What do we say today, Easter Sunday?
It’s something so simple, so great, so good. Firmly, joyfully, we say Christ is risen, Alleluia. And we can add the Eastern Christian response: “He is truly risen, Alleluia.”
Early on the Sunday morning, when the women came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, it was an angel who told them, “He is not here, for he has risen as he said” (Mt 28:6). An angel was the first to proclaim the Resurrection. In other words, this is a message from God. A phrase from one of the Psalms is sometimes transferred to this context, for example in the libretto of Handel’s Messiah: “the Lord gave the word” (Ps 68:11). Yes, through his messenger, God the Father gave the women the “word” of his Son’s Resurrection.
Then, in the Gospel of John, we see the same truth burgeoning in the beloved disciple. He “saw” (Jn 20:8). He saw the stone rolled away, the body no longer there, the grave clothes neatly folded. “He saw and he believed.”
Later on, that same turbulent day, Jesus would appear to Mary Magdalene, and to the other women, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Peter, and then to the Eleven. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself” (Lk 24: 39). Here it is Jesus himself who “gives the word”. And so, by angels, by the puzzle of the empty tomb, from these unpredictable encounters with the risen Christ, through insight from the Holy Spirit, a message was conveyed and faith was born. “Christ is risen, he is truly risen!” Isaiah’s ancient prophecy turns true: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is 2:3). The word of the Lord par excellence is precisely this: the Crucified has risen from the dead, and death has no dominion. And from Jerusalem forth it goes: to Samaria, Galilee, Caesarea Philippi and the household of Cornelius, to Antioch, Alexandria, Asia Minor, Italy, Rome and over the centuries to the ends of the earth. In times of peace and of war, in comfort and distress, the message goes. The little schola of the first disciples has become a great choir. “The Lord gave the word”, and, Handel’s text continues, “great was the company of preachers” (Ps 68:11). Yes, great the company who have “published” this word (cf. KJV), ordinary people in the steady strength of their faith and their hope, Popes and bishops, artists, musicians, martyrs above all. Every baptism, every Eucharist says the same. In and from the Church, the word resounds the world over. “Death, loneliness and fear”, says Pope Francis, “are not the last word. There is a word that transcends them, a word that only God can speak: it is the word of the Resurrection.”
This year, surely, we will be saying this with and for our fellow-Christians in Ukraine. We know what a Lent, what a Passion this country is living. We know that, while we are here, there are people whose Easter is far from “happy” in any ordinary sense. Every day the Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, sends out a video from Kyiv, and a constant theme is: after death comes Resurrection. Friends of mine in rural Poland have some 300 Ukrainian refugees in their small municipality. They said how beautiful it is that, this year, we western Christians keep Easter today and our Eastern brethren, Catholic and Orthodox, next Sunday. So, we can celebrate twice. So, in a dark, fratricidal time, the message can ring out like an octave chord, enhancing the message even more. It’s as if Western Christians say today, “the Lord is risen”, and Eastern Christians, in a week’s time, answer “He is truly risen.” May they experience this!
It’s a great moment in a baby’s life when it begins to speak, calls its father or mother. We are born to speak. We are born to say something good and true, to speak well. Our life is wasted if it runs away in chatter and gossip and complaining. The experience the first disciples had of the Cross, their grief, their failure, their bewilderment, must have reduced them to silence. Holy Saturday is always thought of as silent. Then from the empty tomb on there is suddenly something to say. “Go and tell my brothers”, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene (n 20:17). “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”, he says to the Eleven (Mk 16:15). And Pentecost’s tongues of fire enabled them to do this. “The Lord gave the word.” The Resurrection breaks out in words.
- K. Chesterton has a beautiful image for the early Christians. They were people, he said, with a key in their hands. That key was their faith, and the core of that faith, we know, was faith in the Risen Lord. This was “the key that could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white daylight of liberty” (The Everlasting Man, Pt 2, Ch 4) Brothers and sisters, it falls to us now, to our generation, to use this key, to proclaim the word which it is. The baton is passed to us.
There’s a story I try not to tell every year, but after the silence of Covid I will allow myself to tell again. It is Russia in the 1920s, Bolshevism on the rise, atheism being preached. An evangelist of non-belief addresses people in a village hall. He feels he has made his point; there is no God. Any questions? he asks. “I don’t have a question”, says the village priest rising to his feet. “I just want to say, Christ is risen!” And all the people rose to their feet and thundered in response, “He is risen indeed!”.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when we went to the supermarket, we could say at the checkout, “Christ is risen” and receive in reply a resounding, “he is risen indeed!”? But, thanks to the tongues of fire – which are ours through our Baptism and Confirmation – there are many ways to proclaim the Resurrection. I’m not going to list them; they are often humble and indirect. The Holy Spirit will show us. The Resurrection has changed the human horizon. It has unlocked the gates of death. It has opened up hope of a blessed eternity, in the fulness of our humanity. And therefore, even life here and now has been endorsed. There’s now a counterweight to the urge to curl in on ourselves in despair. Everything worthwhile in life has had its worth enhanced. Hope is valid. “The Lord gave the word.” We can believe and hope. Every time we use words to encourage hope in the hearts of each other – the great hope and even life’s small, good hopes – we are proclaiming the Resurrection.
The Lord is risen, he is truly risen, Alleluia. “The Lord gave the word”. We embrace it. Let us also give it on.
St Mary’s Cathedral, 17 April 2022