The Rt Revd Richard Chartres
Readings: Romans VI.3-11; Matthew XXVIII.1-10
“IF we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
This is a night of contrasts. In the traditional ceremonies for this night, we assemble in the darkness outside the locked doors of the church, which symbolises the tomb of Jesus Christ. The new fire is struck from the flint, and the Easter light is kindled. The doors of the church are flung open, and we follow the Easter candle into the dim interior as the Exultet is sung.
This year, of course, the doors of the church will remain closed as we stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. We can still meditate on the ancient words of the hymn of joy, which has resounded through the centuries on this night of nights:
“This is the night when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
“This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
“This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave.”
In the early church, this was the only night on which new members of the body of Christ — who had been preparing throughout the forty days of Lent — could finally be incorporated by water and the Spirit into the Church as living members of Christ’s own body.
Alas, as the poet Auden sadly acknowledged, the fervour cooled and the early Christians saw “their agape decline/into a late lunch with Constantine”. Perhaps this year, as we really begin in the gloom of the lockdown, we have a chance to revisit the way in which our Christian forebears saw the reality of human life.
We have to acknowledge that do not always make a very good job of living as human beings in all the splendour and freedom of a fully human life. But to move into the light we have first to see the darkness. To throw off the chains, we must first feel them. We are fond of believing that slavery and darkness are things that other people suffer from, whereas we stand on an enlightened eminence from which we can see and judge all other times and cultures. The Roman authorities and the religious authorities of Jesus’s own day thought very much the same.
Jesus Christ turns our view of light and darkness upside down. He reveals how our “enlightened” world is in reality “endarkened”. It is full of hidden persuaders — little gods, if you like — which teach us from our earliest years that we must look after number one, and that we can be happy if we accumulate more and more things.
Before long, these possessions can come to possess us. We cannot conceive of life without them, which is why a period of fasting and retreat could be so valuable if it is accompanied by prayer.
There is no possibility of escaping from the chains forged by our own desires simply by our own efforts. The void, if we leave our comfort zone, is simply too terrifying.
But God is at work, labouring to give us freedom and to initiate us into a fully human life. Far from being self-made men and women, in reality we are given our identity by others. We are given our names; our mother’s face broods over us — like the Spirit at the dawn of earth’s history — drawing out a response from the infant. We are recognised; we are loved into loving; we are given status, and worth – or, tragically, we are overlooked and condemned, and made to feel like dirt. We are given our identity by others.
It must also be true that we have been given the power to shape the identity of our neighbours, for good or ill. God first names our ancestor Adam –- which in Hebrew literally means “the earth man” — and Adam is charged with giving other creatures their names. We are all involved in this giving and receiving of names and identities.
In the springtime of the church, tonight was the night in which the newly baptised and confirmed entered the community of those who have been reborn in the Spirit; who have been caught up into the life of God, where this giving and receiving leads to freedom.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son into the hands of sinful men. We have seen that, on the Cross, the Son gives himself to the Father. The Father is the Father because the Son who answers his call has given him his name. The Spirit enables creation to participate in this dynamic of giving and receiving.
This is God the Holy Trinity’s way of being: calling, responding, giving up myself to the other, participating in the mutual offering of identity and freedom.
Humanity is one of the languages which the persons of the Trinity use in communicating with one another and, by our initiation into the life of the Trinity, we are taught how to grow into our full humanity.
Every Holy Saturday we are called by name to deepen our commitment to a community in which we are involved in this work of giving and receiving freedom. We are to regard one another as “our work of art”, as St Hildegard of Bingen once said.
The community of the church is the work of God in which he is building the full stature of humanity. If we do not, together with God, make one another our work of art then much of each one of us remains missing and never comes to be. We are all in debt to one another. Each of us is commissioned to speak the other into being.
In the early church, the Lord’s Prayer — which begins with “Our Father” and asks for the forgiveness of our debts — was only given to those who had undergone preparation through Lent. The Lord’s Prayer was not, as it is in our day, the prayer known by nominal Christians, but was rather a precious gift, handed over on this night to those who had become fully initiated.