Sermon for Procession, Blessing of the Easter Garden and High Mass Sunday 20 April 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses, EASTER DAY, 2014
Easter, a TV advert tells us, is the busiest time of the year for DIY: Do-it- yourself. A hint of spring is enough to get us thinking of improvements to home or garden, It is also, the ad goes on to say, a time for “doing things together.” The supermarket which commissioned it assures us, that it can provide us with everything we need, to do it ourselves in house and garden and to do it together.
So there we have it: the gospel and credo of consumerism in a sound-bite. I might have said, “Tesco ergo sum” – translated as “I shop therefore I am,” but this time it was Sainsbury’s promising us total fulfilment. And note that seductive suggestion that our shopping is given an air of virtue if we it’s so we can “do it together.”
Of course, the ad can only make such an all-embracing claim, by ignoring all aspects of life which fall outside the realm of homes and gardens and any needs which cannot be fulfilled by roast lamb, chocolate and a new kitchen to eat it in.
The gospel for Easter Day does feature a garden and a gardener, or at least someone who is mistaken for one. The garden is the one where the body of Jesus had been laid to rest before sunset on Good Friday evening, the eve of Sabbath. As soon as the day of rest was over, Mary Magdalene has returned there.
She was one of those faithful women who had remained beside the cross of Jesus, when most of the male disciples had run for cover. She was one of the little burial party, when Joseph of Arimathea had persuaded Pilate to hand over the body of Jesus, to give it a more reverent resting place than it would get from a Roman execution squad.
She had come, as soon as it was morning, “while it was still dark,” not clutching her gardening tools and purchases from the Damascus Road Garden Centre. The other gospels speak of a group of women, known to later tradition as the “Myrrh-bearers,” who go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. When she reports the shocking scene discovered there to the disciples, she says, “We;” a suggestion that for John she represents the group.
Mary Magdalene is not the fallen women of medieval tradition, which confused her with the woman of the city who anointed the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the Leper. She is a woman whom Jesus had healed. Then, in gratitude, she became one of those who accompanied and supported Jesus during his ministry.
Its end, in cruel death, had not just snuffed out his life; it had dashed the hopes of those he had gathered round him. Mary comes now to mourn the loss not just of her Teacher but of her hope. So, for her it was still dark in more ways than one.
But then, things begin to unfold as she could not have foreseen. At first, this shocks her profoundly. The tomb is open, the body gone. Has further insult and indignity been heaped on Jesus, even beyond death?
Mary can only think in terms of this world: Jesus has been a victim in death and then after death. First there had been the public humiliation of his execution, in a manner calculated to destroy his reputation. Now his body seems to have been stolen away, perhaps to be buried in an unmarked grave: “disappeared” in the language of Latin American death squads, so that the very memory of his existence would be erased and no cult could develop around him.
The questions Mary asks are rooted in this world’s understanding. She assumes there must be a down-to-earth, this-worldly answer, something practical she can do – find the body and take charge of it.
Mary had been healed by Jesus. The Gospel speaks of Jesus having cast out seven demons. This suggests some serious mental or personality disorder. She had been made a whole person again, the chaos in her life had been replaced by order; instead of the meaninglessness and futility, there is purpose and possibility.
But because of what has happened on Good Friday, all that seems threatened. Would Magdalene’s life slip back into what it had been before her encounter with Jesus? Would her new-found identity, the restored life which had been his gift to her, disintegrate now that he was gone?
Because we know how the story ends, her questions seem misguided even silly. But she is in the midst of it and doesn’t. So we need to lay aside our superiority and imagine ourselves in her place. When tragedy happens, hopes are dashed, life is cruelly snuffed out, our hearts are filled with emotions, our minds with questions; we are left confused. Like Mary, we find ourselves unable to recognise or grasp or understand the situation we are in. We struggle to make sense of it in terms of what we know.
All of us experience at one time or another, confusion and loss. We lose someone who has been dear to us; ambitions are frustrated, plans don’t work out, hopes fail to materialise. We think perhaps that such times and states are not conducive to prayer and worship. We ought to get ourselves together first, get ourselves sorted out, if we are to meet Jesus. But Mary on the first Easter morning shows us that this is not true. She’s in a mess but it is in that mess that Jesus comes to her. The risen Christ comes to her there and then. He does not wait until she has come to terms with her grief and regained some self-control. She does not have to do it herself. And such is her state that she is unable to recognise who is speaking to her.
