Now we enter fully into the joy of the risen Lord.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 21st April 2019 at 10:30 AM
Many of us have journeyed in a particular way with Jesus Christ these last few days. We joined in the procession of palms, one week ago. We marked the first few days of Holy Week with prayer and fasting. On Maundy Thursday, we celebrated the gift of the Last Supper. On Good Friday, we knelt at the foot of the Cross. Yesterday this Church, like all other churches throughout the world, was transformed from darkness to light, from solemnity to joy, as candles were re-lit and flowers arranged and altars turned white. Yesterday evening, in the great Paschal Vigil, we lit a new fire from which we lighted the Paschal Candle now burning in the centre of the Sacrarium, we heard the prophecies of our Lord and we renewed our baptismal promises. We began to enter into the joy of Easter.
Now on Easter Day itself, as we celebrate the great festival of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we enter fully into the joy of the risen Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He is risen indeed. So, today we can sing the great Easter song: Alleluia! Praise the Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Our journey through the first part of Holy Week was disrupted, or curiously enlivened, by the sad news from Paris of the fire that so nearly destroyed the great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. For many of us it has been both a wonderful and a sad place: wonderful for its grandeur and beauty and lightness of being, and for its amazing survival through revolution and political changes and world wars, and sad for its almost constant tramp even during major liturgical celebrations of 13 million visitors a year with the consequential damage and destruction. Happily, the cathedral was not destroyed; most of the building is secure; even the great organ and the wonderful rose windows survive, though there will be much work to do. In the meantime, the archdiocese of Paris will seek to erect some kind of temporary cathedral in the square in front of Notre Dame.
I have written to the archbishop of Paris with our condolences and promised him help with the immediate expenses of the archdiocese. All our collections, our almsgiving, today will go to the archdiocese of Paris and will be matched by gifts from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. This is not announced in the order of service but it is the case and we ask you to give generously.
I said that the news from Paris had curiously enlivened us. For it seemed that the very sorrow and sadness of Holy Week, the terrible account of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, his arrest and trials, his scourging and crowning with thorns and mockery, his carrying his cross to the place of the skull, his being nailed to the cross and being lifted up to the amusement or mockery or contempt of the milling throng, his agony and death on the cross: all this was reflected in the suffering of that great church and the Passion of the Church in Paris and in France.
I received a response from the office of the archbishop of Paris, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.’ He then went on to say (the words are my own translation), ‘Notre Dame, our dear cathedral, witness of so many major events in our nation, has been destroyed by a terrible fire, having resisted for so long the ups and downs of its history. France weeps and with her all our friends throughout the world. Her heart is touched, for its stones are the witness of an unconquerable hope, which, through the talent, courage, genius and faith of the builders, has erected this luminous lace of stones, wood and glass. This faith remains our own. Faith can move mountains and will allow us to rebuild this masterpiece.’
The archbishop went on to say, ‘We well know that we have not only to rebuild our cathedral but also to rebuild our Church, whose appearance has been so damaged.’
Notre Dame will rise again. How it will rise exactly is not our task. We shall pray for the archdiocese and for all those involved in the work. But the archbishop spoke not only of the church, his cathedral, rising, but of rebuilding the Church itself, the Church in France, which has struggled against the spirit of a formally secular nation for over a hundred years. It seems as though in the past few days there has been a great and in some ways surprising outpouring of grief and affection for this great church in France from people who regard themselves as Christians and many others who have nothing whatever to do with the Church. Maybe, this will be a turning point for the Church in France, which has such a strong and powerful history, for many centuries distinct in style, and even substance, within the universal Church.
This may lead us to some reflections this Easter Day on the place of our Christian faith within our own national life and within Europe. While the Church is growing rapidly in many countries in Africa and in other parts of the world, in Europe there has been decline in numbers of adherents, and to some degree in the United States as well.
What can we say? It is not enough for us to recognise the great numbers of people who join us for worship day after day here at the Abbey, people from many different parts of the world as from our own country and city. Going further, we can see movements of history, with the rise and fall of the Church through different stages of its history. It is certainly true that the numbers of people regularly worshipping in this country and in much of Europe has gradually declined over at least the past 50 years.
None of this should leave us downhearted. We are here today and our faith and trust in almighty God is encouraged by our presence, perhaps even revived.
When he died on the cross, Jesus Christ had been abandoned by almost all those who had cheered him on his triumphal entry to Jerusalem only a few days earlier. Most of them, it seems, were amongst those who shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Of his twelve closest followers, one, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him to the authorities and another, Peter, who would become known as the Prince of the Apostles, denied ever having known him. For the rest, they slunk away terrified that his fate would befall them too. According to St John’s Gospel only John the Beloved Disciple and the Mother of Jesus and a few other women stood by the cross of Jesus as he died.
Although the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples in the Upper Room, where they had eaten the Last Supper, none of them at that time dared to leave their place of safety and boldly declare to the crowds and to the authorities that Jesus was alive. They carried on in hiding for weeks, until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, who then drove them out at Pentecost. Thus the life of the Church began on slender beginnings. And, although a third of the world’s population profess to be Christians, we know how fragile is the Church, through the frailty of its adherents, through our own frailty.
Let us then recommit ourselves on this glorious Easter Day to close discipleship of our Lord, to seeking to be more conformed to his likeness, to be more faithful in following him, to daily prayer, to regular receiving of the sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Just as the risen Jesus showed his disciples his hands and his side, the marks of the nails, of his wounds, so he shows us today his own suffering, and the suffering of the Church his Body, as well as his glorious resurrection, and invites us to share both his suffering and his risen life.
Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!