Just before the school broke up, I took an assembly at St Michael’s School on the theme of Easter.
And I tried to tell the story straight. I took them through the events of Holy Week, including the Last Supper and Good Friday, and the empty tomb.
But I told one further story, which I suggested is a way to begin to get the point of it all. I told them the parable known as the Prodigal Son, a story in which a child who has wasted his inheritance and found himself far from home and in desperate straits decides to return. He says to himself that he will repent and apologise to his father when he gets there, but he doesn’t get the chance. His father sees him coming and rushes to meet him. This parable is behind the prayer we say most weeks, after communion.
‘Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
Dying and living he declared your love,
gave us grace and opened the gate of heaven.
Easter is God’s initiative. And in St Matthew’s Gospel this is made dramatically clear, in a way that is all noise and fury signifying something. We begin on a quiet early morning, before dawn, with the two Mary’s coming to see the tomb. But the silence and the peace of the early morning, no doubt accompanied by the dawn chorus, is shattered.
‘And suddenly there was a great earthquake.’
An angel descends from heaven to unblock the tomb. A very spectacular angel too, ike lightning in a snow blizzard. The vision knocks the guards unconscious. No wonder the angel says the same words to the women as they said to Mary at the Annunciation and to the shepherds at the Nativity.
‘Do not be afraid.’
This moment is a shock and just a beginning. And perhaps that needs to be emphasised too. If Easter is God’s initiative, Easter morning is only the point at which it begins. Where it will lead is not yet apparent. The consequences are not yet clear. As the angel says.
‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee.’
The letter to the Hebrews calls Christ the pioneer of salvation. R S Thomas refers to the ‘fast God, always ahead of us and leaving as we arrive’, and a popular hymn has Christ saying,
‘I’ll lead you all in the dance.’
Early Christian writers wrote about our full humanity being restored by God coming down to earth to lead us back to heaven. An idea that also appears in the prayer I quoted earlier. God ‘gave us grace and opened the gate of heaven. It is a very hopeful message, particularly in the light of its context. Christ might lead the way, but only after navigating the terrors of Holy Week. The road to heaven is paved with political expediency and religious controversy, love betrayed, unjust accusations, cruelty and abandonment.
One of my favourite novels is set in Crete at Easter, at the time when it was under Turkish occupation. The joy of the Greek crowds celebrating the resurrection on a spring morning is genuine, but not sentimental because danger is ever present. And possibly that is one of the reasons that Easter is such a powerful festival. It is not about forgetting or denying how bad things can be or how bad we humans can be, but about celebrating and cherishing how God can bring life out of all kinds of death, on account of Christ’s resurrection. That love will have the victory.
I will leave you with how the American writer John Updike put this, In vivid, visceral, and challenging words:
‘It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart…
regathered out of his Father’s might, new strength.’
Jesus Christ is risen.