Alleluiah! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluiah!
How long we have been waiting to say those words. We have literally been in quarantine
for the last six weeks. That after all is what forty days and forty night are - quarantine!.
For this period of time Alleluiah has been struck from our vocabulary. In the Middle
Ages the Sarum Use liturgy instructed that a chorister should be whipped out of the
cathedral on Ash Wednesday to symbolise the Alleluiah being whipped out of the
liturgy. There were times when I was Precentor of Salisbury when I thought seriously
about reintroducing that ancient tradition.
This service, (dominated by the Paschal Candle, and with water splashed around to
remind us of our baptismal vows, and the church filled with the most beautiful
arrangements of spring flowers) is full of symbolism - and we need symbols to express
what words alone cannot express. Alleluiah has been restored to us - like dew after
drought - so that wordless with wonder we have something at least with which to praise
the God who has raised Jesus from the dead, and so has given us new life. For as the
prophet Isaiah proclaimed three millennia ago, ‘God is creating a new heaven and a new
earth’. On Easter morning we come face to face with the reality of God - a God who
reduces himself to nothing; a God who not only shares the humanity of the creatures he
himself created, but endures our servitude and our death. More than that he becomes
the dust and ashes of our atomic waste. Like the single light which was hidden from
sight at Tenebrae the other evening, God himself disappears from view. Not just to give
us a taste of what darkness separated from his divine light might be like, but so that he
too might share our darkness, our poverty, our nothingness. Out of that nothingness
God has created something. Into our dust and ashes God has breathed new life. As at
the first creation the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has made something out
of nothing - and not just something - all that is!
No wonder we are left speechless with wonder - and find that a new song has been put
in our mouth, an ancient Hebrew word so that speechless though we are we can give
voice to our wonder, love and praise. Alleluiah! We stopped singing it for forty days -
now we need to make up for lost time!
What are we singing about? What are we responding to? What has reduced us to
speechlessness? To misquote one of your former Presidents : ‘It’s the Resurrection,
But the Resurrection - what actually happened on that first Easter Day - is nowhere
described in the New Testament. Artists from Fra Angelico to Stanley Spencer have
speculated imaginatively and have portrayed the Resurrection scene with the mayhem of
the scattered bodies of unconscious soldiers, or Jesus tiptoeing through the tulips, or
otherwise stepping flag in hand from the shattered rock. And Bach amongst others
shatters the pianissimo of his et sepultus est in his B minor Mass with his electrifying Et
Resurrexit - surely the most exciting wake up call in all music. Perhaps music and
painting and poetry alone can give expression to the miracle of Easter, filling in the dots
as it were which the gospels barely provide. It’s true that Jesus says the words ‘I am the
Resurrection’ at the raising from the dead of his friend Lazarus, and on that occasion
John in his gospel spares none of the details - the mourning of friends and family, Jesus
himself weeps; we are warned that the decomposing body will stink as the tomb is
opened up; Jesus nevertheless commands the dead man to come out and out he comes
though still encumbered with his shroud. All the details are provided. But not on that
Easter morning - the events of that night are nowhere described.
And it is not described for one very good reason. Whatever happened that Easter
morning and however important that happening is for our Christian belief, the
Resurrection is not a once -for-all, never -to-be-repeated event. It is something that has
to be experienced by everyone, in a hundred thousand different contexts and situations.
Jesus’s resurrection is not described - crucial though it is because it is pointing away from
itself towards God and towards us. Let me explain.
Easter is a sign post - it is proclaiming something true about God. I was once in a job
interview asked if I could say in a sentence what I believed. I thought for a moment,
though I hardly needed to; I knew what I needed to say:
God is; God is love; God loves us.
It sounds so banal, such a religious platitude, trotted out like that….but it’s true and I
God is, God is love , God loves us
and nothing, but nothing - not even death on a cross - can alter that fact, or obliterate
that reality. Indeed the huge irony is that God took the most wicked emblem of human
brutality - the cross - and made it the most profound emblem of divine love.
