Saturday, 30 March 2013

Champagne and Fireworks?

This is an article I wrote about five years ago: an edited version was published in the Church Times in February 2007.

For several years now, I’ve been bothered by the contrast between how much I love Christmas and how low-key Easter seems by comparison. ‘We are an Easter people!’ was a favourite phrase in Church circles a few years ago. I agree in theory. But I can’t help wondering why, if that is the case, we don’t celebrate Easter better.

Christmas is commercial. Around the central religious festival, the Feast of the Incarnation, there are massive cultural accretions. Christmas means a red, green and gold colour scheme (despite the attempts by John Lewis to sell purple this year); it means cinnamon and raisins in pies and cakes. Christmas means presents, office parties, shop window displays and town centre lighting schemes. It means sending cards and an annual letter, making contact with all the people you have acquired in your address book over the years. It means tinsel, fairy lights, nursery parties, carol singing, school Christmas shows, visits to Santa, visits to relations. Christmas is a social event.

The Church is often quoted at this time of year complaining about all this. Fearful that all this razzmatazz distracts from the central nativity story. I may be unusual in being a priest in the Church of England who loves Christmas. I love the trees, the lights, the food, the drink, the parties, choosing and buying and wrapping present, as well as the nativity (both the school play and the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity).

I (was until recently) a university chaplain. A student came to see me recently, and our conversation turned to the Christmas lights that Durham council were beginning to put up. Suddenly she said, ‘Why can’t Easter be more like Christmas?’ She went on to say that she loved the family focus of Christmas, the cooking that went on, the colours, the lights, and the atmosphere of excitement that marked out Christmas as something special. She wouldn’t describe herself as religious, but said that of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without going to church on Christmas day. By contrast, she complained, Easter is much more downbeat, ‘a bit depressing’ with its focus on death and with no buzz about it except that associated with chocolate. The bunnies and lambs and chicks are twee and infantile. Easter comes at a time of year when it is still cold and gloomy and everyone needs cheering up with a good festival, and we give them Lent and Good Friday processions.

When a young, intelligent, occasional church attender bothers to tell us what she would like from the Church, we should listen and take it seriously. Our conversation made me revisit my thinking about the disjunction between how we celebrate Christmas and how we celebrate Easter. My conclusion is that we should welcome with open arms the cultural accretions, the ‘commercialism’ of Christmas. We should learn from the excitement generated by them, and try to replicate that in distinctive forms for Easter. The cultural iconography of Christmas – red, gold, lights, candles, stars, spices – is far richer and more attractive than that of Easter – daffodils, crocuses, bunnies, chicks, chocolate. We need to try to reinvent Easter as a richer, a more culturally resonant, above all a more exciting festival.

None of this is to denigrate the central, spiritual importance of the theological truths affirmed by both Christmas and Easter. But the Christmas story, the Incarnation, is not hidden or threatened by the baubles of Christmas. On the contrary, the trimmings draw all eyes to the central story. They create a sense of expectancy, a true spirit of Advent. Every other year, Christmas stamps portray a religious theme. Every other year, the famous Fenwick’s window display in Newcastle upon Tyne is a nativity. Many schools alternate between nativity plays and pantomimes for their Christmas production. Many people, like the student who came to see me, feel that Christmas wouldn’t be complete without going to church. Everyone will hear Christmas carols at some point in December. The nativity is central to Christmas. It is there in the background even when it is not mentioned explicitly. It is proclaimed to many more people than it would otherwise be because of, not despite, the cultural baggage and festivities surrounding it.

I want us to make the Easter story just as ubiquitous, just as loved, just as owned by so many as the Christmas story. Here are a few suggestions for starters:

1. Let’s make more of Shrove Tuesday. It comes at a cold, dark, miserable time of year. Lent is still a widely recognised and owned cultural phenomenon, but the Church looks depressingly pious unless we balance fast with feast. In the parish of St. Gabriel’s, Heaton, where I was a curate, we built on the expertise and contacts developed through a summer holiday club week by introducing a Mardi Gras weekend. On the Saturday before Lent we held a Mardi Gras children’s activity day, and on the Sunday morning a Carnival Eucharist. Pancake parties are better than nothing, but in this age of foodies they may need to become a bit more sophisticated in some social contexts.

