The Revd Brutus Green
L’homme est né libre et partout il est dans les fers.
"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they"; the striking first line of Rousseau’s most famous work The Social Contract. Looking at the lives of our politicians, you have only to think of Boris Johnson’s last interview to see his point. All our social relationships make pulls on us, controlling and conforming us in various ways. Actually it is the man or woman who has nothing left to lose who has the most freedom; once you have renounced the world, its people and judgements, you have only yourself to satisfy.
When I think of Christmas, I think of it as a reminder that the universe has meaning; it is beautiful and has a secret Love at its centre. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ - that great cosmological vision of our St John that says with the first stroke of creation, the heart of the singularity that lit the big bang, was 50 billion shades of Love exploding out into the world. In all the magic of midnight mass, in the candles, the liturgy and music, pulses this affirmation of hidden, structural love making the world go round. Given the weather we had discussed having ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ as our first hymn. We might not be remembering Christ’s humble birth but there is something of this magic at 4am on a Saturday night in a world of snow on snow on snow. The divine love here revealed and hidden, not in a child and a stable, but on a cross and in an empty tomb.
When I think of Easter though I think of freedom. Now I’m sure you’re thinking that Easter is really about eggs and bunnies and some sort of bargaining done by God and the devil in order to buy our souls; or even salvation and the afterlife; but all these are just distractions or abstractions. Easter is really about a fundamental, tangible expression of freedom. If you didn’t doze off during the vigil (or have a little lie-in like the organist) you heard a set of stories, all concerning the history of the free person. The Genesis stories tell how humanity was born free but became everywhere in chains. The story of the flood creates space between humanity and an authoritarian concept of God, allowing freedom from arbitrary destruction. The exodus story is The story of political liberation from bondage. The heart of flesh replacing the heart of stone, concerns freedom from the past and sin. The resurrection of the dry bones concerns the restoration of the people of Israel: ‘our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’. And now, ‘This is the paschal night’, the passover, where we are ‘freed from defilement’, we are ransomed, the chains of death are broken; the night has become as clear as the day as ‘the morning star has risen never to set’.
But if this is not some metaphysical abstraction, what does it mean to say that because of Easter we are free? Well, if we have gone through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we have passed through death. The church is dismantled, we have walked to the cross with Jesus and ended up at the tomb. At this moment we are dead men (and women) walking. ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ And yet the person at the point of death has no chains except death itself.
This is why Easter is the story of perfect freedom. We are about to pass from death back into life. We’re at this strange cuckoo hour when apart from a dog somewhere nonchalantly barking, a couple of kebab shops on Edgware Road, the world is asleep, awaiting its recreation alarm bells. I love this in-between time because it’s a time - if you’re awake - when actually anything feels possible. It is the time of freedom to be the person you choose. It is added time. So what we might consider this pre-morning is what are those chains which we have burdened ourselves with? Right now you are dead people, free people. When you walk into the hall to collect your champagne and bacon butties you will emerge back into life. But the chains that you walk in with are of your own choosing and God wants you to be free.
That is not to say that you should relax into thoughtless selfishness, filling your handbag with treats and telling the vicar what you really think of him. There is a freedom from here, a freedom from constraint; but also a freedom to - a freedom to be yourself in the image of God, as you were created. The most serious constraints to which we are tied are those that pull us into ourselves. The chains of anxiety and insecurity, which chain our eyes to our problems, the chains of acquisitiveness and vanity which chain us to objects and appearances, the chains of selfishness and pride which chain us to the relentless drive of our own ego. Discovering who we are entails learning to be free with ourselves, to look beyond ourselves and be free-handed with what we have and are. That is the freedom of the resurrection.
When we talk about the end of a person’s life we might mean two things. We might be talking about the last moments. We might be talking about the overall meaning upon which the life hangs; the ultimate end of our life being the point, the reason. Coming through Good Friday is a reckoning with both of those questions, and the celebration of Easter is the affirmation that the end of all things is God, and God is reconciling, forgiving, sacrificial love; a love, that if we can take hold of it, actually is perfect freedom.
So now we are here at the empty tomb, like Mary Magdalene, arriving while it was still dark. We may be like the male disciples, returning to our homes in confusion, or like Mary we can remain a little longer. For Mary the Easter experience was first of all a liberation from grief - grief that prevents her from seeing what God is doing, from recognizing Jesus, and grief that makes her cling to Jesus. Being set free, she is released to be sent to the other disciples as the first person to proclaim the risen Lord.
There are many things we may wish to be set free from this Easter. It may be grief, it may be fear of death for ourselves or another. It may be a false god - an authoritarian disciplinarian who keeps us as spiritual infants; we may need to be set free from self-indulgence in any of its many forms; I am quietly aware of my failure to lose any weight for Reckless Giving this Lent. Perhaps we need to take a moment to consider our relationships with others and our own sense of self-perception and self-worth. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. But tonight you have died with Christ and are risen again, a new creation. You are free to love and be loved should you choose to cast off these chains.
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
I was buried yesterday with thee, O Christ;
but today I rise, resurrected with thee.
Yesterday I crucified myself with thee, O Savior.
Now glorify me with thee in thy kingdom.