Sermon for Easter Day – Procession, Blessing of the Easter Garden & High Mass Sunday 5 April 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
When talking to children in school at this time of year I sometimes used to ask ask them which is more important, Christmas or Easter? They usually said Christmas, which isn’t surprising if you compare the secular celebrations. If I insisted that Easter is more important at least one child always replied, ‘but you couldn’t have Easter without Christmas’. Having foolishly asked the question in the first place, you then have to find an effective way to explain that without Easter, the miracle of Christmas would not get us to heaven. If you have successfully negotiated that conversation you may have a Lambeth degree in theology.
Christmas, of course, has a broad appeal, in part, because it seems easy to understand. The core story, at least, is easy: the birth of a child to poor parents, a child who grows up to be someone special. That much anyone can get. It is the stuff of biography, history and popular fiction. Of course the meaning of it, the Word made Flesh bit, is far from easy. But we all quickly understand that it describes God becoming one of us, getting inside our skin, in solidarity with us. And if we believe that we are not far from the kingdom of heaven.
Easter clearly wouldn’t mean what it does without that happening first. Easter would be just another Life of Brian, a tragic mistaken death of a kind that, as Fr Alan said on Friday, still happens far too often; the sort of death that was especially common under the Roman Empire. This would then be the story of a great spiritual teacher in a remote imperial province who got mixed up in a toxic clash of secular and religious politics and was executed as an act of political expediency.
But if we have processed the inner meaning of the Christmas story the crucifixion takes on a new and specific horror. People were so busy with religion, politics, and the politics of religion that they failed to recognize God. Which, of course, still happens. But in this case they also tortured and killed him.
The sequel, which we celebrate this morning, is not as easy even to tell as the Christmas story. You realize that as soon as you read the gospel accounts. But you can’t untangle the significance of one from the other. It is all one glorious and elegant narrative in which God gets completely involved – unwisely we might surmise – with his human creation. It appears to go horribly wrong, to be a classic tragedy, as Fr Alan was saying on Good Friday. But then God breaks open the champagne and shares the party with everyone. There is a grave seriousness, but also a lively divine insouciance about the outcome. Comedy, in that sense, the best sense, is what we are doing. We do not just drink champagne (though we must do that today); we also break Easter eggs. We know that breaking them in order to enjoy them is a parable of Christ’s breaking out of the tomb, leaving death behind.
If you ask ‘could Easter happen without Christmas’, or ‘does Christmas have meaning without Easter’, you quickly see that they are inseparably bound up with each other. But if you ask a different question: which is the crucial piece of the jigsaw for Christian faith? What is it that makes a difference to each one of us? – There is no contest. St Paul gives the unequivocal answer in this morning’s second reading:
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 1 Cor.15.19-20
Christmas shows God getting involved with us, showing us how much he loves us by drawing near to us, accessing human life in vulnerability. The Cross shows him taking that vulnerability seriously, courageously refusing to dodge his solidarity with us. But Easter, which we can’t adequately describe, shows him flipping that over and offering each one of us access to glory, to the life of God, the life which is eternal, full and rich and free from fear.
Each of us has a shell: of sin and sadness, of failure, disappointment and defeat. It usually gets thicker and thicker as we grow older. If we aren’t careful it can become impenetrable, to God and to other people. The Good News of Easter is that Christ once and for all, for all of us, broke out of that shell, and became the living first fruits of the harvest of all our lives.
Among the carvings in the ninth-century abbey of Vezelay in Burgundy you can see a carved stone relief graphically depicting the death by hanging of Judas Iscariot. Beside it is a carving of the risen Christ tenderly carrying the corpse of Judas to paradise. You don’t need a theology degree to get that point.
Examining ourselves in the looking-glass of Easter, we can begin to see how sin and sadness, failure, disappointment and defeat do not have the last word in our lives. We are loved; we have a future. We need to share that news with those who haven’t woken up to it yet. Chocolate & Champagne, or even Prosecco, always help.