When has a spring coincided so exactly with Easter? The word ‘Easter’ comes from the name of the old Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Spring has been late this year and Easter has been late, and this weekend they’ve come together. The warmest day of the year and the best possible news for us!
Today we say: ‘Christ is risen! He is truly risen.’ Today we echo St Peter: ‘They killed him by hanging him on a tree, yet three days later God raised him up.’ We echo the Psalmist, at the entrance antiphon: ‘I am risen and I am still with you, alleluia’ and again: ‘The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; his right hand raised me up. I shall not die, I shall live and recount his deeds’. We must imagine Christ himself making these words his own.
‘This is the day the Lord has made: we rejoice and are glad.’
To be a Christian is to believe that on the third day after his crucifixion and death, Christ rose from the dead. It’s to believe that his dead and buried humanity was vivified and transformed by the Holy Spirit. Our Lord did not simply resume his previous human life, like Lazarus. He was lifted into a new sphere, beyond suffering and death.
To be a Christian is to believe that Jesus hasn’t disappeared into history, isn’t someone of whom we’d only talk in the past tense: ‘Jesus was this, Jesus did that.’ He’s someone who is and always will be. He is past, present and future. My German teacher at school used to dictate German texts for us to copy. When he came to a full stop (or period, as the Americans say), he’d say: ‘Punkt, Schluss.’ ‘Full stop. The end.’ The phrase has stayed with me. When that Friday evening, the stone was rolled against the tomb in the garden outside Jerusalem, it seemed Punkt, Schluss for Jesus. Every tombstone in the world says that: Punkt, Schluss. They’re the words that wait for us, our loved ones, everyone. To be a Christian, though, is to believe the stone was rolled away, the sentence broken open. To be a Christian is to believe that a quite new world, a new way of being human, has now been opened. And not just to Jesus, but through him, with him, in him, for all who believe in his name. To be a Christian is to believe that, thanks to the Resurrection of Christ, everything has been changed: top to bottom, inside outside, side to side. Everything.
We believe this on the testimony of the first disciples, women and men, and recorded in the New Testament. We believe it on the testimony of all believers, saints and martyrs through the ages, all who have met the risen Christ. We believe it in communion with the whole Church.
‘Christ is risen. He is truly risen!’
And if Christ is risen, we can rise. We prayed in the Collect to rise up in the light of life. St Paul says, ‘you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.’ Last night at the Vigil Mass in St Peter’s, Rome, Pope Francis quoted two lines of the American poet Emily Dickinson: ‘We never know how high we are / Till we are called to rise.’ Today, we are called to rise. Christ is risen, nature is rising; we should join in. It’s something each of us can ask ourselves: how do I need to rise? Faith, hope and love: those are the names of our resurrection. How do they play out in my life? We can ask ourselves that.
‘We never know how high we are / Till we are called to rise.’ Last Monday, we probably saw the high spire of Notre Dame falling into the flames. But what a resurrection that fire has unleashed! We didn’t know what that Cathedral meant, we didn’t know, for all the diversity, how much love and faith France and not only France concealed. And the Cathedral will rise. It’s as if that fire proved to be an Easter fire from which a Paschal candle has been lit.
Christ is risen, and we can rise. Christ also went forth, he went out. He left the tomb and showed himself, in different ways, to his disciples: to Mary Magdalene, to the women, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, to Peter, to James, to the Eleven, to Thomas, to some 500 disciples on one occasion. He rose and went out. Spring, after all, calls us out. Suddenly yesterday Seaton Park was full of people. Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb. When Mary Magdalene told them the stone was rolled away, they might have just shrugged their shoulders and stayed at home, entombed in pessimism or depression. But they sensed a springtime. They went out. And they ran. Mary of Magdala must have run too: Dic nobis Maria, Quid vidisti in via? ‘Tell us Mary: say what you saw upon the way.’ Upon the way, in via, running, seeking the things that are above. Surrexit Christus, spes mea: praecedet vos in Galileam: he goes before us. And the Galilean fishermen would leave their nets and go out into the wild world of the Roman Empire. If Christ is risen, our life becomes a way. We’re not confined to what we are. We needn’t just be locked in to ourselves. Our problems needn’t be the centre of our lives, nor fear our only ruler.
Yes, Christ rises and we can rise. If Christ leaves a tomb behind him, empty, we can leave dead things behind as well. If Christ goes out, we can go out after him.
And one wonder more. St Thomas Aquinas asked, why did Christ rise? And he came out with an interesting phrase: ad informationem vitae fidelium, ‘to inform the life of the faithful’. He didn’t mean by ‘inform’ passing on facts or data. He meant that the risen Christ is the inner form, the inside determinant, the shape and pattern of who believers are. He’s our template, our mould, our example. And more, he’s our energy, our driving-force, the battery that powers and lights us. If Christ is risen, he can rise in us. If Christ passes through rolled stones and locked doors, he can enter our hearts and in-form us, form us into his likeness.
One last story. Paul Claudel, at the age of 18 and a restless unbeliever, wandered into Notre-Dame in Paris on Christmas Day 1886. He’d later become one of the major French poets and dramatists of the 20thc. He himself remembered it being ‘the gloomiest winter day and the darkest rainy afternoon over Paris’. He didn’t go in to pray or admire. He went in to criticize. Vespers was underway. The choir was singing the Magnificat. Then everything changed for him. ‘In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such a strength of adherence, with such an uplifting of my entire being, with such powerful conviction, with such a certainty leaving no room for any kind of doubt, that since then all the books, all the arguments, all the incidents and accidents of a busy life have been unable to shake my faith, nor indeed to affect it in any way.’ May we have faith like that!
Christ is risen! He is truly risen! Alleluia.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 21 April 2019)