Sing with me: An Easter sermon

The following is a reflection written for the Parish of Timperley and shared on our blog, along with Easter Sunday worship resources. I’ve shared it here too, for readers from further afield!


Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

POPE JOHN PAUL II

An Easter like no other.

History will remember these months as extraordinary. We will tell our children and grandchildren, for generations to come, about the year that we were not able to celebrate Easter in our church buildings.

I know we have had moments of despair at this thought. In my sad moments, I have remembered the joy of previous Easters here in Timperley. The egg hunts, the bacon sandwiches, the bucks fizz, the excitement, the flowers (oh, how I will miss the Easter flowers after the stark emptiness of Lent!), the marking and lighting of the paschal candle as a sign of ever-present hope, the joyous acclamation that “Christ is risen!”

I have been sad about what we won’t have this year, but also grateful for a place and people who have created such happy memories: memories to grieve and to recreate at some future date, when we are once more together.

In other times this week, I have also felt deep joy. It comes through the simple things: a smile across the street at a stranger. A chance meeting in the queue outside the Co-op. A word of encouragement from one of you. A linking up of two friends who hadn’t managed to exchange contact details before the lockdown. Meeting neighbours on the doorstep as we clap for carers each Thursday. Rainbows in windows. The discovery of plain flour in the shops once more! The deepening prayer life of the community, which has felt tangible this week. The ways in which we have come together, even while we are apart, to rejoice in good news, and to cry at sad news.

And for me, amidst all the pain and uncertainty, the good things far outweigh the despair.

Hallelujah is an ancient word, meaning “God be praised”. It originated in Ancient Hebrew, and is, quite simply, a one-word prayer. We might use it colloquially or in jest when we hear good news. But it is a word for bad news as well as good news. It is a word that calls us to turn again to God, in joy and sorrow, in faith and fear, in certainty and uncertainty. It doesn’t seek answers to unanswerable questions, nor does it try to explain or excuse God. It doesn’t ask for our emotional response or rely on the whims of our feelings. It says, simply, “God be praised”. In good times, and in bad.

And Pope John Paul II, in his quote above, calls it a song. Songs can be ones of joy or sorrow. Or perhaps even joy-in-sorrow. Because today, as we celebrate the cornerstone of our faith: that Jesus Christ conquered death to bring life and love into this world, we celebrate joyfully and in anticipation of the hope that lies ahead. But we do so also in sorrow, as some of us are unwell, grieving, or just feeling very alone.

And being people of joy – being the Easter people – doesn’t mean that we are full of superficial smiles and denial about the tough realities of life, particularly at present. It means that we live through the hard days knowing that better days are coming. It means that we live through the hard days knowing that however alone we might feel, we are not alone. And it means that we live through the hard days knowing we can be honest with God about the awfulness of it all, and that God will never let us go no matter how much we rant and rail and lash out at God.

This is what it means to sing “Hallelujah”.

There is another song that you may know, that you may have sung (like I have) at the saddest moments your have lived through. It is a hymn of deep faith, and each time I sing it (often faced with the reality of death in the form of a coffin and grieving family) I sing it with defiance and hope: 

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me

Friends, sing through these hard times with me. Sing in sorrow and joy. Sing “Hallelujah!” and “God be praised!”. Sing alone, sing together, sing with the angels and all who go before us. Sing with defiance in the knowledge that we stand shoulder to shoulder, in the victory of Christ over death and darkness, and sing knowing that one day, we will once more gather to break bread and share wine and sing our defiant songs of hope together.

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

Standing at the chasm: A reflection for Shrove Tuesday

Doesn’t Christmas feel such a long time ago?

In the Church calendar, we have travelled through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and the unimaginatively titled “Ordinary Time” before reaching the start of Lent. You don’t have to be religious to have felt a rhythm to the journey in recent months: the closing nights and the expectant waiting of Advent, the bittersweet (for many) joy of Christmas with all its promise and regrets, and the long, dull days of January that brings us through winter towards Spring – and Easter.

But now we reach a precipice – a chasm that we must cross before we can rest in the balmy days of late Spring and early Summer, with its sunny afternoons and cool evenings; lengthening days and Easter-egg-fuelled TV binges as the sun sets later, and later.

