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Sermon: Easter Day Evensong 2015

Nicholas Thistlethwaite
Sunday 5th April 2015
Choral Evensong
Download Recording (MP3, 12.4M) Download

Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet, wrote a poem which both catches the mood and unfolds the meaning of Easter in a particularly striking manner:

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day,

Didst make thy triumph over death and sin:

And having harrow’d hell, didst bring away

Captivity thence captive, us to win:

This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,

And grant that we for whom thou diddest die

Being with thy dear blood clean wash’d from sin,

May live for ever in felicity.

And that thy love we weighing worthily,

May likewise love thee for the same again:

And for thy sake that all like dear didst buy,

With love may one another entertain.

So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,

Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

The exhuberance, the vitality, the sheer joyousness of Spenser’s poem is infectious.  It is a shout of praise – a proclamation of victory: a declaration that Christ has finally dealt with sin, and that today we greet this ‘most glorious Lord of life’ like a conquering hero, as he rises from the grave.  It reminds us, too, of the deep meaning of what Christ has done for us.  Love is the meaning: the invincibility of love.  Love which we must return by loving him and loving all for whom he died (the whole of humanity).  If we learn our lesson, we shall come to share his risen life and to know his felicity.  Our long journey through Lent and Passiontide is ended.  The sorrows of Good Friday are past.  We emerge into the light: the light of the risen life.  ‘Joyous day’, indeed.

Easter, then, is no time for gloom and despondency.  ‘This joyous day … with joy begin’, writes Spenser.  The Christian who doesn’t feel a certain joyful tingling of the toes and acceleration of the heart-beat this day of all days has missed the point.  But, although Easter is a special case, our faith should be characterised at all times by joy.  Quiet joy, sometimes: a more exhuberant joy at others.  But always joy.  In Jesus’s words from St John’s Gospel: ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’, On Easter Day the promise was fulfilled, and we, if we are truly Easter people (as we should be) must not conceal our joy.

Perhaps it is English reticence, but other traditions seem often better than our own at expressing this Easter joy.  Osbert Lancaster described the Easter ceremonies of the Orthodox Church, as he experienced them in Athens sometime before the last war.  His description of Holy Saturday (Easter Eve) neatly captures the mood:

Towards midnight, the space opposite the great west doors of the cathedral … is gradually filled by an immense crowd … A few minutes before midnight the Archbishop emerges attended by two deacons … and mounting the platform begins the reading of the Gospel.  By now a deathly hush … has fallen on the vast crowd, which is maintained unbroken until, on the stroke of midnight, the Bishop pronounces the words, ‘Christos aneste’, ‘Christ is risen’.  At this the night is rent by a wave of sound in comparison with which all the noises to which one has grown accustomed on other days of the year are as tinkling cymbals.  A massed choir and two brass bands burst into powerful, though different, songs of praise; the guard of honour presents arms with a crash unrivalled even in the Wellington barracks; every bell in the city, ably assisted by air-raid sirens and factory whistles, clangs out the good news, while the cheering crowds greet their Risen Lord with a barrage of rockets, squibs, Roman candles, Chinese crackers, and volley after volley of small-arms fire discharged by such of the devout – a not inconsiderable number – who have come to the ceremony armed.

Beside that, the average Anglican congregation, suited, neatly marshalled in rows, and singing ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’, appears a little staid.

Yet reflect, if you will, what it is we are celebrating.  ‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’,  writes St Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (15:13).  The resurrection, in other words, is what makes the difference.  If it is not true, then nothing has changed, and we are still left contemplating human sinfulness and failure, with no recourse, no hope.  It follows that we cannot afford to be agnostic about the resurrection.  If Jesus was simply another prophet, another teacher, it makes some difference, but not much.  But if Jesus is the Son of God, as his disciples came to believe, and if he was indeed raised from the dead, then it makes all the difference in the world.  Paul puts it bluntly enough: ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (15: 19-20).

And there is the authentic, deep-down reason for our Easter joy.  Not only has God raised Jesus from the dead by a mighty act of power, but he has raised us, too.  Christ is the first-fruits, the first-born from the dead.  But in his love, he calls us to share in that same risen life – to become part of God’s harvest: fruits of his new world order.

Last night, at the Easter Liturgy, the Paschal Candle was blessed by the Bishop at the west end of the Cathedral, and then carried to its place of honour … as the resurrection was proclaimed.  The Candle bears the symbols of Christ’s Passion (his Cross), and of his lordship (alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, reminding us that Jesus described himself as alpha and omega, the beginning and the end).  It tells us that the faith into which we are baptised at the font is the Easter faith.  Through baptism we share in Christ’s death; through baptism we are brought to new life in him.  The Cross and the Resurrection are the signposts which point us to the nature of the Kingdom which Christ came to inaugurate: a Kingdom in which despair gives way to hope, and in which apparent defeat is transformed into victory.  A Kingdom which challenges all our human assumptions, in which weakness is strength, and folly proves to be wiser than all the world’s so-called wisdom.   

And so, today, we celebrate with all the joy and exhuberance and vitality that we can summon, the inauguration of this new Kingdom,   praying that we may learn Christ’s lesson of love, and may ever greet him in our hearts as that ‘most glorious lord of life’, who has won for us the victory.

So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,

Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.