Until Jesus speaks her name: “Mary.” It is the catalyst which brings recognition. That name which signifies the identity restored to her, the personality made whole, by Jesus, so that she could share in his ministry. At first that recognition is in terms of life as it had been before Good Friday. As anyone who had lost a loved one, say a child or a partner, and then found them again, will hold them fast, Mary takes hold of Jesus.
There are famous paintings of this incident called from the Latin translation, “Noli me tangere- do not touch me.” Our Holy Week preacher, Bishop John spoke of how the Latin version of the famous words from John 3.16, “God so loved the world” is “Sic Deus dilexit mundum _ God so delights in the world: that he gave his only Son,” captures something special which the English translation misses – God delights in his creation.
However in this case, the Latin gets it wrong. The Greek does not mean, “Do not touch me,” but “do not hold on to me.” Jesus is not reprimanding Mary for touching him; he is showing her that her new experience of him, as her risen Lord, is one which crosses old boundaries, opens new possibilities. Its outcome is her being sent to share what she has seen and heard with the disciples, to prepare them for that same experience of the risen Lord which will give them a mission too. So the restored life she had been given receives a new and ever-greater dimension.
So a woman, someone who could not be a witness in her world, becomes the first witness of a new possibility, a new reality, a new world, one which is sheer gift, something we could not have imagined, much less done for ourselves, that relationship with God, that communion, that “doing it together,” which St. John calls “eternal life.”
Like Mary, Christians have been coming to seek Jesus while it is still dark ever since. When I was a curate in Edinburgh our Easter Vigil was at 5.30 in the morning. This meant that the choir had to be there at 4.30 to practice. One year, three young chorister brothers, Nick, Tim and wee Patrick, set off from their home to walk up the Canongate to church, only to be stopped by a policeman wanting to know what lads their age were doing out at that time of the morning. “We’re going to church,” they replied, “It’s Easter Day.” In a city where God is assumed by most to be an elderly and respectable Presbyterian gentleman, one who is not used to being worshipped before 11 on a Sunday morning, this seemed a tall tale.
But the policeman gave them the benefit of the doubt and escorted them to the church, where their story was confirmed.
Christians have been seeking Jesus early in the morning, while it is yet dark, ever since:
- Literally, in the case of those who follow, as some of us do here, the tradition of praying early in the morning;
- Symbolically, in that we come to Jesus in the darkness, the sleepless nights of our confusion. Yet it is in that darkness or half-light that we find Jesus comes to us.
In the half-light of such wakeful dawns we may struggle bleary-eyed to recognise the one we meet and to understand what he is saying. We think at first, in terms of our own past experience and understanding. Then we find the limits of that understanding being stretched to breaking point and beyond. A reality we could neither have expected nor imagined breaks into our lives and changes them. Then things can never be the same again. And that experience of incomprehension leading to deeper understanding, or sorrow finding joy, is no one-off. It is repeated time and again if we come to Jesus. Encounter with him leads us into the new and unexpected.
Just as Jesus came to Mary and called her by name, so he speaks to us. He calls us by name in our baptism; he gives us our identity as children of God. More than that, he gives us a calling, a mission, a part in his continuing work: to go and tell his brothers and sisters, who are our brothers and sisters too, of the possibility of relationship with God, his Father and ours. In that life-transforming togetherness with him, the limitations of earthly life and death as we know them are transcended.
The risen Christ continues to speak to us here as we listen to his words in the Gospel. We hear his voice as he opens the scriptures to us and he makes himself known to us in the breaking of bread. Our hearts burn within us, as did those of dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus, when he opens the scriptures to us. We touch him here in the physical signs of bread and wine, the sacrament of his risen body and blood, in which we share his resurrection life and energy. And we are encouraged to return again and again to him in these means of grace, in these the chosen vehicles of his risen presence.
But if we accept that, then we must also hear the word which tells us that these things, these encounters, this relationship, are not just for our comfort and fulfilment, but to be shared with others who have not yet experienced them. We cannot cling to them any more than Magdalene could, for we must, as the advert says: “Do this together.”
“Go tell my brothers and sisters.”