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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Life Can Begin Again: a sermon on Easter Day

On Easter Monday 1917, in northern France, the British and Commonwealth forces launched the Easter Offensive against the German line. The Battle of Arras cost over 160,000 British. One of them was a soldier who was serving in the Artists’ Rifles. He was one of the great poets of his generation. Among his closest friends was Eleanor Farjeon who wrote the song ‘Morning has Broken’, a woman who was more than a little in love with him. As Holy Week began Edward, holed up in his trench, received an Easter gift. Eleanor’s poem tells the story. 

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You like to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said. 'I will praise Easter Monday now -
It was such a lovely morning'. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, 'This is the eve.
'Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon'.

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve,
There are three letters that you will not get.

Deceptively simple, it charms us until we get to the last line and realise what it conceals. That painted Easter egg (or was it chocolate?), kept for a week with such anticipation was possibly the last thing he ever ate. A few hours later on that Easter Monday Edward Thomas would be dead, struck down by a rogue shell as he was lighting his pipe.

There are three letters that you will not get. Think of the millions of letters those who fell in battle would never get. This is the first Easter of this Great War centenary that began last summer. I doubt if you came here wanting to be reminded of war on Easter morning. It was such a lovely morning Edward had written. Perhaps on a beautiful spring day in Picardy where, even in the desert of the front line a daffodil or two might dare to raise its head, perhaps Edward could forget the war for an instant. Maybe it’s possible as we keep this beautiful and holy feast in the Cathedral to forget the conflicts of our own time for an hour.  

Or so we think. But we must not leave those worries outside the church door. ‘Lest we forget’ matters just as as much on Easter Day as it does on Remembrance Sunday. Let me say why. Like the poem, St John’s Gospel takes us back to a garden. Peter and John come running to Jesus’ tomb. They find the stone rolled away, the cave empty. But someone else has been there all along, ever since before dawn: Mary Magdalen, the woman who had loved Jesus so intensely. When the two men go back she stays there, ‘weeping outside the tomb’. On that first Easter morning there are tears, just as there are tears today for so many in our world. But then comes the wonderful moment of recognition. She thinks the stranger is the gardener, wants to know where he has taken the body. ‘And Jesus said to her…’ But how do you possibly put into a word all that is conveyed as he calls her by her name. At that instant she understands, and believes. After the terrible ordeal of God Friday when she had stood close to the cross watching Jesus die, she has a rush of conviction, a surge of hope. Rabbouni! she exclaims.

This Easter garden is full of symbolism. Go and visit ours in the Galilee Chapel of this Cathedral. In one way it’s the beauty of spring time, the yearly marvel of nature’s renewal. ‘The winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.’ But it’s much more than that. This garden takes us back to creation when, said the ancient story, God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam there to look after it. St John is saying to us: here is a new paradise, indeed, a new world, a new creation. And yes, Jesus is indeed the gardener, just as Adam was, for this Last Adam comes into his garden on the first day of the week to begin his great work of re-making the world as God wants it to be. Morning has broken, like the first day. The day after Jesus has finished what he came to do, and has kept the Sabbath and rested in the tomb, the week begins all over again with a sunrise of wonder that heralds a new dawn for the world. It brings a new hope to raise up broken spirits. And with it the promise that the risen Christ will one day make all things new.

At Easter in 1917, like first century Judaea and our own 21st century, there are tears. They may be tears of personal grief and loss like Mary’s, like the bereaved who have lost cherished loved ones, with memories of Easters past that come flooding back this morning. This morning I am grieving a good colleague and friend I suddenly lost a week ago and trying to share the heartache his wife and children are going through. I am thinking of Jewish people keeping Passover this week like our ancestors, in fear of the future; thinking too of Christians under the iron fist of Islamic State who will celebrate Easter in terror; and Christian refugees far from home in Turkey and Jordan, and the families of the students in Kenya shot without mercy last week because they were Christians and not Muslims. Is it possible that human beings can be so cruel? If we have any feeling for humanity, our hearts break for the pain of the world. Just as God’s heart must break too as he weeps over us.

Yet Easter says to you, to me, to all of us, to the entire human family if only it would listen: do not lose heart. Do not be afraid. Reawaken the hope you once had. Or if you never had it, if hope has eluded you for a lifetime, go to the garden. Go to the empty tomb, go to the very place where it seems he is absent, and find that he is alive and present and among us. Find that as then, so now, he calls us by our name and invites us to step out of the shadows of the tomb into the marvellous light of resurrection.

Edward Thomas’s world was not very different from ours. Even on a beautiful spring day in Eastertime, death can stalk us as it did him. His widow’s memoir tells how he went to France deeply afraid, with an awful sense of foreboding. Yet his last letter to Eleanor recalling a hidden Easter egg still rises to the conviction that he will keep a day for praise. Like her poem, we sow seeds today, seeds of faith, of hope, and of overflowing love. What are they when the world is so dark and we protest ‘O God, why?’, when events baffle us and make us afraid, when our burdens and our planet’s feel just too heavy to bear? Faith and hope and love are everything. They give us back our disintegrated lives, put back together by the crucified and risen Lord. We glimpse how we can learn to trust once more, how life can begin again. The good news of Easter is that even at the grave, even when everything seems hopeless and we feel at our most helpless, we sing alleluia. Morning has broken! This is the day that the Lord has made. It’s a day for praise. He is risen.

Durham Cathedral, Easter Day 2015. John 20: 1-18

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