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Westminster Abbey and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Easter Day

Easter morning. John’s Gospel. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Mag-dalene came to the tomb.

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 4th April 2021 at 11.15 AM

Now, before we go on I need to explain something. I need to talk about Mary Mag-dalene this morning. The trouble is that, for seven years I was Dean of Magdalene College Cambridge. Seven years that changed me and one of the changes is that she will always be Mary ‘Mawdlin’ to me.  It will perhaps seem perverse to you, but I will talk about Mary Mawdlin.

Oddness. Awkwardness. Do you know, there has not been enough of awkwardness lately?  Let me try to explain what I mean by introducing my son, Mike. I am afraid I cannot present Mike to you. He is not here. I have not seen Mike since last August. Like you, isolation and social distancing have set me apart from family and friends, for months.

Now, we have already established that I can land awkwardly with you - 'Mawdlin' not Magdalene. Let me tell you that Mike and I can take that right up through the gears. If we were ever to do that quiz - the one that asks you 'cat or dog / football or rugby / Bach or bass guitar?' Mike and I could choose differently until cows come home. Even then, one of us would be waiting for pigs to fly instead. And I cannot begin to describe how much I have missed that. I have turned inside myself. There has not been nearly enough bass guitar to my Bach.

The trouble with lockdown is that we have lost the grace of disagreement, the generosity of difference. I have an idea of Mike of course, that I carry that with me all the time. That idea of Mike though, is a tame Mike, it is altogether too predictable. In my head, I will be putting him in a cassock soon and have him bowing to vergers. I will un-Mike him. He is the bearhug to my handshake and I forget about the adjustment I must make when I see him. It is no accident that in these long months, our social ills have become so volatile and even violent lately. With you in your Zoom castle and me in my Zoom Deanery we have hunkered down. We have not made nearly enough adjustments, we have not been reading the room, not thinking again. No grace of disagreement, no generosity of difference. No bearhugs.

With that in mind, let’s go back to Mary Mawdlin. When we met her this morning she was going to the tomb. Mary remember was a witness. John takes great care to tell us that.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene  John 19:25

The disciples had all, bar one, fled the scene. They might have imagined the cross, had an idea of it in their heads. Not Mary. She saw Jesus die. She knew Jesus was dead. She came that morning to confront an absence, the sharp, radical absence that is death. Isolation.  She assumed the tomb would be sealed. Lockdown. No conversation to be had, no this and that, no adjustment to be made. Just grief.

So, it is hardly a surprise when Mary does not recognize Christ as he stands before her.  This is an adjustment she really struggles to comprehend. He was absent and now he is present. He was defeated and is victorious. He was dead and he lives.

Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' She turned and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabbouni!'

Words, names, him being he and her being she. Presence. adjustment, recognition. Notice though, no bearhug. She tries to cling to him and she is told she should not do that. This was always a tricky adjustment. It was difficult for Mary Mawdlin that Easter morning, it is a bit challenging still.

Jesus said to her, 'go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'' John 20:17

This is John’s gospel is the gospel that starts with creation. 

In the beginning was the Word… All things came into being through him… John 1:1-3

No other gospel starts like that. No other gospel begins like John begins with the idea of God creating all things and resting on the sixth day. God seeing that his work is finished and resting on the Friday. Friday, the day Jesus dies on the cross saying 'It is accomplished'. Then Jesus rests in the grave and on Saturday night comes the resurrection, the eighth day, a new creation. That is what this Easter morning is. That is what John believes. Easter Sunday, day eight, and a new creation. It is that scale of adjustment. A new creation.

This, here, is the beginning of that creation. Jesus is present again. With us, to be known as someone who is really here. Not an idea, not a doctrine, not an image. Really here.   The gospels insist he is really here. Thomas touches him. He eats with disciples. Present, not absent. 

Yet, it is just the beginning. This new creation is not yet complete. We have a way to go. Jesus is not always instantly known. On the Emmaus road, seen on the shore, not recognized. He cannot be held, Mary must loosen her grip because she clings to the past. This new creation is just the beginning of what it is to live in God’s presence.

We come to this Easter emerging from our lockdown. It is not just our lives that have been constrained. Our imaginations have been cabined and confined. We have lived with the idea of other people. We have not had to manage the awkward spaces between us, we have not negotiated the misunderstandings, made allowances, laughed at our own absurdities. We have not had to grow into the love made possible when you are you and I am me. We have become more ourselves and we are poorer for it. No trading handshakes for bearhugs.

We must not live in our heads. We are made for one another and for God. We must not make God a doctrine, or an idea. God is present in Christ. Present not absent. 'Mary', 'Rabbouni'. There is a new creation at work. It is radical and glorious. All the forces of denial and every abuse of religious and political power gathered at Golgotha determined that hope and possibility should be eliminated. Better to live with what can be managed, better to be dependent, better to be constrained. The crucifixion of Christ was the absolute refusal to accept what humanity might be. At Easter, God wrestles that humanity back, and it lives. The cross has been called nostrae redemptionis trophaeum, 'the trophy of our redemption' A trophy used to be a wooden post you set up and then you nailed the spoils you had taken from the enemy to it. Your trophy. That is the cross. It is Christ’s body we have won back. He is here. Present not absent.

Neither lockdown nor Easter are quite over, we struggle still with recognition. We cannot hold all that we have yet to be given. Make no mistake though, the power of constraint is ended.

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord';

Not an idea, not a doctrine, but presence and new creation. Presence and possibility. The end of all denial. The victory of humanity, the trophy of a life in the body, that we can set down here. Me and you and what we might be. Easter. And one day, for me and Mike, not handshakes, but bearhugs.

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