SERMON, preached at the Easter Vigil 2023 at St Thomas, Kensal Town
Gospel: S Matthew 28:1-10
Brothers and Sisters – Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Easter is like what it will be entering eternity when you suddenly, peacefully, clearly recognise all your mistakes as well as all that you did well: everything falls into place. In Nomine +
I was a bit of a church geek (and if the Vicar says anything, I’ll throw salt in his post-Mass bubbly!) growing up in my native Sweden, and the Church of Sweden had one single authorised hymnal from the time I turned 3 until the time I moved to the UK in 2013, so most frequent church goers would the hymns and their words, be it in central Stockholm or in the rural north, and my absolute favourite hymn (number 154 in the Swedish Ecumenical Hymnal, if anyone wants to know!) was one of the Easter hymns, which (somewhat roughly translated) begins like this:
Your hands are full of flowers,
to whom did you intend to give them?
Our flowers were intended for the grave of Christ,
but he’s not there, and his grave is empty!
and I think this hymn rather gloriously tell of the confusion that the two Marys must have felt coming to the tomb. They were going to lament the loss of the Messiah, to put flowers at the grave of their dead Master, and then – BOOM! Not only the surprise of seeing an angel, but an actual earthquake! It was enough to make the guards swoon, and from what history (and Monty Python’s Life of Brian) tell us, Roman Centurions didn’t swoon easily. The angel sits on the stone that was sealed shut by the chief priests and Phariesees , and the grave is empty! Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (the mother of the fishermen) had seen Joseph of Arimathea putting Jesus in the tomb themselves, and yet now, he was not there.
Christ had – much like Fr Sam just sang in the Exsultet – broken the prison-bars of death and risen victorious from the underworld, AAAAAAAAND left. The angel then tasked Mary and Mary Magdalene with that message of unbelievable joy, to go and tell Christ’s disciples that He has been raised from the dead. They have been tasked to proclaim the Good News – the Evangelium – or, as we say in English – the Gospel. These two women became, one might say, the first post-resurrection evangelists.
On their way to proclaim the Good News to the disciples, Jesus himself meets them, and greets them, and then again tells them not to be afraid, and then to go and tell the people where they can see Him again. Let us re-visit that again – the final verse of today’s Gospel – “Then Jesus said to them ‘Do not be afraid’”.
This is NOT Christ telling his disciples that nothing will ever go wrong for them – I’m sure Paul would have one or two things to say about that – but rather the assurance that, whatever may happen to us, whatever a day may hold, God has the power to strengthen us and uphold us; that whatever we must face, we do not face it alone; that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love; that ultimately God gets the last word; that in the end—and sometimes even before the end—God’s love is triumphant. Only God can offer such assurance, and that is why, in the end, only God, be it as Father, Son or Holy Spirit, can say, “Do not be afraid,” and say it with authority.
In a way, this is also what we as a church (and I am not just talking about those of us gathered together here in St Thomas and those who join us online, but the worldwide Church, have at the very core of our being – that quotation from St John’s Gospel (or as we called it in Sweden – the Little Bible) – ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.
You might well have heard a preacher, thinking he was being clever (in fact, it might even have been yours truly not too long ago), saying that every Sunday is Easter Sunday, and in a way this remains true. Every Sunday we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, but tonight is the celebration par excellence of this most Holy Mystery.
Tonight is, in a way, the ultimate celebration of the Christian faith. We have the renewal of baptismal vows – how through the waters of baptism we let the old man die and then we rise again as members of the Church. We have Christ, through a miracle, being raised from the dead, and meeting the two women. We are, as it were, at the pinnacle of Christian faith – the penitence and death of Lent and the Triduum culminates in the absolute Easter Joy
I know that one of the Vicar’s candidates for immediate sainthood is the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who summarises the Easter Joy – OUR Easter Joy – rather well in these words: Easter is like what it will be entering eternity when you suddenly, peacefully, clearly recognise all your mistakes as well as all that you did well: everything falls into place.
And so let us then, together, with that very joy that Mary and Mary Magdalene showed and the recognition that, for once, our lives have fallen into place, albeit shortly, go out and proclaim these glad Easter tidings – the very same Evangelium that the two Marys were tasked with – with our words as much as with our lives, just as the final verse of the Swedish hymn I mentioned earlier says (equally roughly translated):
Jesus, risen you stand amongst us,
alive and suffering on Earth today.
Our eyes are made to see you,
form our hands for service AND prayer.
Which is, why we, together with our brother and sister Christians across the world join in the triumphant cry: Alleluia – Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!