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Easter Day 2005

The Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 27th March 2005

Here is a puzzle for Easter: what have these three statements in common: (1) they took his body from the cross and laid it in a tomb; (2) the stone was rolled away from the entrance to the tomb; and (3) the grave clothes lay where he had been placed. The answer is easy indeed: they are taken from the end of the Gospels of the resurrection. Listen again closely. As the crowd dispersed, they took Jesus body and left the cross empty; when the stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty; when they looked in, the grave clothes were lying as if the body had left them empty. Each quotation is about emptiness: an empty cross, an empty tomb; and an empty shroud. On this day of joy, fulfilment and hope of resurrection cannot be separated from the crucifixion, either in the gospel or in life. By his resurrection Christ confirms that the way of the cross is Gods way.

The Empty Cross

A girl went into a jewellery shop to buy a new necklace. She wanted one with a cross. The salesman showed her a range, large and small. But she pointed to another display cabinet. There were crosses with a man hanging on them. Its prettier with the little man on, she said, Ill have one of those. That little man was one whom millions around the world believe has a far greater significance than a decoration round some womans neck, such is the level of ignorance about religion in this nation today.

There is a difference between a cross and a crucifix. A cross is something that you have to bear yourself: a crucifix is an object that acknowledges the attributes of Jesus' death on the cross.

There is a difference between a cross and a crucifix. A cross is something that you have to bear yourself: a crucifix is an object that acknowledges the attributes of Jesus' death on the cross.

We knew that crucifixion was a painful death quite apart from Jesus crucifixion. In that perspective His death can scarcely be any different from that of any other one crucified. So the first emptiness, the empty cross, invites us and points us to Christs teaching about the cross and following him at can we say? Jesus said If anyone will be a disciple of mine, let him take up his cross and follow me. The invitation comes to us in the light of Gods raising Jesus and so confirming that the way of the cross is his way. Before Calvary the cross was a metaphor; afterwards it became suffused with reality of death.

Some sacramental imagery about the cross is not very accessible these days. For example, sacrificial blood seems archaic and indeed it is. The same is true of the powerful mediaeval notion of God paying the devil a ransom of Christ's death for mankind, sometimes with God engaged in some ungodly deviousness. It makes little sense to us. But each generation reinterprets the cross and we can do it in ours as well For already in the New Testament we find the seeds of new thinking. It all depends on two small words one (anti) and the other is hyper. The first one appears about 20 times; the second about ten times that number, two hundred. The first means instead of"; the other means on behalf of. The difference is that when acting on behalf of someone I have their authority as well as mine. For example, a lawyer who is hired has to have his clients authority which joins his authority as a trained lawyer to create a new entity the defence - for the duration of a case.

For the sense of replacing someone else there is no better example than the story of Maximilian Kolbe.. He is commemorated on the west front among those martyrs of the 20th century. He was in a concentration camp with many Jews; the guards used to single out people to be shot. A Jewish man was selected and burst into tears at the thought of losing his family. Suddenly from the back row came a figure: it was Fr Kolbe, who told the Commandant that he would die in place of this man and he did.

The early development emphasized the war between Christ and the devil. In such circumstances to die on behalf of is different from dying instead of. The New Testament favours the earlier idea that in the death of Christ we are taken up with him and he acts on our behalf not instead of us. Because Jesus died on the cross, those invited by him to follow and carry our own crosses have a different experience. For he died and was taken down as a corpse. Because he has thus conquered death, we do not have to. Consequently, we are not overwhelmed. As Freud says: So long as a man suffers he can still achieve something.


The Empty Tomb

There was a time when scholars thought that the story of the empty tomb was a later addition to the resurrection accounts rather than part of their beginnings. Gradually this pendulum swung back again and now most recognise that the story of the empty tomb is integral to the story.

We become so excited at the problem for us of the notion of the empty tomb that we miss the question: what was it that the disciples first believed that meant so much to them and what can we believe that will mean something to us today? For the grave is a cavern, in the wall on the side of the rock or in the ground. It gapes seeming to swallow us up as the corpse is laid to rest. It will finally give up its store.


The Empty Shroud

Finally the third emptiness is the empty clothes. John makes the point that they were exactly as they were, as if Jesus somehow evaporated out of them leaving these empty clothes behind. Of course they were not just cloth; they were strips and pieces which would tie round to hold the body in place and to contain the ointment to preserve it. The empty shroud therefore speaks of freedom from bondage. And to what are we in bondage? Different ages are given different answers: we might be bound by the devil and need freeing; we might be bound by our character and need forgiving; we might be bound by half remembered sins and so need absolution. Christians make the remarkable affirmation that through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Not only are individuals changed but all approaches to understanding the world can shift.


This is a true story. I left Chelmsford Cathedral for Bristol in 1988. Recently I received a letter:

Following the breakdown of my first marriage I was in quite a mess, having lost home, family, career, friends and faith. I found some solace in music and drinking. I found myself in Chelmsford on a sunny afternoon and wandered into the cathedral which I knew would be empty, still and quiet. It wasnt; it was packed with a congregation: Evensong was about to begin. After the service you preached a final sermon before your departure to Bristol. I stayed to listen because I had enjoyed Post Ordination Training with you.

At the end of your sermon you read a poem: The Answer by R S Thomas. I didnt know it at the time and had to write to you for the title. I had guessed the author but couldnt find the poem. It has become a very important poem for me, but more than that it stayed with me. The journey has been very, very long and Im still on it. Its a poem I always use on Easter Day. Thank you.

That person is still ordained and a minister, a man whose personal resurrection is remarkable.

You may be wondering which poem that was. Here it is. R S Thomas is not the easiest person at first hearing, but it is worth persevering.

Not darkness but twilight
In which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to re-form
as new problems; and one
does not even do that
but towers immovable
before us.
Is there no way
of other thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes .of loves risen body.

Jesus brings his crucified self from a now empty cross. Because Christ did not miraculously come down from his cross, we can bear our own;

Jesus brings from the now empty grave our Easter hope. Because the empty tomb is so stark, nonsense is excluded as we face the unknown realistically.

Jesus brings from his now burst constraints power to change because of Gods joy at every saving act for others.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

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