Sunday, 21 April 2019

Calcined to dust? Easter Homily

(Acts 10.34-43; Luke 24.1-12)

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                  Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                  With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

George Herbert rejoices in the celebration of Easter. And if you wonder what that word “calcined” means, there’s a note in my book which says “Burnt to ashes.” We began Lent with Ash Wednesday - marking people on the forehead with the sign of the Cross in ash, saying to them, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Whether or not we’ve lived up to the second part of that injunction and kept the resolutions with which we might have set out, the first part remains true: dust we are and to dust shall we return.

And yet listen to George Herbert: “That, as his death calcined thee to dust, / His life may make thee gold.” We know all too well that we are frail, mortal creatures, subject to death. But also we are God’s creation called to new life; and the Resurrection of Christ that first Easter Day is the promise that we shall live with him in glory.

Not that it’s always easy to live with that confidence. It’s not only the limitations of our human frame which we know, the grief we suffer at the loss of loved ones, the sadness we feel at the suffering of others, the pain which comes from relationships which won’t work out right. The days of Holy Week began with a collective sense of loss as millions watched the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burn - and its spire collapse. I felt the loss. Not only was I fearful for its lost treasures. But I’ve worshipped there. The cathedral’s services have been broadcast just about every day and could be watched on the internet. And for me, it wasn’t just watching - it was joining in with a daily rhythm of prayer, something that sustained me when I didn’t have the energy to do the praying alone.

But in that building, so much of it reduced to ash - calcined, to use George Herbert’s word - there’s also a powerful image. An incredible engagement of so many millions of people around the world challenged by the question of what it stood for.

Two things in particular. One, that the building is not merely a symbol but emblematic of western civilisation. Famously, the art critic, Kenneth Clark said that he couldn’t define civilisation - “But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.” And he turned and looked across the River Seine to Notre Dame. In our cheapened modern culture with its degraded values and our lack of attention to what really matters, we need to look again to see what needs to be preserved and developed.

But second and still more, the very presence of that building challenges us to ask, why was it built? Not merely as a thing of beauty or an attraction to 13 million people a year, but as a testimony to faith and a place where that faith is worked out in the worship of God. “You can worship God anywhere,” was one of the responses made by an archbishop after the fire. And that is true. The worship which would have been offered in Notre Dame continued through Holy Week on the other side of the river in the church of St. Sulpice. But I could sense the aching hearts. We know God by the places in which we worship. He is always more than buildings, more than worship itself. But ours is a faith which is incarnated, made flesh in Jesus Christ - and bricks and stones also have their place in enabling our faith.

The people of Notre Dame have to find other places to worship even as they plan to rebuild. [Here] at St. Cuthbert’s for the last 14 months with just an interlude during warmer weather, we have had to worship not across the river but across the road in our Hall due to the failure of our heating system. Today we return to the church for our first Sunday together since last October - it’s ironic that we use the new heating system for the first time just as we find ourselves in a spring heatwave! Going back there’s a sense of relief - and also of anticipation. I have to admit to being a bit fearful - things have changed… we have changed through our experience of the last year and more. But hopefully we have learned something through our time in exile - the different dynamic of worship, new ways of relating to each other, the grace of persistence in the midst of exasperation, much hard work and a generosity of spirit.

Always we need to remember that Christian faith is grounded in more than buildings - it’s more true even than the things we learn in adversity. But these together are a start.

And the heart of Christian faith is the Resurrection. An Easter Faith is what we celebrate not only today but every day. “If Christ is not raised, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…” wrote St. Paul. And when Peter finds himself in the house of the Gentile soldier, Cornelius, the message which he brings is that Christ is risen from the dead. That’s what he says in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

It doesn’t mean that it’s a faith that’s always easy to grasp. Even on that first Easter Day of which we hear in today’s Gospel… The same women who had seen Christ die on Good Friday, who had stood by as he was buried, now come to the tomb - and find it empty. The stone is rolled away, the body is gone. Their response is not faith but terror. Two men in dazzling clothes appear and tell them Jesus is risen. But they only have their word for it - and when they tell the other disciples, they don’t believe them: their words seemed to them “an idle tale.” At least Peter goes to look, finds the grave cloths discarded by themselves and knows the tomb to be empty. But for now, all that the Gospel writer can tell us is that he is “amazed.”

Easter faith grows from an empty tomb. But before that there is betrayal, judgement, condemnation and a death upon the Cross. All these are carried into the meaning of Easter because they are all together rooted in the love which God shows us in Jesus. And that faith needs to grow. Recognition of the risen Jesus will come only later: for Mary Magdalene in an encounter with one she takes to be a stranger; for two disciples on a journey who don’t recognise the traveller who walks with them until he breaks bread for them; for disciples who have gone back to their old life of fishing and then find the risen Jesus telling them where to fish, feeding them and sending them on in love.
In knowing Jesus to be risen, the disciples discover what is truly precious to them - and something so precious that it will determine the rest of their lives.

What is precious to us?

One of the heartening stories in the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame is that the colony of bees kept on its roof has survived. There have been three beehives on a roof over the sacristy, just beneath the rose window, since 2013. Each hive has about 60,000 bees. The poet Carol Ann Duffy, in her book The Bees writes of the bee as a symbol of grace in the world and of what is most precious and necessary for us to protect. Those 180,000 surviving bees are, I think, a sign of hope as the planning for the rebuilding of that great church begins. Carol Ann Duffy writes:

                                                For this,
let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.

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