Lent.

Self denial.
Giving up.
Discipline.
Hardship.

For a while now, we take up a different pace.

I didn’t know until recently that Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Mardi Gras”: literally “Fat Tuesday”. Historically, Shrove Tuesday had a carnival feel about it (and the word carnival might mean “to put away flesh” – a word for the final day of eating meat before the long abstinence of Lent).

So here we are. Shrove Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.

Celebration and carnival.

Finishing off the spoils of the past few weeks, before the slower pace of Ash Wednesday and Lent. A strange mix of surplus: using up the extra we have, and of shriving: self-examination and reflection for what lies ahead.

Surplus and shriving.

In the Christian tradition, Shrove Tuesday was the day to make this shift from plenty to paucity. It was a day for using up the leftovers: for feasting and fattening and saying goodbye to indulgence. And it was a day for reflecting on one’s own darkness and failures; spiritual preparation for the disciplines of Lent.

I wonder what the spirituality of Shrove Tuesday looks like for you? The following questions might help:

From plenty…
What has gone well for you in the past few weeks?
What resources have been at your disposal?
How wisely did you use (or abuse) them?

To paucity…
What areas of discomfort, or pain, or shame are you aware of within yourself?
What darkness have you seen in life around you?
Which wrongs in the world would you like to put right?

It’s not really fashionable to talk about “sin” anymore. (I’ve written about this before). But Lent is a time to reflect on our sin. Or, if you prefer, on our failings, insecurities, hurts, pains, disappointments, mistakes, regrets and missed opportunities. Collectively, we might call these things sin, or we might not. It doesn’t matter.

But as we stand at this dark chasm of everything that we wish we and the world were not, we have a chance to bring change. Sin, darkness, failure, regret: these things do not have the last say. Lent reminds us of the importance of facing them, and then conquering them.

Just as, in the Christian tradition, Jesus wrestled for 40 days with the demons of his own greed, and invincibility, and power: so we wrestle with our own demons as we enter this chasm of Lent.

As Christ wrestled, we wrestle. And as Christ conquered, we conquer. We emerge on Easter Sunday, having lived through the self-denial of Lent and the trauma of Holy Week, as people renewed and re-formed. People committed to bringing light into darkness, hope into despair, and life into lifelessness.

But that’s for later.

For now, we begin.
We enter into darkness and denial.
We go from plenty to paucity.
We face our demons, and we wrestle.

Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.

800px-Follower_of_Jheronimus_Bosch_-_The_Harrowing_of_Hell

Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

Hold on: A reflection for the dark days

Psalm 88: Stark, honest, raw. It joins voices of despair that span place and time. It gives permission to lament, and it carves a space for unresolved sorrow. It resists shallow niceties and bland platitudes.

The time between Good Friday and Easter Day is unresolved time. The Messiah is dead; the curtain is torn (but what does that mean?); God is silent. I wonder how many of us live in this unresolved, painful place, not just this weekend, but through much of the year. How many of us hang between darkness and resolution?

Here is a reflection for all of you who are holding on by your fingertips, as you plummet through this liminal space.


Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:12

An uncertain glance.
A silent tear.
Darkness rises, chokes and blinds.

It is finished,
And you launch into the unknown
Falling through the nothingness of what next?
Into the endless void of where now?

Fear sings her taunts
And Doubt dances on the place you used to stand:
What will catch you?
Who will save you?

In the land of forgetfulness
No memory sustains you
No story reminds you
No music restores you.

Going back is not an option:
That door has closed.
Beasts of regret and fires of what if? lie behind.

But you can go on.

Is there a glimmer in the darkness?
A seed planted but long forgotten?
A fresh shoot of – what?

You wait.
You watch.
You hope.

And then you step forward
Because forward is the only way to go.

Hold on, weary one.
Cling to the echo of a promise you have never understood.
Remember the hope you once passed by.
Believe that beyond what you know, there is a more brilliant future dawning.

Look up.
Look back.
Then travel on.

It’s night time, but morning is coming.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79

 

20160226_145806