Words on the Word
Genesis 22:1-18: Take your son, your only son, whom you love.
Romans 6:3-11: In union with Christ we have imitated his death.
Matthew 28:1-10: There is no need for you to be afraid.
The perspective on life and death offered us this night is extraordinary. We take in the whole sweep of human history at a glance, from the beginning of the world to the saving events of our Lord Jesus Christ to our own present reality. We do this in a way that is unique to us as believers. Secular science, too, offers impressive, beautiful accounts of the development of life, proposing distances in time so vast that our minds can hardly grasp them. The story we have just retold, however, is different. It does not simply posit an evolutionary account of life. It is not content with a narrative of intelligent design. It is more ambitious. Not only does it see our race on a forward march that is coherent; it presents this journey as a pilgrimage, a process that’s profoundly meaningful. It is sometimes said that our times despair of ever again finding meaning in the world; that we excel at answering the question ‘How?’ but are unequipped to tackle the more difficult ‘Why?’ As Christians we are spared this perplexity. We know why. The answer stands right before us this night in the Easter Candle’s flame, in our recovered Alleluia, in the baptismal waters, in the empty tomb surrounded by and exuding light.
What sabotages our quest for meaning on purely human terms is primarily the certainty of death. We know we shall die. Death stands on the horizon like a tall brick wall casting a long backward shadow. That shadow touches life in all its aspects and can seem to invalidate the vital impulse itself, or, at any rate, to render it absurd. A great-souled, anguished thinker of the last century, a man without access to faith, once wrote, ‘What is life if not a senseless, directionless course towards certain death?’ If we probe a little, we discover, I think, that many of our contemporaries share that dark foreboding, some to the extent of finding, like this writer, that life is more than they can bear. So we keep silent about death. We keep it out of sight. Some even try to outsmart death by having themselves frozen down alive, hoping that a future generation might come up with an elixir of immortality—and will remember to fetch them out of the deep freeze.
A monk, says St Benedict, should keep death daily before his eyes. There is nothing morbid in that injunction. St Benedict just intends that we should keep life in perspective. Our religion faces death head-on, fearlessly. It makes it clear that death is an anomaly, an intrusion from without into a plan that did not at first intend it. ‘God created man for immortality.’ Death is a function of man’s estrangement from his Maker, the root cause of which we refer to by the shorthand term ‘sin’. The history of salvation is the story of God’s design to heal sin’s wound and to cancel death’s grip on human destiny. What wonderful, mysterious prefigurations have been put before our eyes this night! We have rehearsed the Lord’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. We have heard the Lord say through Isaiah, ‘I forsook you a brief moment, but with great love I will take you back.’ In Baruch we heard his rebuke, ‘Had you walked in the way of God, you would have lived in peace for ever’, only to be reassured that the way once deserted lies open before us anew, if we would but walk in it. Ezekiel, finally, has assured us that our exile will not last forever. God has said, ‘You shall be my people and I will be your God’. Those words are valid for eternity. They pierce the reign of death.
This night, we do not simply celebrate Christ’s rising as the triumph over death of a single individual. We rejoice in the death of death as such. This is the only death that deserves, here on earth, to be hailed with shouts of jubilation. The dawn of Easter Day is a time of grandiose paradox. Pilate’s guards, appointed to keep vigil, are ‘like dead men’: the watchers sleep. Christ, certified as dead, is found to be alive: the sleeping wakes. The angel assures the two Maries, most faithful of disciples: ’He whom you seek is not here, for he has risen, as he said.’ The prediction, when first heard, had seemed too far out, too eccentric. Now it is fulfilled. The centre of reality itself has been reset. Christ’s rising is henceforth the sun around which everything turns. We who have looked into his empty tomb henceforth judge all that is, all that happens, by this fact: ‘Christ is risen from the dead.’ Death is no more. Brothers and sisters, what freshness, what strength fills our hearts at this affirmation! We can at last let go of anguish and let joy be reborn. It does actually seem possible to heed Christ’s exhortation: ‘Do not be afraid!’
The setting in which we keep this Paschal feast is itself a proclamation more effective than any sermon. We who gathered round the fire in the darkness of the night, at that hour of predatory despair which has been called ‘the hour of the wolf’; we will emerge together into the first light of a rising dawn. The birds of the morning are already singing. The night is no more. The light rekindled in our hearts will not be extinguished except if we blow it out ourselves. May that never be so! Let us carry Christ’s light with us wherever we go, tending it, sharing it, letting it spread, that our lives may leave behind a trail of flickering flames, a wake of joy. That is the only thing that matters. Christ is risen. He will never die again. Hold your heads high, rejoicing. Amen. Alleluia!