Christ is risen! He is truly risen!
In St Machar’s Cathedral on 19th March, the Con Anima Chamber Choir gave a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem. It was composed after the deaths of a close friend and of his much-loved mother. Brahms wanted to acknowledge all the grief of loss and yet offer consolation. He used texts from the Bible for this purpose. The result is a masterpiece.
There’s a wonderful moment in the 2nd movement which may help us ‘realize’ the Resurrection. Brahms takes well-known words from Isaiah ch. 40: ‘For all flesh is like grass and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.’ He sets them as a funeral march. It’s solemn, stately, sad. It constantly builds. It returns after interludes. And it evokes, not just the passing of a friend or a close relative, but of all humanity – as if every life and all of history is a long procession to the grave. It’s noble, but desolate. On and on it goes, until it can go no further. It ends. There’s a pause. Silence falls. Then, loud and strong, the choir comes in. It comes in with the word ‘Aber’ / But. There is this great ‘but’ thrown into the air, thrown to the audience. The rest of the text follows: ‘But the word of the Lord remains forever’ – the word which promises eternal life, everlasting joy. And Brahms unfolds it as a victorious fugue.
If we want to ‘realize’ the Resurrection, perhaps that pause and that ‘But’ and those words can help us. It may seem rather dark to think of life as one long procession to the grave. Certainly, beautiful things can happen on the way. But still… Or perhaps we can think of our life and the life of humanity throughout the centuries as one long wandering sentence, strung together by ‘and’ after ‘and’. ‘And then, and then, and then…’ And all flesh is like grass in the end. Even, it seemed, the flesh of the Son of man. It withered and fell, and he was buried in a hurry on Friday night. Full stop / period. ‘We had hoped’, say the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, ‘that he was the one to free Israel.’ ‘We had hoped.’ A pause, the Sabbath. The women rest, preparing spices, and, then the Sabbath over, they go to anoint the dead body. It’s a loving thing to do, but it’s only decorating the full stop. Enter the angelic choir: ‘Aber’ / ‘But’. There was this unexpectedly empty tomb, the stone rolled away. A new sentence beginning. A message from angels. Bewilderment. Much rushing to and fro. The early morning run of Peter and John. Yes, the women are right. The stone has gone. The tomb is empty. The burial clothes are neatly folded. The Beloved Disciple got the implication immediately, Peter was slower. And then, later that day, to Mary Magdalene, to the other women, to the forlorn disciples en route to Emmaus, to Peter, to James and finally to all the lads gathered in the Upper Room, the Master showed himself. ‘See it is, I’. ‘I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for ever more, and I have the keys of death and the underworld.’ ‘The Word of the Lord remains forever.’ ‘The Word, who gives existence and form and purpose to the whole creation, the Word who had become flesh and died – because all flesh is like grass – this Word has risen from the dead and remains forever. ‘Christ is risen! He is truly risen!’ God has, as it were, interrupted our endless chatter, has drawn a line through our secret desperation. He has opened a new sentence. A fugue of faith, hope and love has begun and, as it unfolds, voice after voice, instrument after instrument, individual after individual, generation after generation, can arise and enter it.
Peter is key to this morning. His perplexity, his conflicting emotions are so easy to relate to. But in the 1st reading, we hear him, some ten years after going into that empty tomb. He is proclaiming the Resurrection to a pagan household in Caesarea. First, the disciples had become part of the new sentence – then other Jews. Now Peter sees non-Jews too can join in, and do not have to become Jews to do so. More and more are drawn in; they add their names, their breath, their words, their lives to this new sentence: this sentence that begins with the risen Word risen. And we are invited also, to extend this new beginning. It’s a sentence, it’s a story that remains forever. It’s a fugue which we’re invited to take up, to add our voice too, following Peter. It’s a new liturgy for humanity, St Paul says, that begins today, a liturgy of new life: ‘Let us celebrate the feast, then, by getting rid of all the old yeast of evil and wickedness [these are grass, these are part of the funeral march] and eating only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’. And, this morning, in the city where Peter and Paul gave their lives for the risen Christ, Peter’s living successor, Pope Francis, will proclaim the Resurrection – to the City and the world. ‘Christ is risen! He is truly risen!’
Christ is this blessed ‘but’ to our endless nonsense. He has launched this new sentence. He has intoned a new music. In a moment, renewing our baptismal promises, we will reject the old one and endorse the new: ‘I do renounce Satan…’ – his discords, his long walk to death. ‘I believe.’ The Creed tells a story, and when we say ‘I believe’, we write ourselves into it. To be in the Church, in the community of faith, is to be in the music, to be part of the story. To remain forever.
‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of the field…but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ That, as we know, is from Isaiah, from the Old Testament. But in his First Letter, which is part of the New Testament, St Peter quotes it. And he explains: this lasting word is the Gospel, the Good News that was preached to you – baptized Christians. And, for Peter, and the whole New Testament, that Good News is the proclamation: ‘Christ is risen, He is truly risen!’ So, the body of his letter begins: ‘Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy has given us new birth as his children, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, so that we have a sure hope and the promise of an inheritance that can never be spoiled or soiled and never fade way…You do not see him, but you love him.’ His Letter begins from that empty tomb he discovered today.
Christ is risen! God’s ‘But’. Let’s write ourselves into the story and add our voice to the music. It’s to be part of something that remains forever.