2. I first came across Easter trees in the Netherlands over a decade ago. A few bare twisted branches are decorated with blown and painted eggs, small birds, or anything you like. Ideally the branches are of pussy willow so they already have their catkins, but the decorative twigs you can buy now would also work well. This would make a good family or Sunday school activity for Easter weekend. Decorations could be devised which reinforce the story and are cheerfully bright and attractive (perhaps Mexican crosses and butterflies).

3. I have heard of a cathedral letting off fireworks from its roof at its dawn liturgy. This is a great idea. Fireworks are ideal imagery for Easter. They literally lift your gaze and heart, exploding into dramatic and exultant life. Dawn could be problematic with noise in many locations. Also, the core audience attracted by fireworks, families with youngish children, are unlikely to attend at 5am. But fireworks on the Saturday evening could be a winner.

4. Finally, our Easter morning Eucharist should be seriously distinctive. A note of extraordinary celebration needs to be struck, preferably at the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy. My suggestion is that on Easter day we use champagne as our communion wine. Champagne is part of our cultural shorthand for celebration. Its use chimes perfectly with the Easter message of the reckless extravagance of God’s love, and with imagery of the wedding feast.

Easter Resurrection

This is the sermon I will be preaching at 8am at Belmont and 9.30 at Pittington this Sunday. 10.30 at Belmont is an All Age Eucharist with Baptism, so will be a bit different (and won't have a full text to blog!).

A few years ago, when Noah was about Zoe's age now, just 4 and a half, and Toby was a baby a few months old, we went on holiday to Malta for February half term. While we were there we visited the cathedral. It is fabulously decorated, with a floor full of tombstones with pictures of skeletons in marble mosaic. The ceiling is covered with huge paintings of scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The church is most famous for a huge painting of the beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. But the first thing that caught our attention as we entered through the turnstiles and down the first side aisle was a huge wooden cross, with a massive stone Christ hanging there, with real iron nails through his hands and feet, holding him to the cross. 

Noah stood there for a long time, appalled. We tried to explain why people had killed Jesus. As then, as we finally walked away into the main part of the church, Noah said ‘but it was OK, mummy, because God raised him from the dead’. Yes! It is all going in somewhere. I was very pleased with my parenting skills!

We spent some time looking round the church, greatly enjoying all the skeletons – and then Noah asked to go to see Jesus again, and Phil took him off. They came back after a few minutes, and I noticed that Noah was unnaturally quiet. Phil whispered with that parental urgency  - ‘we need to find a resurrection scene. Noah wants to see Jesus raised’. Well, we were surrounded by paintings, and statues and marble relief panels, so we started looking. 

The church was full of scenes from John the Baptist’s life. No help there. Noah was still eerily quiet. So we went into the museum. Toby was asleep in the pushchair and there were no lifts, so we struggled to carry the pushchair between us up four or five marble staircases. And we glanced around the galleries on each floor with increasing desparation. There must be a resurrection scene somewhere in this church. Noah was very solemn. Phil and I were focused with a kind of intensity, scanning round each room in a matter of seconds. And finally, at the end of a long corridor out in a modern extension, in a room full of huge late medieval tapestries, we found a tapestry of the resurrection. I’ve rarely been so relieved, and the tension just went from all three of us.

That really brought home to me how essential it is that the crucifixion and the resurrection go together. Without the resurrection, Jesus’s death is just meaningless nonsense. It’s just another piece of mindless violence.

Jesus’s disciples didn’t have the comfort of knowing about the resurrection in that first Holy Week.

Good Friday and Easter Saturday were times of utter desolation. Jesus died – deserted by most of his friends, taunted by his enemies, and at the very end he even felt himself to have been deserted by God. His friends and followers went into shock, a kind of numb survival mode.

When I imagine the disciples on Easter Saturday, I always imagine them in total silence. I just can’t imagine them talking. 

