The Revd Brutus Green
Allelujah: Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Allelujah.
I went running at the beginning of the week. Three minutes out the door I was coming into the park up the pebble dash and I tripped over my laces, landing in a dishevelled heap at the feet of some woman walking her dog. A friend of mine pointed out that I should have immediately looked up at the woman and said “I imagine you have men falling at your feet all the time.” Unfortunately, I was feeling too sorry for myself, licking my wounds like a cat, and embarrassedly apologizing to the woman for such a gratuitous and unseemly act of spontaneous self-harm. Unnecessary apologizing is a particularly silly habit of the English.
Anyway, I know what you’re thinking, how could such a dreadful thing happen to such a godly, prayerful, athletic young man? Well, given the fact that God sewed on my feet at unusual and impractical angles and gave me the sense of balance of a one-legged rhinoceros, I think it’s fair to say that God is culpable in this situation. You might though argue that some good will come out of it; that I will receive the consolation of my friends; that the wounds will make me stronger. But when I somewhat dramatically registered my humiliation on Facebook, commenting that I wished I was dead; my brother “liked” my status; and several other friends lambasted my stupidity for exercising in the first place. And I didn’t get stronger, I just got grumpy.
C.S. Lewis wrote of creatures, that they “cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence.” The philosopher Thomas Hobbes was more concise in describing the ‘life of man’ as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. I like to think that no more than three of those words apply to me. Luckily for half the congregation, both those writers were apparently talking about ‘man’.
What is perhaps even more strange about Christians, though, is that every year they insist on telling in forthright detail the account of a betrayal by a close friend, a lynching, a show-trial, torture and an execution. One can complain about video games, horror movies, Sky News and Come Dine with Me; but telling the Passion is apparently done for our spiritual benefit.
But it’s this story of death and life that is the heart of our faith. The three days from Good Friday to Easter, today, are the pivot of history, not in a linear sense of the year 33 being significant but because the way we look at the cross determines how we see life. If we remain in Good Friday - the world in which God is dead - the cross is victorious. For sin, victory is violence and the successful assertion of power; and so the cross is victory. But If we make the transition to Easter the cross is still victorious. Because for love victory is vulnerability and so the cross is victory. Good Friday, the cross, is ‘the figure of judgement in the reality of victory’. Either we are for violence or we are for love. Either we believe that violence wins the day or that love does.
The fact that we are here celebrating Easter is a declaration that we are for love and not for violence. But this is not a simple transition to make. The whole purpose of Lent and Holy Week is to try and condition ourselves first of all to the reality of sin. We enter the desert - suffering and temptation. Resisting biscuits and cupcakes. On Palm Sunday and Good Friday we hear the long story of the passion. We know the story, but unless we enter into it again our hearts grow cold to it. It becomes a fairytale, or worse - history - something that happened to other people a long time ago.
While Bryan has throughout Lent eaten them by the dozen, the vicar and I broke our fasts with a cupcake on Tuesday to remind us to be humble. It tasted bitter with failure, but delicious. And it was the right thing to do because that sense of pride, particularly approaching Easter, the sense of achievement that fasting brings, is taken away from you - a bit like if you’ve been suffering to lose weight but the scales haven’t noticed and accuse you of eating biscuits in your sleep. But failure helps us to enter the story, because as we arrive on the Easter morning, all the disciples have betrayed him. All have abandoned him. All have failed. ‘God will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ We can only approach Easter from this position - with sticky fingers and lips - from the foot of the cross; the victory of sin, the victory of violence.
And we see this in the reactions of the disciples on Easter morning. The beloved disciple is hesitant to enter the tomb. They go home not knowing what has happened. In some gospels they are terrified. Mary weeps with grief. As disciples, the realities of our lives, our consciences and our bodies, are suddenly spotlighted. The world is a reality dominated by violence. And we also have sinned against God and against our neighbour. Look at the world experienced by the poor, the sick and the unhappy, look at the disturbing decay of our own bodies, our troubled consciences and doubt. The world is replete with suffering. Everything’s not ok.
When a hen is hurt the other hens will rush upon it, attacking it with their beaks. Most people, not necessarily consciously, despise the afflicted. Walk down Edgware Road and you will see the afflicted and be helpless. What are you going to do? Does it make you angry? Upset? Guilty? Resentful? How do you feel about the person making you feel this? Affliction turns people into things. We can no longer relate to them, it freezes our emotions. Children, who are by nature more egalitarian, can often show us up here, when we have lost curiosity and compassion.
Worse is when we ourselves face affliction. If we are not careful we become complicit with it. We stop trying to improve our situation and don’t seek to escape it - it becomes a parasite living off us, happy with our unhappiness. I am really badly arachnophobic yet if I know there is a spider or a picture of one near, I will torture myself by making myself look at it. It will make me anxious, sleepless and upset but still I do it and can’t tear myself away. Someone once suggested to me I see a psychiatrist about the phobia and I was horrified. Somewhere deep in my wonky brain I believe that this affliction protects me. This is the victory of sin. It is the darkness at noon of Good Friday. Crucifixion.
But those who can make the passover to Easter morning, will encounter the victory of love. Mary, standing outside the empty tomb, is beside herself with grief. So much so that she doesn’t recognise Jesus. When the soul is caught in affliction it’s first reaction is to hold on to it, even at the cost of shutting out the world. For the afflicted, then, love’s victory is surprising. And Easter should surprise us. As the risen Jesus is at first unrecognized by Mary and the disciples so can we surprise ourselves and our neighbours by sharing this risen life - by being present at someone else’s dark night of the soul at Good Friday. With the harrowing, the emptying of Hell on Holy Saturday, when Jesus is buried in the tomb, no place is left on creation that is separated from the love of God - how do we inhabit this love, and how do we share it with others?
Because Easter is just pretty words and empty bubbles of champagne unless we can adjust the way we see the world. The philosopher Simone Weil wrote that ‘love is a direction and not a state of soul.’ Which is to say that no matter the situation, love faces towards Easter and not good Friday. At the foot of the cross it looks and sees the victory of vulnerability and not the victory of violence. To be concrete, it means looking at suffering and not turning away - it means really believing in reconciliation and trying to make it happen, where we can. When we see someone suffering how do we feel, what do we do? To treat someone as your equal who is far beneath you has the order of a sacrament; it is to wash their feet; it is to accept God’s justice. Likewise if we see our own suffering from the perspective of love, it can be transformed into empathy with others and solidarity with Christ.
And the place where this should begin is church. Because receiving the eucharist is receiving Christ’s resurrected body, it is to be part of Easter life. What we receive, shoulder to shoulder, in the sacrament is reconciliation with God and one another; the joy of resurrection life in the belief that nothing, much less our day to day squabbles and pains should separate us either from God or one another. If you look around you can see the memorials of people who lived, worked and died here all around the building. Churches are the only buildings where you are physically surrounded by the dead. I’ve spent a good bit of time in the crypt this week digging up Easter stuff. Andrej practically lives there; and again it’s full of the dead. If we’re still at Good Friday that makes this a creepy, hellish place to be, reminded of the inevitable, lonely suffering that leads to the grave. But if we’re looking towards the Easter morning, we see ourselves reconciled with all the multitude of the saints, and all creation, rejoicing in the love of God. Let us then no longer be strangers; let us put off being grumpy from our aches and pains, let us have a glass of fizz; and let us keep looking to Easter and the victory of love.
Allelujah: Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Allelujah.