A Homily for Easter Sunday
St Chad’s, Easter Day Homily 2012
The darkest hour, it is said, is the hour before dawn: the hour just before the first light of a new day appears in the eastern sky. Not many people are awake to experience it. It’s a special time reserved for shiftworkers, milkmen, fishermen, joggers, shepherds – and the sleepless. They are the people who see the gentle awakening of the new day. They might not talk about it, because they have other things on their minds; and in any case the dawn is an experience which it is difficult to put into words. Daybreak, and the deep darkness which precedes it, are better felt than described.
Sunset – well, that’s a different matter. Everybody knows what sunset is like. Photographers and artists, I dare say, have more sunsets than sunrises in their collections; and who has not marvelled as the summer sun sinks below the horizon of a favourite landscape or seascape. But, spectacular though sunset may be, it heralds the coming of darkness; the onset of might, and the eventual arrival of that darkest hour when all is still and even the moon and the stars seem to lose their reassuring brightness. One of my abiding memories of last summer is that of sitting on the western edge of the Gower peninsula, watching one of the most spectacular sunsets imaginable; riveted to the spot for the best part of an hour, until the last vestige of the sun’s disc sank beneath the sea, and the afterglow gave way to total darkness. As that happened, some words from Shakespeare’s Henry VI came to mind:
‘The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea;
And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night....’
Human experiences tell a similar story of the conflict between light and darkness; sunrise and sunset. Listen to conversations on the ‘bus, in the pub, in the supermarket queue, or on radio phone-ins, and you will soon hear the voices of ‘sunset people’ – those whose light seems always to be fading, people whose joys seem always to be in the past, those whose eyes are either unable or unwilling to look for a new dawn. Not even churches are immune from such attitudes of mind, and its debilitating, and quite literally, soul-destroying. For some there are of course understandable reasons, and who doesn’t enjoy the occasional trip down Memory Lane; but that’s not a place where we can live a healthy life for any length of time.
Two thousand years ago the disciples of Jesus were a sunset people. They had seen the sun go down over the Cross on Calvary’s hill on the first Good Friday, and again on the following day. All their hopes shattered and lying in ruins, there was nothing for it but to go back, back with all their memories, back to the jobs they had once had, and back to the places where they had lived before Jesus of Nazareth had drawn them into his circle of friends. Disillusionment, disappointment, even fear; nothing to look forward to, except perhaps that the dark shadow of the cross might fall upon them too if they stayed in Jerusalem. And so – back into the sunset.
But there were some who stayed in the city, those whose eyes - for whatever reason – strained towards the dawning of the third day. As St John tells us,
‘Early on the first day of the week,
while it was still dark,
Mary Magdalen came to the tomb,
and saw that the stone had been removed..
In that darkest hour before sunrise, and probably after a sleepless night, Mary Magdalen set out to pay her last respects to the body of Jesus; but for Mary that darkest hour brought more than just the gentle streams of first-light in the eastern sky. It was to be the most brilliant moment of her life. In tears she came to the garden, looking back no doubt to the days before Good Friday, and to what might have been; but there – at first light – she found what she least expected: an empty tomb, and the victorious Risen Christ.
Last night, some of us came to the Easter Vigil service, to light the New Fire, and to bring into this darkened church the Paschal Candle which burned up there in the chancel throughout the night and into the dawn of a new day. A reminder it is that as Christians we are the people of the day, not of the night; a sunrise people, looking ever forwards. Ant through the Church’s Liturgy, and specifically through the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, we declare to the people of today the wonderful acts of God who calls us – as St Peter says – ‘out of darkness into his own marvellous light’. That conflict between light and darkness, alluded to by St John at the very beginning of his Gospel, is now resolved: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it’.
We have to experience the new light of Easter for ourselves, for it contains God’s promise to love the world and its people in spite of the devastation of Good Friday, and even – dare I say – because of it. The dawn is unexpected and undeserved. It is a gift which should leave us as breathless as Peter and John were on that first Easter morning when they raced each other to the garden-tomb.
The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed! The whole church proclaims that afresh this morning; but there is a sense in which it has to be made true for us as individuals as well. Mary Magdalen’s cry of joy, ‘Rabbuni’,when she recognises Jesus for who he is, is not just ‘Master’ but ‘My Master’. In the same way, the apostle Thomas needed and received the same personal assurance that the Resurrection was real and not some piece of wishful thinking on the part of the others. And when he got the only assurance that would allay his doubts, Thomas’ reaction was not, ‘Oh yes, Jesus – it really is you after all!’, but ‘My Lord and my God’. The Easter dawn is for each of us in our different and individual needs, touching each with its warm glow, raising us up from our darkest hour – whatever that might be – and filling us with new life and new hope.
Today, we and our fellow-Christians the world over proclaim the victory of Christ as he comes to us in the Mass; and we ask that our lives may be transformed, as the bread and the wine are transformed at the altar, so that we may take his Risen Life with us into the world to which he offers hope of redemption. For our memorial of Jesus is not some monument of wood or stone, but a living memorial to a Living Lord. ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ Jesus said as he gave us the Holy Eucharist. Christ crucified, risen and glorified, yet here, and at all the world’s altars today, feeing his pilgrim people with the living bread of eternal life.
It is a time for new beginnings, of breaking out of the confines of the past, of shattered dreams and the ‘;might-have-beens’ that can imprison us and stunt our growth. I am reminded of an incident in the story of Harry Potter and the Philospoher’s Stone. If you’ve read the book or seen the film, you will know the one I mean. It’s the one where Harry discovers the secret room in the Library at Hogwarts and finds himself standing in front of a big mirror, the Mirror of Erised. And in that mirror Harry sees the reflection, not of things that are, but things that might have been if his life had followed a different course; dreams and illusions of a past that never was. Harry’s mentor, Professor Dumbledore, finds him standing there, and gently but firmly steers him away from the mirror of delusions. ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live – remember that, Harry’. It is all too easy for us as individuals – and even as a church - to dwell on things as they were in the past, or as we imagine them to have been, and become blinded to the opportunities of the present and future. The liberating message of Easter challenges us to break out from all of that, and to turn from the darkness to the sunrise.
Our realisation of Christ’s victory and our renewal in the Faith this morning must extend beyond these personal experiences of that glorious Easter sunrise. Mary Magdalen was quick to share the joy of that Easter dawn. ‘I have seen the Lord!’ We too are called to share the good news, to ‘go and tell’, as Mary did. We are an Easter people, a sunrise people, with much to offer to our part of the world which is in danger of losing its way and of not knowing the difference between darkness and light. Are was say, with St. Paul,’The life thaqt I now live is noy my life but the life which Jesus lives within me.’? If so, then we really can live as a surise people, and together we can give back to this world its joy, its hope and its life.
- Fr Michael Fisher