At Home at Easter
It’s still Easter! Christ is risen: Alleluia! We are Easter People, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song: yet we live in surreal and unique times.
The Church year is marked out not only by Holy Days and special readings and prayers, but also by particular hymns and songs. This means that as we approach Easter we look forward to singing those great Easter hymns: “Thine be the Glory”, and “Jesus Christ is risen today”. The unfortunate flip-side of this is that, just as it is considered odd to sing Christmas carols between New Year’s Day and December, the annual opportunity to sing Easter hymns is all too brief. Amidst all this we have missed our Easter hymn-singing, that great communal outpouring of celebratory praise to and about the risen Christ. And yet, every day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and every Sunday is a celebration and reminder of Easter day, that day when the crucified Jesus ‘burst his three-day prison’, rising to life and declaring the death of death. The spirit of Easter can and should be sung all year round.
Sadly, in order to slow down the infection rate, churches are still closed and clergy told to stay away.
The last time this happened was in 1208 when King John refused to accept Pope Innocent’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. So the pope put England under an ‘interdict’ which endured between March 1208 and May 1213, and clergy could not celebrate the sacraments. You’ll remember that Magna Carta was effectively a product of this intercinine strife and that was sealed in 1215. In 1348 the Black Death killed half the population of England. The Great Plague of 1665-6 killed an estimated 100,000 people, almost a quarter of London's population, in 18 months. The next bubonic plague pandemic known as the ‘Third Pandemic’ lasted from 1855 to as recently as 1960, emerging at various places in the world throughout that period. In the global influenza epidemic of 1918 approximately fifty million people around the world died. People felt symptoms in the morning and were dead by nightfall. In the United States bodies were picked up from front porches to be carted away to graves dug by bulldozers. A man was shot for not wearing a mask. That was just a century ago, to some extent a part of history shrouded by the First World War.
As I write this, (Friday 17th) the confirmed infection rate in the Enfield Borough is 570 cases out of a population of 333,869, which is nearly one in 600 of the population known to be suffering from a disease that can kill. In London 3377 have now died, some people we know among them. This is not good news: far from it. It isn’t over yet, and even if we are not infected we are affected: we are isolated at home, alone or in close company, and there is no exit strategy. And for the first time in living memory, we are being constantly told that what we do, how we behave, how we live, has a real impact on the life and death of others. We must not be the crowd who can thoughtlessly sentence others to death.
St John’s description of Easter Day has two parts, the second one of which is often overlooked or saved up for a week later. First comes the garden scene, when Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and fetches John and Peter, who go home quickly (v.10). Mary remains and meets Jesus whom she wrongly assumes to be the gardener. In saying her name, she recognises him and the isolation of grief is instantly lifted. Then, as the ‘apostle to the apostles’ as she is sometimes known, she rushes back to the Upper Room (scene of the Last Supper), to tell the others that she has ‘seen the Lord’ (v.18).
Mary has broken her self-isolation, walking to make an essential visit to Jesus’ tomb. Many cannot attend funerals or visit graves today. Mary left the family of the disciples closeted in their fearful self-incarceration. Their master, teacher and friend has been brutally killed and they wonder who will be next. They are hiding from an unseen, unpredictable, indiscriminate, deadly threat. For their own good and that of others, they are not stepping outside. They have no idea how long they should isolate like this, and they have no ‘exit strategy’ for ending their self-isolation together. They knew each other well, and the group dynamics may not have always been easy. Judas was gone: did they yet know he had committed suicide? (Matthew 27:3-10). Peter was no doubt in a ‘bad place’, having disowned Jesus a few days ago (Matthew 26:69-75). One wonders how these cooped-up Christians-to-be handled the emotional and spiritual pressure that weighed oppressively in that room on Easter Day. Thomas was having none of it. Was his a lone questioning voice in that full room near the empty tomb? Where had he been when Jesus first appeared: had he braved the lockdown to go and get supplies?
We know him as ‘doubting Thomas’, which is a bit of fake news really. We should call him ‘Believing Thomas’. For just as someone who scores the winning goal is known after the match as ‘goal scorer’ Bloggs, who ’in the thirty-third minute netted a perfect curling free kick’, Bloggs was a non-goal scorer before that moment, but no-one would call him ‘non-scorer Bloggs who left the pitch covered in mud’ after the thirty-third minute, would they? No, they would call him ‘goalscorer Bloggs’, or even ‘man of the match’. So let’s not call believing Thomas, ‘doubting’ Thomas any more. Isn’t he the man of the match?
Our stadiums, churches and shopping centres are empty, as empty as the tomb on the third day. Where has everyone gone? We are in our homes, fearful of an unseen enemy, wondering when it will end and hoping for some good news about an exit strategy. We are worried about ourselves and our loved ones. Some are in the isolation of grief as others die. Hundreds of people are dying every day. Let us remember them in our prayers.
For as Christians, we have a job to do at this time. Jesus has burst the ‘three-day prison’ of the grave leaving a tomb emptier than our streets. This is our faith and our hope. Others have lived and died through more challenging times than this, which is not to say the emotional, spiritual and physical challenges and privations are not significant. But with an Easter faith to celebrate, we are the lucky ones. The empty tomb gives us hope to pray for the time when we can fling wide our doors and share our faith again with those whom we can see and touch. Meantime we remember what happened on that Easter Day: Jesus came behind lockdown doors and offered the disciples peace and hope (v.19). He showed them the marks of passion which proved his resurrection, but like Mary in the garden (v.17), they did not touch him. Yet when he returned he invited Thomas to touch and hold Jesus. The time was right. It is important to be able to touch and hold others, their bodily presence is as important as emotional and spiritual presence. In the faith, hope and love the risen Christ gives us, we have all three: spiritual faith, emotional hope and loving touch. These three abide, and they abide, as the risen Christ himself does, in us, with us and through us. The ability to touch others again will be restored. Meantime we can infect others with faith, hope and love at huge distances, through walls and behind closed doors. And there is an exit strategy: resurrection life. That is truly Good News for all of us, at home or out and about, inside or out, now and always. For the risen Christ is with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). So we are Easter People, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song.
This Joyful Eastertide,
Away with Sin and Sorrow
My Love, the Crucified,
Hath sprung to life this morrow:
Had Christ, that once was slain,
Ne’er burst his three-day prison,
Our faith had been in vain:
But now hath Christ arisen.
My flesh in hope shall rest,
And for a season slumber:
Till trump from east to west
Shall wake the dead in number:
Death’s flood hath lost its chill.
Since Jesus crossed the river:
Lover of souls, from ill
My passing soul deliver:
Words: G.R Woodward (1848-1934)
Tune: THIS JOYFUL EASTERTIDE Charles Wood (1866-1926)
Give us your Easter joy O Jesus, and while we are distanced from others, draw us close to you, that when the doors of our isolation are flung open, we may burst out into a world blossoming with resurrection hope, faith and love. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 19/04/2020
(an abridged version of this appears on the Bible Reading Fellowship website)