Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Holy Week and today, Easter Day, is such an extraordinary time in the Church year, as we have been pondering the sufferings of the last days of Jesus on earth, his death, and then today celebrate the glories of his resurrection to new life from the dead. Every year we recall and re-enact as it were the same events, and every year we are met with new experiences and challenges.
Palm Sunday set the tone for us as we remembered Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then as the week went by, so we entered into the momentous events more deeply. I think it is good to do something special and different in relation to our faith during Holy Week, if we can make the time for it. On Monday, the day after Palm Sunday, I took a train to central London and visited the National Gallery to see the Botticini exhibition and the wonderful altarpiece of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s ascension into heaven. I also visited the Sainsbury Wing where the oldest European pictures of the gallery are kept. It was profoundly moving to gaze at some very old Western European depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus. The bright colours of gold and red and blue gave a sense of splendour to the scene. It seemed to be theology in colour. Yes, the crucifixion was agonising and a terrible event – and yet – by it – God in Christ redeemed the world.
On Good Friday I went to the Richmond Passion Play enacted out of doors by the river. On my way by bus, as I passed St John’s church, my attention was caught by seeing from the bus men dressed as Roman soldiers marching out onto the street from outside St John’s church. So I got off the bus at Richmond Station and walked immediately behind them – Pontius Pilate and a detachment of soldiers, with their silver helmets and red flowing cloaks. One of the soldiers sounded a horn regularly as he marched his men towards Whittaker Square. There was a real sense of excitement on the streets of central Richmond.
When we reached the Square the play began with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then followed the cleansing of the Temple and Jesus overthrowing the tables of the money-changers. Then came Judas’ payment of 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal of Jesus. There were several large high platforms with scaffolding, and one scene of the play went from one platform to another. At the scene of the last supper – enacted on a different platform nearer the river, Judas clearly looked uncomfortable throughout. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane was played out in some detail and Jesus’ agonised cries as he prayed alone to God were loud and long. After Jesus’ arrest the drama seemed to move round literally in circles as Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, Herod and back to Pilate again, before he was finally condemned to death.
For me in the whole drama there were two moments that stood out. First, the scene where the actor playing Jesus was raised up on the cross – it was all disarmingly realistic. All one could do was gaze in silence, and take in – in a new way – all that Jesus must have suffered in his dying and death. Today of course, Easter Day, is all about the resurrection. And the other profound moment for me was the way in which the resurrection of Jesus was presented. After Jesus’ body was taken away, some soldiers lined up in a row on the same platform that had been used for the crucifixion scene. Would the risen Jesus appear there? Then, near the same platform, coming from among the crowd, we suddenly heard a woman crying out in terror, “He’s gone! He’s gone! His body is gone!” She cried out the same words over and over as she made her way through the crowds – it was of course Mary Magdalene in her mournful distress, having encountered the empty tomb. But where was the risen Jesus? Would he meet her in the crowd? Would he appear and call to her from the platform on which the soldiers were lined up?
And then came the surprise. He appeared from a totally different direction – back on the platform behind us where the very first scene had been enacted. What a simple yet wonderful dramatic effect. The crowds were looking in the opposite direction. And then Jesus appeared behind us, amid joyful singing of the chorus of singers gathered for this resurrection scene. We all knew the ending of the story, and yet we were still taken by surprise. Surprise and wonder – these are the key elements of the meaning of the resurrection, and how it is felt in our own lives. And of course it is all there, vividly recorded in John’s gospel as we have heard read today. I love this scene of Mary Magdalene meeting with the risen Jesus in the garden. In her grief she mistakes him for the gardener and only recognises him when she hears his familiar voice speak her name. There is a wonderful painting of this scene by the Italian artist Giotto. Many years ago I was privileged to visit the Scrovegni chapel in Padua where it and many other glorious Giotto frescoes can be seen. Mary Magdalene wears a red costume and kneels before Jesus, her arms outstretched in pleading towards him. At the empty tomb two angels in white are seated, while several soldiers are asleep. Jesus turns to Mary, one arm outstretched towards her, as he speaks the well-known words – “Noli me tangere” – “Do not touch me”, for he has not yet ascended to the Father. Giotto has depicted the scene beautifully – Mary Magdalene’s astonished surprise, Jesus’ calm authority as he holds the banner of the resurrection in one hand. It is all there, revealed in a picture that speaks louder than words.
Today marks the beginning of a glorious season of the Church year. In the coming weeks of Eastertide, Sunday by Sunday, we will hear many accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus to his followers, as told by the various gospel writers. They are wonderful stories, and we do well to take them to heart. The world is a dark and troubled place, with war, strife, terrors and injustices in all parts of the globe. But that reality is not the end of the story. Suffering and terror is real, all too real, but in Christ God has done something about it. Jesus experienced the worst that man can do to man. But he emerged victorious, rose from the dead and was vindicated. What was true for Jesus can also be true for us. As Christians who follow the risen Christ we must remember that no evil is beyond the scope of Gods’ loving redemption. This Easter Day, this Easter season, may we live in hope and in joy, as we recall Christ’s rising from the dead, and may we give thanks to God with love and peace in our hearts as we follow our own calling to proclaim the gospel message, the paschal mystery, in our daily lives.