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A new space

Easter Day BCP

08 April 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and you faith is in vain’ (1 Cor.15 v14)

There is clearly no guarantee that the tomb of Christ is where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands in Jerusalem. But it might well be. I’ve been there, and it really is rather unremarkable, though this should not be surprising. If we stop for a moment and think about a tomb that is over 2000 years old…that really isn’t so very long ago. I’ve also been to the Valley of the Kings and Queens at Thebes and seen the immaculate tombs of the pharaohs…the murals show colours as fresh as yesterday. Even the relatively minor young pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb goes back 1349 before Christ and is in immaculate condition. As are the treasures taken from it and on display at the museum in Cairo. 3356 years old and pristine. Seeing the artefacts helps put the mere 2000 years of Christianity into context and reminds us that we are still in the early days. Tutankhamun’s coffin has a plethora of outer layers – all richly decorated boxes within boxes…the outer layer being about half the size of the containers you see on lorries. In total there are 4 shrines, 1 sarcophagus, and 3 coffins protecting the mummy. The innermost coffin is made of solid gold. The death mask is one of the most recognisable of the world’s artistic treasures. Alongside the Pharaoh's burial chamber was another room containing all he would need for the afterlife…his chariot and all his personal belongings were entombed with him, in accordance with his people's beliefs. What must have been an incomparable wealth of gold and other treasures were sealed in the tomb…and they glisten gloriously to this day. Also found in the tomb were imitation servants and food which the ancient Egyptians believed would become real in the afterlife. With all the forward planning and making of provision for life beyond death, it seems it was envisioned as some kind of extension of this life as we know it – a kind of immortality. That is not resurrection.

The image of Easter eggs, though providing a good analogy for resurrection in terms of new born chicks bursting out of their shells, nevertheless is again ultimately inadequate. Because when an egg is laid, it contains all the food necessary for survival packed inside it – rather like the Pharaoh’s tombs…and the cycle is really about natural life. Whereas the immortality we hope for in resurrection is about supernatural life, hidden in the heart of our loving God, a life forever young, fresh, and full of surprises as opposed to stale predictabilities. I read Fr. John Slater’s Easter sermon he preached here 4 years ago and loved his phrase ‘eternal spring’. I quote: ‘It is the heart of the mystery that he brings us with him from the dark and cold of winter to eternal spring, from bondage to sin to the freedom of the spirit, from inevitable death to everlasting spring, from alienation to reconciliation, from exile to our true home’. That is Passover.

When Pompey entered the Holy of Holies at the centre of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem it was only the second occasion somebody had dared to go in. He imagined he would discover an ornate image of a god maybe in the form of a statue. In the event he found nothing but an empty space containing just the scrolls of the Torah.

The empty tomb, like the empty Temple, provides a new space for human beings to leave behind the false image of what they have become or what they might plan to construct for the future, and grow rather into the true nature that God has planned for them. And that nature really is so much better and more glorious than our own best laid plans. Resurrection is of course our hope for the future, but more importantly resurrection is our project for today. And part of that project of bringing in and building the kingdom of love peace and justice, requires us to take this idea of emptiness seriously. Our Lord Jesus Christ, though in the form of God, emptied himself taking the form of a slave, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

One of the lessons of a book some of us read during Lent – Power and Passion by Samuel Wells is to put forgiveness at the heart of our understanding of resurrection. The friendship and acceptance of Jesus gives confidence to leave behind the world of collusion and collaboration with the world’s greed as displayed in the economic and political arena. The message is to empty heart and soul of fear. If death is no longer to be feared, what can Rome, what can any coercive power, do to intimidate and oppress? The crippling aspects of society – which he describes as lament in the face of death…and bitterness and regret in the face of sin…are where the passion and power of the resurrection can bring transformation. And the key character is St. Peter. Even his most harrowing betrayal, three times, is met by the Lord with challenge, companionship and transformation – Peter is transformed from shamefaced sinner to leader in one short conversation. If Jesus had a significant role for Peter to play, impetuous and unreliable as he was, then he has a role for each one of us. Easter is a new beginning and a call to share in breaking the cycle of fear and despair…emptying our lives of pallid fantasy. A project for here and now, and not to be put off until our own Passover, that final Passover journey from this life through death, and ultimately, we hope, and we believe, to everlasting life.

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