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Worship at the Abbey

Easter Day sermon 2009

12 April 2009 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Many of us these last days will have been moved by the stories from L’Aquila in Italy following the devastating earthquake there last Monday. In particular I have been struck by the story of Giulio Colangeli. His father Antonello, a doctor, thought him lost but was guided, as he says, by intuition to where his son had been staying with friends when the earthquake struck,  and was rewarded, when he called his son’s name, by the faint words, “Papa, I’m here, I can’t breathe”. Photographs showed the son being carried alive from his place of entombment. Not every story ended that way and on Good Friday the Pope’s representative led the funeral of more than 200 people. It is often the bright and encouraging stories after such tragedies that stay in the mind of those of us who can only look on from afar. In this case it is the contrast that is most striking, the contrast between the father’s despair at the loss of his son, followed by the glimmer of hope that he might be rescued, and then the overwhelming joy of discovery that he is alive.

We see the same contrast in the story of Good Friday and Easter Day. St Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene was looking on from a distance when Jesus was crucified. It takes little imagination to ponder her sense of despair, her emptiness, her grief at the loss of the one she adored. St Mark tells us that, unable to let go, Mary Magdalene follows her Lord’s body to its place of burial and sees the tomb where his body was laid. The burial was speedy since it had to take place before sundown, before the beginning of the Sabbath. Some of the customary practices were omitted. So, very early on the Sunday morning when the sun has risen, St Mark tells us, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bring spices so that they might go and anoint him. They find the stone rolled back and a young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb. He tells them not to be alarmed. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified”, he says. “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” [Mark 16: 6] St Mark tells us that they are amazed and afraid and run away telling no one. It seems likely that he ends his Gospel there, leaving no doubt that the tomb is empty but creating the space for us and other hearers to make up our own minds, to decide for ourselves how we should react to his account of the resurrection. In St John’s Gospel, as we heard this morning, we see Mary Magdalene later, in the garden, meeting the risen Jesus and only with difficulty recognising him. When he calls her by name in the old familiar way, she knows him. Now, she has moved from despair to amazement, perhaps mixed with a glimmer of hope, to overwhelming joy. Jesus is alive. The other gospels also tell us not only of the empty tomb but also of the risen Jesus’ appearances to his mother and to his disciples, as does the earliest account of the resurrection in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The Lord is risen, they say; he is risen indeed. Alleluia! we respond, with the Easter proclamation of overwhelming joy. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

I want to stay this morning with the idea of contrast. Many of us have travelled with the Church through the long days of Holy Week from last Sunday, Palm Sunday, when we celebrated the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Jesus with his disciples. On Thursday, Maundy Thursday, we were with Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room where they ate together the Last Supper. Here in the Abbey we re-enacted Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet as a sign of humility and service, when twelve members of our community had their feet washed. At the end of the service we re-enacted Jesus’ and his disciples’ journey out of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives. We did this by taking the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, consecrated at the Eucharist of the Last Supper, out of this Abbey Church to St Margaret’s Church next door and reposing the Sacrament on the high altar there. There we remembered how his disciples could not even stay awake with Jesus in his agony and bloody sweat. “Could you not keep awake one hour?” Jesus challenged Peter. Many of the great congregation stayed some time and watched.

Meanwhile in Parliament Square, while we watched before the Blessed Sacrament in the silence of St Margaret’s Church, there was a great commotion. Many of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka resident in London were protesting against their government’s assault against the Tamil separatist movement in northern Sri Lanka. The protest had begun earlier in the week and had occupied Westminster Bridge. By now it was based in Parliament Square and the regular chanting of protest was more than easily audible in St Margaret’s Church piercing the intense silence. I thought of the complicated political reasons for the protest. Then I reflected on Jesus’ identification with the suffering of the people regardless of political ideology. I focused afresh on the passion of Christ reflected in the passion of people in so many places. I heard again the crowd’s cry of Hosanna on Palm Sunday and their answer to Pilate’s question only a few days later, “Crucify him.” This finally brought me back to the solemn Watch and seeking to identify myself more with Christ in his Passion.

There is no greater contrast in the Church’s Year than that between Holy Week and Easter Day. On Good Friday the stripped altar, the silent organ, low lighting, the singing of the Passion, the veneration of the Crucified, the solemn prayers: all is slow and still. Today, the altar reredos is unveiled and glows again with a glorious light; the banners, the triumphal music, the Alleluias help us celebrate what George Herbert calls “this most high day.” But we have to live with the contrast. We cannot simply be an Easter people. The risen Jesus, we are told, bore in his body the marks of crucifixion, the holes made by the nails in his hands and feet, by the spear in his side. We have to be a Good Friday and an Easter people. We have to live with the contrast, to work it out in our own lives, to be prepared to suffer with Christ and so to enter into his glory.[cf Luke 24: 26]

If we give ourselves to pleasure and consumption and suppose that such a life is possible and appropriate, we shall bring about only death and destruction. The paradox at the heart of Christian faith is that we have to live and work on both sides of the contrast. As St Paul says, “We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” [Romans 6: 4, 5]

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia! On behalf of the Dean and Chapter, I wish you and yours a very happy and blessed Easter.

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