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Meditations for Easter Morning 2004

Sunday 11th April 2004

An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on Easter Sunday in Canterbury Cathedral.

In a few minutes, we shall hear St Paul telling us why Easter matters to every one of us, and specially to everyone who makes the great decision to trust that what Jesus says is true and that what Jesus does makes all the difference. If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you are not just believing an odd fact from two thousand years ago; you are trusting that there is a kind of life, a kind of love and trust and joy that is the very essence of Jesus' identity which is now coming to life in you. And as it comes to life, you begin to know that no amount of pressure and stress and suffering in your life has power in itself to break the bond that has been created between you and Jesus' life and activity. You are alive with a fuller and deeper life than just your own. Your resources are more than you could ever have imagined.

Jesus rises from the dead so as to find not only his home in heaven but his home in us. He rises so that we may rise out of the prisons of guilt, anxiety, self-obsession or apathy that so constantly close around us. But for this to happen, says St Paul, we have to go on, day after day, getting used to parts of us dying, just as Jesus died: we have to get used to the beloved habits of self-serving and self-protecting being brought into the light that shines from Jesus' face and withering away in that brightness. That's why Paul says that Christians go around with both death and life at work in their lives — always trying to let the light of Jesus kill off these sick and deadly habits, always letting the new life that is ours but so much more than ours shine through.

This year, both the Eastern and the Western churches celebrate Easter on the same day. It doesn't happen all that often, and when it does it's a great opportunity for us in the West to remember what we owe to the insight and genius of Christians from the Greek and Syrian and Russian worlds. One of the most important contributions has been their vision of how the light of God in Jesus can inhabit this ordinary world and shine visibly in the faces of Christian people. In the art of the Eastern Church, in the great icons of Greece and Russia, we can see a sort of visual commentary on St Paul's words. Here are human figures seen against the background of divine light; and the light doesn't take away their human features but makes them transparent, stretches them and reshapes them in great elongated forms whose powerful flowing lines seem to speak of another world that has come to life in the middle of this one. Any of you who've seen the El Greco exhibition in London this spring will recognise that El Greco is doing just this; he was an artist who had been trained by Greek painters of icons, so it isn't surprising.

That's the visual expression of what Paul has to say about the Easter news of new life. Ordinary humanity, ordinary physical reality, your bodily life and mine are being transfigured from within by the presence of God's glory.

It was still dark, says St John as he begins his story of the rising of Jesus; and at the end of the passage we've heard he says that up to the point when the two disciples look into the empty tomb and see the folded graveclothes they hadn't understood what the Jewish scriptures were all about. As they go back to join the others, the dawn begins to break; the light is rising in their minds and it's no longer dark.

St John uses this imagery again and again. In the very first chapter of his gospel, we read that the light has shone in the darkness and the darkness hasn't quenched it. When Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John says that 'He went out; and it was night'. After the story we have just heard and the following story of Jesus' meeting with Mary Magdalene, we hear of Jesus coming to the other disciples in their locked room 'late in the evening'. Where Jesus is around, the view becomes clear; darkness is put to flight. And this is why our worship at Easter traditionally begins with the lighting of a fire and the blessing of a candle.

Jesus lights up the landscape; and what St John tells us here is that one bit of the landscape which he lights up is the Bible itself. The disciples haven't known how to read their own scriptures until now; but they come to see that the events of Good Friday are part of the pattern of God's work with his people all along. Salvation and renewal always come as people are shocked into the recognition of how deeply they have betrayed God. God is always faithful to his people, even when all they have to give him is rejection and contempt. And — and this is what that first Easter morning begins to get across to them — no human rejection can destroy God's promise and God's longing to be with those he loves. Not even the torturing to death of Jesus can change this love; and so when the disciples come looking for a body, they find an empty grave — like a door open into God's future.

So, if we can turn one more time to the icons of the Eastern Church, it is fitting that we so often see Jesus in glory holding an open book. Sometimes it just carries the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; sometimes it has a specific text from the Bible. But the point is the same: all that is written in our book, the Bible, is what Jesus present to us for our reading and understanding. If we don't follow his finger along the text, we read wrong. So our Bible isn't just a holy book we can open and consult for answers without any more ado; we need to try and read it in the presence and in the Spirit of Jesus, to see how all of it finds its unity around him and in relation to him, to what he says and does in his life and his death.

But of course it's the whole landscape of our life and our reality that is enlightened by Jesus. In this light we see who God really is, how deep his faithfulness is to us. We see who we are, how constantly we fail, but also how passionately we are loved and valued. We see each other, as people valued by God, and our attitudes are drastically changed. We see the material world itself full of God's glory, demanding our reverence and care.

So with the two disciples, we look this morning into the empty tomb as if through an open door. On the other side is a world drenched with light, God's beauty shining through; yet it's our own world we are seeing, seeing it as God made it to be, seeing ourselves as God made us to be. We are walking into daylight.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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