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Easter Vigil at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sermon by

The Most Reverend Andrew S. Hutchison, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada

The Gospel we have just heard – from St. Mark – takes us on Easter morning to the tomb in which the body of Jesus had been sealed. We are there with Mary of Magdala who has shown such loved towards Jesus, with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Salome. They have come to provide the traditional decencies surrounding death, which the haste and trauma of recent events had not permitted.  They were being faithful to tradition, doing all that they could or knew how to do at such a time.  And as they did so they grieved.   It was an act of devotion undertaken in great faith, quite possibly at some risk to their safety, and certainly to their reputation. The disciples, as far as we know, were at this point in hiding, behind locked doors, for fear of the authorities. 

The reward of their faithfulness was an astounding discovery.  Jesus, who had been sealed in the tomb, was nowhere to be found.  He was risen, and they were told he would be found out there in the world – in Galilee.  He had gone ahead, and could be found by his disciples there.

Whenever I hear this story I am reminded of a beloved former verger of Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal – Ken Richardson.  In describing his job, he used to say with a twinkle in his eye: “Every morning I unlock the cathedral door, and let God out into the city.  Then in the evening when it is time to lock up, I sometimes have a terrible time convincing him to come back in”.  The reality, of course, is that no tomb, no building, no religion, not even death itself is able to contain the living God.  And that is the discovery of those three faithful women on this Easter morning.  The appearances and experiences of the Risen Christ that follow in the Gospels are many, and variously reported.  So much is that true that we are left with a mystery much larger than words can contain or explain.  The unmistakable and compelling reality, however, is that the dead Jesus has become the living Christ, and brought into being a people empowered by the resurrection whose witness continues to grow, and bring new life and hope to the world 2000 years later.

If Christians have sometimes been guilty of trivialising death because of Christ’s resurrection, we have done a serious disservice to ourselves, and to those who have experienced our Gospel as superficial.  A religion that does not take seriously into account the reality of death does not speak to our human condition.  Our experience of dying and death is too persistent to be denied.  Death comes to us all in the lives of those we love, and in our own bodies.  More than that, we live with the constant procession of little deaths through a lifetime – the end of a promising career or relationship, the simple passing of the stages of life from childhood to adulthood to old age.  The disillusionment, frustration, and loss we experience in a thousand ways while we await our own end all contribute to our experience of dying.  A religion that serves only to support the avoidance and denial for which our society is known does not meet us at our deepest level of spiritual need, and ultimately becomes irrelevant.  To leap to the resurrection without entering into the deep reality of human suffering and dying is in effect to trivialise life as we experience it.

What is true for us individually is true also for the institutions and systems we construct to serve the needs of our time and place in history.  We go to great lengths to avoid and deny the reality of their dying, long after they have outlived their fundamental purpose and effectiveness.  A recent book by Chuck Meyer is entitled Dying Church, Living God. In it the author argues that the Church in the form and theological formulas that have been so familiar to us, and served us so well for so long is dying.  And it is our persistent avoidance and denial of that truth that stands in the way of resurrection.  Pouring new wine into old wineskins is a response that has a short lived and predictable result.  Certainly there is much evidence in the last half of the 20th Century in our land to support that conclusion.  Does our faith give us the courage to meet the reality of the death of the Church, or even a part of the Church?  If it does not, then it does not speak to what we are experiencing as a community of faith.

Easter is not a stand-alone event – an excessive celebration that makes us feel good.  Its compelling power for us is drawn from the events of Holy Week.  That was our opportunity to enter into the depths of the human experience with Christ, to go the way of his suffering to death, and to the coldness of the tomb.  We were baptised into the death of Christ.  That is, we undertook a lifetime process of immersion into his experience of our broken humanity and its consequences.  When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whatever its form for us, it is God in Christ who walks with us every step of the way, though there be times when we feel forsaken, as did Jesus on the cross.  In faith we walk the distance, with courage drawn from the profound love that accompanies us.  God’s love is real and powerful enough to allow us our sense of distance and even of the divine absence. In a mysterious way that honours our humanity.

The gift of Easter is that the life of God ultimately will not be denied.  Jesus, who died and spent three days in a tomb, is alive for evermore in the resurrection experience.  His life is poured out into his people for all time.  The victory is won.  To die with Christ in the little deaths of everyday life is to be raised with Christ in the little resurrections of our experience.  As real, unavoidable and undeniable as death is, it is never the final word.  The final word is a whole new reality empowered by the Light of the Risen Christ who is alive in our hearts, and in the life and witness of the community of faith.  The grieving women were guilty of neither avoidance nor denial, but with great courage came to the place of death to attend to a corpse that had been dead long enough to make it an unpleasant task.  And because they did so, they received the full impact of the revelation of Christ’s resurrection.

Could it be that our courage and faithfulness in the face of adversity will bring us to a similar revelation; He is risen. He goes before you into the new millennium, and into the rest of your life. You will meet him there, as he promised.

The resurrection means for us the beginning of our re-creation.  We become new persons being refashioned from within.  The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  We shall begin to see through new lenses, as it were both death and life.

In the words of the Abbe Michel Quoist,

 

The father has put us into the world, not to walk
with lowered eyes, but to search for him through

things, events, people. Everything must reveal God to us

Long prayers are not needed in order to smile at

Christ in the smallest details of daily life.

When we celebrate the birthdays of the saints, and at the Eucharist remember those who have died, it is not the anniversary of their arrival in the world that we mark, but their arrival into the new and risen life in Christ.

 

He is not here. He is risen….He is going before you

to Galilee. There you will see him, as he told you.

May those words empower us to glorify God in our living and in our dying that his kingdom may come and his will be done among us, as it is in heaven.

 

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