Easter Day Sermon
Sunday 21st April 2019
Canon Simon Butler
Before the sermon began, a brief excerpt of a recording of the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris was played, following the extensive damage caused by fire on Monday 15th April 2019
In case you didn’t guess, that is the organ of Notre Dame, Paris, being played at the beginning of the final movement of the Organ Symphony of Saint-Saëns; a grand and powerful moment when the full organ joins the orchestra for the first time. I thought it might prove an arresting beginning to an Easter sermon.
Like many of my colleagues, I’m not able to resist the temptation to reflect on the burning of Notre-Dame last Monday this Easter Day. Apart from powerful images like the one of the golden cross shining amidst the rubble of the collapsed roof, and the preservation of the relics, stained glass and, yes, the medieval organ which you have just heard, I have been fascinated to experience (both in myself and in the media) the way in which the people of France, and we in the wider world, have reacted to this extremely unusual event. So, rather than just taking the easy – and unprovable – option of attributing the saving of the cathedral as some sort of divine intervention, I’d like us to dig a little deeper this Easter morning.
Whenever a disaster strikes – be it a natural disaster, an accident like the Notre-Dame fire, or even an act of terror – there is often a clear arc to the story in the media. On the day of the disaster, the story of the unfolding event is told, and the immediate response of those caught up in it and those responding to it. On the second day, the arc of the story tends to move to the reaction, as the media begin to hear and replay stories of those affected by the disaster and the way in which those who have undertaken brave human acts of rescue have behaved. On day three of the story, the media arc then reflects on the causes, and the nature of the responsibility for the act, and how the event fits into the wider situation. Questions begin to be asked, and the event shifts from reporting the event to the meaning of the event. And then, if the media haven’t been distracted by other events, the story then tends to broaden and go in different directions. But, and I say this without cynicism, there is this arc of the event, the reaction and the meaning.
The fire at Notre-Dame followed that arc in many ways, perhaps a little truncated by the fact that it was an event – like 9/11 – which was visible for the whole world to see. On Monday evening, we all watched with horror as the church burned, as flames shot into the air, and it felt like a terrible tragedy as tiny, heroic firemen seemed to be pumping water into the most enormous inferno to little effect. What would happen to the treasures within, we wondered? My social media was filled with this sort of appalled comment, sadness, prayers and general grief. The streets were filled with praying Parisians, singing hymns to the Virgin, as their beloved religious and cultural heart burned.
Then on Tuesday, the story changed. By the sheer persistence and bravery of Paris’s firemen, by some miracle much of the cathedral was saved. The relics and treasures were rescued and the bell towers were prevented from burning almost completely. The great organ was broadly undamaged. President Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral, wealthy French businessmen and companied pledged hundreds of millions to the project. The social media story changed to relief and thankfulness as stories of the brave firemen – and their chaplain – became the narrative. Event – Reaction – Meaning.
By Wednesday, the story had changed again, as a wider perspective dawned. The reaction became more critical. If we could raise nearly a billion euros in 24 hours for this rebuilding effort, what did that say about our priorities? Surely, we could address some of the other issues facing our world with similar gusto? In Britain, some were acutely observing the financial response to the burning of Notre-Dame, in which no-one died, with the response to the Grenfell Tower fire, when 70 people died. In the United States, critics noted the President tweeted about the burning of Notre-Dame but had ignored the burning of two black churches in the Deep South in the past week. In France, sceptics noted the way in which President Macron was capitalising on the disaster to shore up his unpopular position. And, when in the end the story became not about the event but about the reporting of the event, Christians began to criticise the BBC for ignoring the religious significance of Notre-Dame, focusing instead on its cultural and historic significance.
