Preacher Revd Neil Summers
For most people, Easter is a long time ago. The holidays are done (indeed, it’s nearly time for another one, with half-term on the horizon), the chocolate eggs have been eaten and the Easter bunny has gone to ground for another year. But in the Church calendar, Easter is not a single day, or even three days: it is a season, and it is known as the Great Fifty Days, stretching from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. In this season, we mark not only the day of resurrection itself, but also have time and space to consider the longer term implications of resurrection in the context of our day to day human experience of life and, indeed, death in the world.
This coming Thursday is Ascension Day, marking Jesus’s final departure from the earth and from his followers. Ascension Day is a heady mixture of both triumph as Jesus returns to endless life in God, but also, for those left behind, a real sense of bereavement. And bear in mind the disciples had already experienced one departure when Jesus, at the Last Supper, prepared them for his imminent arrest and death. At the supper, though, as we read in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that although ‘in a little while the world will see me no longer…you will see me; because I live, you also will live; I will not leave you orphaned’. How will that happen? Because what John calls the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, will be with them as his ongoing and, in that word so beloved of John, abiding presence.
In Scripture, the Spirit of God is known by different names, but that word ‘Advocate’ is a very potent one. An advocate is one who takes your part, supports you, upholds you, and empowers you. An equally significant name is that of ‘Comforter’. A Comforter does not take trial or suffering away, but rather helps to transform them by compassion and generosity. A Comforter shares the burden when it becomes too heavy, empathises with the pain and helps to relieve it, helps you to get through the disturbed nights, helps you cross over the barbed wire, and assures you that even though the waves are up to your neck, you won’t go under. Crucially, the Comforter is with you, not above you or judging you. The Advocate, the Comforter, Jesus promises to his followers, says to you: ‘The road won’t always be easy, there will be difficulties and conflicts on the way, but I promise I will never desert you. I will be with you forever. I will abide with you. I will not leave you orphaned.’
Bereavement can take many forms. People sometimes describe losing a job as a kind of bereavement; or the end of a relationship; or seeing a loved one descend into dementia; or witnessing a life destroyed by illness or by addiction of one kind or another. But it is obviously death itself that is experienced as the ultimate form of bereavement. In the priesthood, you can find yourself quite regularly alongside people whose lives are ending, and then with those left behind, often in severe grief. I, I guess like many of you, have seen at close hand people trying to come to terms with the massive chasm which yawns in the heart and mind when they lose someone they love. Someone once described it as feeling like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle hurled into the air, not knowing how they will come down, or, indeed, if they will ever come down in a form that is recognisable. Can we ever really prepare ourselves for such disjointedness? How do we go on when we find ourselves in the middle of it? And what can we do to help others going through it?
The most important thing we can do for others – and that they can do for us – is to open ourselves up to being an agent of that Spirit of Jesus, who is both Advocate and Comforter. To hear, again and again if necessary, the story of loss – not try to change it, or make well-intentioned, yet ultimately glib, responses to it, or think we can improve it, but just hear it. When people are like disorganised bits of jigsaw, their telling the story of acute loss is one way of their trying to get some sort of handle on it, to start to reintegrate the bits of their life which some beloved person once held for them, but can’t do any more because of death. You can hold the bits of the jigsaw, whether for a few minutes or a few hours or a few years, as they try to start to look at them in a new way, until they can hold those pieces held by another for themselves, and begin to understand the story and give it new meaning.
The story of Jesus is the template for all this. In his story, we watch the pieces of the jigsaw apparently unravel. Friends – except a few – have fled; family – apart from a loving mother – gone; body, mind and spirit disintegrating – cruelly taunted, physically injured, brutally killed. My God, why have you forsaken me? Yet even after the chasm of all that, the Christian story points to a new integration being reached, for very early on the first day of the week (while it was yet dark, note) a new reality was made clear: the tomb was empty, and death has been swallowed up in God. Grief, like all strong emotional responses to life, tends to throw us into an isolated inner world of our own pain. It’s as if the external world is suddenly lost to us, and all we have left is our own inner darkness. But it is precisely into that despair that Easter speaks.
For those with no faith in God, life must finally be without hope. Death must become indisputably the end of life: there can be no confidence in the possibility of ultimate triumph over that which demeans and destroys. All that remains available is resolution in the face of the world which has no ultimate meaning. Sorrow and suffering, despair and fear, are precisely what they say they are. There is nowhere to go except gradually to get used to them.
But the Christian faith offers a different perspective. There is still the reality of all that is wrong with our human condition, but a resurrection faith allows for the possibility that this condition can be transformed. Yes, there is still tragedy, illness, failure, death; they are part and parcel of life. But faith allows us to be freed from the fear that these things will destroy the value and meaning of our lives. From a Christian perspective, the central fact in human history is that disintegration was overcome in Jesus’s resurrection: the pieces of the jigsaw come together in a new way.
Christian concepts of resurrection and eternal life are obviously hard to get our heads around. In the book we studied in our Lent groups this year, Rowan Williams throws valuable light on what it might all be about. He makes the point that of course death is real; denying its reality is encouraging people to live out a lie. But what Easter proclaims is that God is never at the end of his resources even when we are at the end of ours. The new life of Easter is not just some sort of survival of death. Rather, we die, but God brings us to life again as he restores our relationship with him. God re-makes us, and that is one of the things that enables us to face, honestly, our fear of death and annihilation. Our horizons are bounded by death, but God’s horizons are not, for the divine is not bound by time or space. Easter insists that in spite of desolation, there is a conviction that confronts the darkness and waits for the dawn. And in due time the sun rises, as it did that first Easter morning.