Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Easter hopes and the promise of the Resurrection

It has been a cold hard Lent - and even as we begin Eastertide the weather forecasters are telling us to expect yet more snow. At St. Cuthbert’s we’ve lamented that the daffodils which can so often set the churchyard’s bankside ablaze with their glory seem as yet to have no real interest in opening. And the church stands cold with its heating system dead and its congregation in exile across the road in the Church Hall. I realise so much more acutely now how a church is more than the stones of which it is made - it’s a place of Christ’s presence made real by the prayers of its people. When we find ourselves forced to move out and away from the church we cannot avoid a feeling that its atmosphere becomes one of abandonment.

Not wholly abandoned… It’s been moving that families have continued to want to come into the church for the funerals of loved ones - despite the harsh cold they would experience. Against the odds we have celebrated two marriages with real joy - and a sense of community ownership when it took a huge team of snow-shovellers just to get the bride and groom into the church. Then last Sunday a Baptism - water poured directly into the font from a kettle - though most of the photos were taken outside, where it was rather warmer than inside the church. And during Holy Week congregations have returned to brave the cold for the Eucharist, to follow the way of Christ’s Passion in the Stations of the Cross, and then to gather again for Good Friday morning.

Those few times we’ve been back to use the church - each time I have been in on my own - it’s brought into my heart a sense of loss for a church we might so easily take for granted, and a longing to return. That’s why for me it has been important to say that we would kindle the Paschal flame and light the Easter Candle in church, that there we would renew our Baptism vows and sing an Easter hymn. It’s a declaration of our faith - faith not in a building but in what the building witnesses to. We’ll be back - and hopefully with a renewed confidence in the faith which led to its being built in the first place.

The church is more than cold stone. And the Easter message is how God overcomes the coldness of the grave in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. It’s nothing that anyone can do that brings about Resurrection. For the three women who come to the grave on that first Easter Day, all they hope to achieve is carry out the burial rites which they had been unable to undertake on the day of his death. They come expecting to find only a dead body. They come in grief and loss. They come not knowing even how they will be able to get at the body - “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” they ask.

And we never discover the answer - simply, “the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.” There are no explanations. In St. Mark’s Gospel a young man sitting in the tomb simply says, “He has been raised. He is not here.” His words seem merely to compound the women’s sense of alarm. They leave the tomb and flee in terror - and the last words of St. Mark’s account are “they were afraid.”

These are the words which are probably the original ending of St. Mark’s Gospel. What the women witness is a fearful thing. But it isn’t the end of the story.

We’re given two alternatives for our Gospel today. St. Mark’s telling of the story in its baldest form - the story of the three women who go to the tomb, find it empty and then run. But also St. John’s Gospel in which the Evangelist draws out the movement from the coldness of the grave to the first warm perception of what the Resurrection means. In each of the Gospels it’s Mary Magdalene who plays the central part. She’s the first of the three who, St. Mark tells us, went to the tomb. For St. John she’s also the first to visit the grave - and, when she runs from it, it’s to tell Peter and another disciple that the tomb is empty. And when those disciples go home it’s Mary who stays by the tomb. It’s Mary who shares her grief with the men in white to whose presence the other disciples seem to have been oblivious. And it’s Mary who hears their question, “Why are you weeping?” repeated by a stranger she takes to be a gardener.

St. Mark gives no explanations of the empty tomb. Simply “he has been raised.” St. John gives no explanations and even the oddness of angelic beings doesn’t cause him to make any comment as to why they are there. But John gives us detail - the folded grave cloths which is all that Peter finds. And still more he shows how God touches us in our humanity. “Why are you weeping?” is the question put both by the angels and the unrecognized stranger. The question reaches into Mary’s heart. She has no answers when even the body of the Jesus she loves so deeply has been taken away. No answer until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary!” It’s then that she knows he is risen, then that she can turn and address him as “Rabbouni, Teacher.” The Resurrection faith is real not because it can be explained but because it is known, and known personally when Jesus speaks Mary’s name. It’s real for us because Jesus knows us by name. Jesus reaches out to us in our sorrow and need, in faith and doubt, and enters into the deep recesses of our hearts, and speaks our name. We need only turn to him and he is there.

The events of the first Easter morning don’t rely on sacred buildings or a framework of religion. They take place in the opening up of a cold place of death. They acknowledge the fears and failure to comprehend of those who are there. They show the reality of grief, but also of persistence, faith and love. And they show us a risen Lord with a human heart which beats close to ours - one who knows us by name. And in that risen Lord, who has shared our human existence, who has died upon the Cross to show the extent of his love, we see our hope of life with him.

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