On this Easter Day, we have our own three-day story arc. As I said to the congregation on Maundy Thursday, the worship of the three days is one continuous experience. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are the original story of departure, betrayal, arrest, trial and execution. These bring the immediate emotions to the fore – the first day story if you like, of experience and response. The period of Holy Saturday is the second day story, the story of reaction, when nothing much happens, but people react to the tragedy of the day before. And Easter Day itself, the third day story, opens up new possibilities of meaning and action, as the disciples discover the empty tomb and realise that, contrary to their expectations, the story hasn’t come to a crashing end after all. Rather, the story has begun another, unexpected chapter. In the coming fifty days of Easter, we shall continue to ponder the implications of it all: what does it mean? For me? For the world? What is it all about?
But the Easter experience also has its own story arc, and one that naturally invites us to ponder and react. The Gospels record the Event-Reaction-Meaning arc of Easter. The immediate reaction is one of fear, mystery and joy. You get the sense of the confusion of the event itself, not dissimilar from the confusion that surrounded Notre-Dame on Monday. Then, the Gospels record the reaction – the joy of the women who encounter Jesus, the misperception of the disciples who can’t quite believe it, the scepticism of Thomas who demands physical proof, and the disappointment turned to joy of the two walking the Road to Emmaus. Such different reactions surely add to the authenticity of the accounts. Finally, as time progresses, the meaning of Easter begins to set it. The disciples realise that Jesus is now inviting them to live out his Gospel for themselves, inspired by his risen presence, filled with the Spirit that he breathes on them. The Church is born at Pentecost, as the community who will carry the story of Jesus as their guide and inspiration. And the writers of the New Testament like St Paul, in time, begin to delve ever more into the meaning of the Resurrection, as they ponder the questions of meaning, purpose, life and death. Event-Reaction-Meaning.
So where are you in that story arc? I think it’s possible – even at this distance of time and space – to still be at one of those stages in the story. Easter is confusing – by definition resurrection is not an everyday occurrence. It doesn’t help that we seem to have mixed it up with the cyclical cycle of the seasons in the West, so that Easter is somehow more associated with ideas of death and rebirth than with the sort of rude interruption into the natural order of things that in fact it is. This is not like chicks bursting from eggs. This is an earth-shattering disruption, like the natural disasters I began with. So confusion is fine as we ponder the resurrection of Jesus.
But we are invited to go beyond Event to Reaction. How do you react to this story? Do you, like some did, dismiss it as an old-wives’ tale? Does it pique your curiosity, as you look at the evidence? Does it fill you with joy? Whatever you think about Easter, the evidence needs to be examined, even at this distance. As the German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, has rather pithily put it, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”
Which takes us from Reaction to Meaning. What does Easter mean? Remember those questions people started asking on day three of the Notre-Dame story arc? The critical ones? Well, perhaps they tell us something about the sort of questions that Easter throws up. Does the world have to be the way it is? If Easter is about God’s promise of eternal life, then what does that say about my priorities, my values and my politics? What does it say about the value of human life and the inequalities that exist? What does Easter say when my email inbox has more emails in it concerned with what the church is going to do about a few tourist boats launching from the slipway next to the church, and has none about asking what the church is going to do to respond to the two murders by knife crime that we have had in this neighbourhood in the past eighteen months? What does Easter say about our priorities in other words? What does Easter say about the way you live your life, here, today?
Event-Reaction-Meaning. Whether Easter fills you with joy and hope, or whether it fills you with questions and anxieties, Easter is an event that invites us to react and respond, one that is unique to challenge our deepest meanings and values. Whatever your reaction and response, whatever meaning you struggle to make of Easter, above all Easter tells the world that God loves it so much that not even death will intrude.
I very much doubt that the picture of the glowing cross in the ashes of Notre-Dame was a miracle. But what I do not doubt is that it symbolises a miracle, because the Easter story is deeply embedded in our Western cultural way of thinking, even today. The invitation of the God whose love is stronger than death is to let that story out of the tomb of the everyday in which we lock it, to let God’s indestructible life and love free to triumph over the ashes of our ever-broken lives.