The Revd Brutus Green
It’s a story every child knows from the age of Sunday school. The lead character is forced out into the wilderness, gathers a troop of odd followers, before being betrayed by someone they should have been able to trust, and left for dead. Then when all seems lost and the body is laid out for death - the miracle of love brings resurrection. The handsome prince kisses Snow White back to life, the twelve, sorry seven dwarves rejoice, the wicked step-mother, whose serpent-like apple betrayed Disney’s first princess, falls off a cliff, and she marries the handsome prince.
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has stood at the heart of Western culture for two thousand years. That’s two thousand years of stories growing up like vines around it, repeating its shape, twisting the plot a little, shaping the imagination of children and adults alike, from the medieval mystery plays to The Matrix, from Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur through the Lord of the Rings and Narnia to Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises.
On that note - the best joke of 2012 - What do you call it when Batman doesn’t turn up to church at Easter?
All of which is not to say that Warner Brothers are secret evangelists trying to convert the world to Christianity with hidden Christian messages; if anything it’s the opposite - the deeper resonance of the resurrection story gives these films a sense of authenticity and a wider cultural reference - like this poetic turn of phrase from the Brothers Grimm: ‘it seemed as if a stone had been rolled from [the huntsman’s] heart since it was no longer needful for him to kill [Snow White]’.
Despite Mr Cameron’s testifying, we hear all the time of the fading impact of Christianity on culture. I read only a few days ago that Oxford City Council had shut down a theological college’s Passion Play because they thought it was a sex show.
I’ve always said that Oxford is a godless town.
The Daily Mail attacked Health and Safety culture quoting anonymously, "You can’t hold a crucifixion these days without a licence.” The organisers apologised that the crucifixion would not take place this year due to ‘an intractable situation’. The local vicar said “it’s very upsetting because so many people were looking forward to it.” Perhaps this suggests that the lasting impact of two thousand years of Christianity will be the enduring shape of romantic comedies: a romance building slowly over time - think When Harry met Sally - culminating in a triumphant Palm Sunday moment - probably when they first sleep together - followed by the total crucifixion crash of misunderstanding and falling out - resolved in the joyful resurrection resumption of coital activity, or perhaps an engagement.
But despite Oxford, the Passion and Resurrection are not really about sex. Nor are they really about Batman being thrown down into a hellish prison, then getting super-buff and saving the people of Gotham in a self-sacrificial act. They are not even about Aslan getting shorn or Gandalf overcoming the Balrog. The resurrection is not even really about Good overcoming Evil. The Bible is less mythic - it knows that the bad things that happen in the world are about justifiable choices. The resurrection is not about the judgement of evil, but the judgement of politics.
So in all those superhero stories, all full of echoes of the Messiah - Superman, Batman, She-Ra whoever - you have clearly identified forces of evil, just like the orc hordes who as ugly, stupid creatures must be evil - right? But in the Gospel, as in life, it’s not so clear - if anything, everyone’s a little bit evil. So even the wicked High Priest - a textbook villain - Disney would have him overweight with purple trousers and narrow yellow eyes - the High Priest only says that Jesus must die because he has heard from God that it’s ‘expedient that one man die for the people’.
And who are we to fault him on this? There’s an excellent novel by John Fowles called The Magus. In it he presents a classic moral scenario: the population of a small Greek Island, occupied by the Nazis, is brought together in the town square. A number of them have committed acts of resistance but no one has admitted to it. The mayor is brought forward, given a gun and told that he must kill two people or the entire island will be massacred.
Should he do it? If it’s a choice of two or two hundred lives? Who should he choose?
The mayor, being a politician, makes the political decision and pulls the trigger. But there’s no bullets. The Nazis smile at him. It’s one thing to pull a trigger as an expedient decision. If you have to really get your hands dirty it’s another thing. But this is the nature of all politics. If you’re making decisions that affect hundreds, thousands or millions of people, there will be those who suffer grievously as a result. Those who slip through the net. And they’ll probably be others who’ll profit enormously at very little effort.
And this is also true of our decisions. The ever fragile balance of human relationships means that saying yes to one means saying no to others. You only get to marry one person. And even then that means two mothers to try and keep happy. And in all the mess of work, friendship and family we make mistakes, get our priorities wrong, take paternity leave at the busiest time of the year, or ignore our families, and end up letting people down. The resurrection doesn’t really make this any easier. It is in its own way a happily ever after. But it’s deferred - it’s only a foretaste, a promise of what’s to come. It is a sign of hope that for all the chaos of life there will be a restitution in the end. Peace at last. Like Fernando Sabino wrote: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay it’s not the end.”
This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to live with. It is the business of faith - So when the beloved disciple runs to the tomb in today’s Gospel, we’re told “he saw, and he believed”. But what did he see? Just some wrapped up linen. He saw nothing, and he believed. And when in the next sequence doubting Thomas finally believes only when he sees the marks of Jesus’ wounds and places his fingers inside them, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. But not seeing and believing isn’t always easy. As one anxious royalist wrote to the Times last week: “Wednesday’s paper did not have a photograph of the Duchess of Cambridge. I do hope she’s alright.”
For some faith comes easily, almost as a kind of vision. So Blake famously wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
It’s about seeing the world as more than just stuff - material; seeing creation as something which has a purpose and so will not be forgotten or lost. Seeing what is eternal in what is ephemeral.
The resurrection does not do away with the injustices of life, it doesn’t diminish the ills of politics on a large or a small scale. Christ has still been crucified and bears the wounds to eternity. We take our scars and our experiences - for better and worse they make us who we are. But the resurrection means that all these things are held before God. They are understood, forgiven, and we will be given the wisdom to forgive and move from a world of compromises, of politics and imperfections to a world of love - as we move from seeing in a glass darkly to seeing face to face.
So Easter is like a fairy tale. But it doesn’t have real fairy tale justice. The resurrection doesn't make the crucifixion worthwhile - like some Herculean endurance test. The resurrection does away with justice and replaces it with love. And unlike fairy tales it asks that we truly believe. That we rise above the people of Oxford and the more dull and ignorant servants of secularism. We may not escape the politics of this world for now, the squabbles over the lamb at the family Easter table, decisions of whether to get married in France or England, who to send out to buy the missing mint sauce. Nor will the situation in Syria and the Ukraine be resolved over a lovely Easter Sunday, or the missing loved ones from the South Korean ferry or MH370 return to their families. But Easter is about hope, and the belief that love is stronger than death. It is the reminder that if it’s not okay, then it’s not the end. And in Jesus coming back to share the peace with the disciples, it is the ancient promise that despite our troubles, despite our griefs, there is a happily ever after. Amen.