Easter Day proclaims something true about God, but it also reveals something true
about us. Jesus is raised - that is our proclamation. Alleluiah, Christ is risen - that is our
constant refrain. But we are raised too, we are being raised, and we will continue to be
raised with Jesus, into a new, intimate relationship with the Father, which until Good
Friday we though we had lost for ever.. Isaiah talked about God creating a new heaven
and a new earth, but let me tell you, creating a new heaven and a new earth was as
nothing - a mere seven day wonder - compared with restoring this filial relationship with
the Father - and not just restoring it but creating something new. And that new
relationship with the Father, which of course had never been severed between Jesus and
his Father even in the darkest moments of his Passion - that new relationship began to
emerge on that first Easter day. Jesus’s own resurrection is nowhere described: but
resurrections are described all the time in the New Testament.
When John and Peter rush to the tomb, John looks inside, sees the tomb empty and the
folded grave clothes and ‘he saw and believed’. One of the themes of St Johns gospel
has been ‘seeing and believing’. The alternation of light and darkness that permeate this
gospel like a first century Caravaggio painting, are entirely to do with seeing and with
seeing what is truly there. The curing by Jesus of the man born blind, is not simply
about a remarkable miracle of healing. The miracle is that the cured man is able to see
the truth - the truth about himself, about Jesus and about God.
Isn’t it curious that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb again alone, after she had
alerted John and Peter about the empty grave. In her grief, and believing that the body
of Jesus might have been removed she turns to a man she supposes to be the gardener.
She doesn’t recognise him, though it is not the gardener but Jesus himself. Of all the
people in the world Mary Magdalene might have been expected to recognise him - but
she doesn’t until Jesus call her by name. He recognises her, calls her by name, makes her
his own. Then she sees and believes. She has been raised - her resurrection is described.
Time and again this pattern of not seeing and then seeing truly repeats itself. We will
hear of Thomas not there when Jesus first appears to the disciples after the
Resurrection. He needs to see, to touch, to be convinced - but frankly it’s not the factual
evidence that convinces him - his inner eye is opened, he sees what is truly there, he
knows that he is loved. He can only say ‘ My Lord and My God‘ and Thomas has been
raised from the dead. And then again out on the sea shore the disciples are fishing and
catching no fish to reward their efforts. A stranger on the shore hails them. They do not
recognise his voice or his physical features. When they cast their nets again following the
stranger’s instructions, and their nets become full to breaking, John proclaims ‘It is the
Lord’. And in that moment of recognition Peter clothes himself (is he feeling
particularly vulnerable and naked to encounter Jesus again I wonder?) and he plunges
into the sea and swims for shore to meet the stranger who is no stranger. He and the
others bringing their fantastic catch of fish have seen and believed - this is their
resurrection moment. Not only Jesus was raised that Easter day - but many others too.
That’s what the big catch of fish signifies. It’s not a story about fishing! It’s about men
and women then and since who have been caught by the love of God which has drawn
them, caught them if you will, made them welcome and commissioned them to love as
they have been loved, and so create a new heaven and a new earth.
And where do we fit into all this? Easter is not just about singing a new Alleluiah, about
enjoying Easter egg hunts, delighting in the music and the liturgy, turning from purple
to gold, as the days become longer and the weather gets warmer. Easter is about
resurrection - so obvious that it hardly needs importing a preacher all the way from
Britain to say so! But it’s your resurrection and mine that Jesus’ resurrection is pointing
to. His resurrection is not described because we have to fill in the blanks and join up the
dots. We have to see and believe, we have to recognise that we are in the nets jostling to
get back into the water, quite often resisting the love that has caught us. But when we
stop fighting it. When we see what is truly there - that we are loved beyond our wildest
dreams and certainly beyond our deserving - when we say simply and sincerely ‘My Lord
and my God’ then we too have been raised. And soon we find ourselves commissioned
to go and tell his disciples; to catch fish; to feed Christ’s sheep even though God knows
(and he does) that we have been the worst betrayers and deniers. It doesn’t matter :
God is; God is love; God loves us
That’s what matters.
Alleluiah: Christ is risen and we are risen with him Alleluiah