life we may experience new life breaking through as we see on what were once the dry, bare branches of a difficult experience unexpected buds of new hope, meaning and purpose. Where we once thought ourselves alone and helpless, we discover the potential for new beginnings. But there may be other parts of our life that seem stubbornly stuck in winter. We are not yet healed of a hurt. We meet the worst of ourselves, seeing afresh our capacity to harm ourselves and others. We see, as yet, no way out of some particular difficulty, nor can we perceive the presence of one who will free us from this place.
But this is the way of Easter; it may come unevenly, but it comes also with an insistence, like spring. In a few more weeks, we will see even the dead wood bursting into life; the warmth and light might be delayed, but in time we will look for the shade of green trees. And if that’s the case with nature, it may well take longer for us. This is one reason we celebrate Easter not once in a lifetime, but every year, and not just for a day, but for a season. Even an entire lifetime will leave us with more Eastering still to be done. It can take that long for us to learn to co-operate with the work of love, which is the work of the living God. There is much to heal, more to disentangle, and yet more to wake into life. Yet Easter is absolute: it is for all and for every part of us. The risen Jesus will not cease from this insistence that transformation always remains possible, however many the seasons that pass.
Jesus made himself known to Mary Magdalene in what for her seemed to be the garden of despair. He called her by her name and awakened in her the realisation that the despair was now over. That garden encounter was Mary’s experience of resurrection in the midst of her distress, hopelessness and loss. The encounter was difficult to explain rationally, but it was real enough to make her run excitedly to tell the other followers of Jesus.
Mary’s experience says something which I think is crucial in terms of the events shaping our world today, and also for our own lives, especially when we feel overwhelmed by despair, sorrow and the senselessness of countless metaphorical crucifixions. Most of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his death, including the one we read this morning, make it very clear that his wounds are still visible. He actually shows his followers his hands and his side. Resurrection is not a magic spell, or an imposed happy-ever-after, which miraculously takes way life’s pain or its scars. They remain our reality. I’ve sometimes thought that the sheer horror of Good Friday throws a lifeline to those people whose world has fallen apart, who are shattered by the coldness and despair they meet in hard places. It relates to those who know what it is to feel utterly God-forsaken, who know how dark it can get even in the middle of the day. People who go through their own hour of emptiness and anguish need us to acknowledge the God of Good Friday before they can ever begin to experience Easter. For them – perhaps for us – it may be some time yet before the earth shakes, the rocks split open, and the grave really is shown to be empty. But what Easter says to all of us is that, even though we may have thought the opposite was the case, darkness, suffering, pain and death do not have to have the final word. We must learn to live believing that transformation from despair to hope, darkness to light and death to life is always possible. I may not be able to find the words to explain what resurrection means, but I still think it is potentially every bit as real a part of our lives as the cross. And I must admit, in spite of all the negatives, my heart still skips a beat when I hear the ancient Easter proclamation – ‘The Lord is risen: he is risen indeed. Alleluia!’