Holy week has always seemed to me to be quite wordy, quite chatty, up to Good Friday. Starting from Palm Sunday, we have crowds of people cheering and shouting. I imagine the disciples caught up in the crowd, laughing and shouting, and walking home later that day animatedly talking over the events of the day. And all through that week the bible records Jesus talking, conversations with interested bystanders, Jesus telling parables, and again I can imagine the passionate conversations and earnest discussion that must have gone on between his disciples all day and long into the night. 

But  watching Jesus’ body being taken down from the cross, walking away from the scene, and then all huddled together in the upper room on Easter Sunday morning, I can only imagine them silent. Numb. And the silence growing and growing, taking on a life of its own, until nothing that anyone could say seems important enough to break it. In silence, some of the women got up very early in the morning on the Sunday. In silence, they gathered together the spices and embalming oils that they would need. In silence, they left the house where the disciples were hiding away, and in silence they made their way to the tomb, where they had silently watched Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus on Friday. 

They weren’t looking for the resurrection. They were going to find a dead body and wash it and wrap it, to feel that they had at least done what they could for him.

I imagine the other disciples stirring and waking as dawn breaks. Remembering as they came fully awake what has happened. The heavy silence continuing, as if it must continue for ever. And then -  the sound of running footsteps. Perhaps a frisson of fear going round the room as they wonder if this is it, is this the guards coming for them? A door crashing open into the courtyard, panting breaths  and thundering feet on the stairs. And then the women burst into the room, panting and shouting and laughing and crying all at once. A sudden confusing torrent of sound and movement – ‘he’s alive!’, ‘we’ve seen him!’ ‘an angel told us’ ‘there were angels there!’ ‘ he’s gone’ ‘he told us to tell you’, ‘he’s alive!’.

Astoundingly, incredibly, the women came back from the tomb that first Easter morning to tell us that Jesus was alive. Most of the gospel accounts agree that the other disciples just couldn’t believe it at first. It didn’t make sense. No-one comes back from the dead. But in the end, they had to believe the evidence of their own eyes. Jesus had somehow broken through death. Death wasn’t able to hold him. Even a huge stone tomb wasn’t strong enough to keep him down.

Jesus’s resurrection brings hope, and joy. The elation and noise and excitement, the excited note of hope of Easter morning contrasts strongly with the silent hopelessness of Friday and Saturday. The resurrection gives us hope that even the most desolate situations in life can be transformed by God into something sparkling and new, something exciting and lifegiving, either in this life or the next.

This is where we can never fully get back into the minds of those first disciples, however much we try to imagine the scenes from the bible. We are always looking back with the benefit of hindsight. For us, Good Friday is good. However much we try to imagine it, we know how the story ends. For us, the cross has become a symbol of hope and faith. We decorate our churches with crosses, we wave palm crosses and stick them on the fridge at home. The first Christians rarely used the sign of the cross. Crosses were still being used regularly to kill people, and were far too painful to be adopted as a badge.

Like Noah and Phil and I in that church in Malta, as Christians we are constantly searching for the resurrection. We see resurrection everywhere. When we look at a cross, it reminds us not so much of Jesus’s death as of his resurrection. We see the message of resurrection in springtime, in a daffodil bulb, and in autumn, in the harvest of all that corn that had to fall into the ground and die in order to grow and multiply. We live life expecting resurrection. Our eyes have been opened, and everywhere we see signs of a God who works through resurrection.

This is the kind of God we believe in, a God who dies and is raised. And because we believe in this kind of God, we have a very realistic faith. We know the depths of evil and cruelty that the world can sink to. But because of the resurrection, we have faith that good will ultimately triumph over evil. Because of the resurrection, we know that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.

Because of the resurrection, when we look on the darkest moments of life, we have hope that they can be transformed. And that hope gives us the strength to start working to transform them, to work with God to bring resurrection to life here and now.

Mary Magdalene ran from the tomb to tell the others the good news. And through the ages, the church has never stopped doing that. That is what the church is, in essence: not the building, certainly not the institution. We are in the direct line of that movement, that running to tell others, that Mary started that first Easter morning. And down the ages the news has been passed from door to door, from family to family. We are the group of people who like Mary, run from the empty tomb to tell others the amazing news that the God who died for us is also raised for us; that death is not the end; that nothing can separate us from God’s love.