Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
18th April, 2021
Parish Church of St James, Louth
1 John 3.1-7; Acts 3.12-19; Luke 24.36-48
+ May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Amidst those bearing blossoms and bunnies this year, one of my Easter cards featured a painting by the late medieval Florentine Dominican, Fra Angelico, the Angelic Friar. It is a painting of the Resurrection—if you can do such a thing as paint the Resurrection, find a way of depicting what the scriptures can only write around, that moment which redefines for ever our sense of the true and the real, that thing too good not to be true. In it, three of the women who came to the tomb stand holding their redunant ointment pots, looking at the white winged figure who perches with a graceful nonchalance on the edge of a table-like tomb. The angel points upwards and downwards at once, articulating in dumbshow the words we heard on Easter Sunday: ‘He is not here; he is risen’. Above, in a mandorla formed of rays of light there is an image of the risen Christ for us, though not the women, to see. He is at once tender-faced and refulgent, the one who suffered not just the one who triumphed. His banner of victory billows in a celestial breeze. He holds the martyr’s palm as elegantly as a peacock quill. But it is not any of these depictions but the remaining figure that I love the most. I think she is Mary Magdalen—the one who in another Gospel sees the risen Christ—and the mandorla Christ directly above her might even be, as in a thought bubble, the vision we should imagine she sees. Unlike the other women — withdrawn, huddled in their cloaks—she has approached the tomb and her cloak is thrust behind her. One hand rests on its chilly edge, the other shades her eyes as her head tipped forward she gazes intently, as you might at a far horizon or down a deep well. She is seeking actively, questingly, vulnerably, with puzzled eyes but her face lit slightly, highlighted by the painter’s brush as if from the darkness of the tomb a light is shining on her.
A national death, and a collective mourning and respect of the kind we have been experiencing this week, brings us all, even in Easter-tide, to face mortality and to look into the tomb once again. Or perhaps it’s wrong to say ‘even in Easter-tide’. Because, as Christians, it is by looking into the grave that we look into our hope. And without its harsh and painful separations to confront, how can we really understand, feel, or need our faith?
It is in the face of death and sorrow that we come to know our need for life and joy at their fullest. That we grow in our hope and our yearning for God.
This does not discount either our passion and confidence, our Easter joy that sings of ‘trampling down death by death’, or the continued questing and questioning of our faith.
For in hope these things—our delight and our doubt— can and do sit with one another. The closest companions to Jesus, the writers of our texts of faith, can be those who ‘in their joy are still disbelieving’ as our Gospel says. We hear in our epistle that ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’. The fullest light of what we are hoping for has yet to be shed—in this life we are always asked to look more deeply into the grave. Its mystery glimmers most on the face, as in Fra Angelico’s painting, of the ones who honestly look for it.
But in the face of mystery, Christ does not withdraw himself. In the Gospel it is in one sense supremely ordinary things with which he anchors and deepens the disciple’s faith. Flakes of fish in the hand and the mouth: anyone’s food. The stone of a grave: anyone’s final resting place. But, by the circumstances of their need the supremely ordinary becomes the most extraordinary.
It is the longed for crucified friend who lives and eats, it is a grave that becomes by its emptiness the grave to fulness of life.
Isn’t that grace? The meeting of need so perfect it breaks open the mundane as miracle? The slant of sunlight, the bird’s appearance, the revelation of a flower, the word someone speaks which opens the door to the blinding beauty of reality, its capacity to quench and feed.
All Fra Angelico’s tombs—even when he also depicts the cave or the rocky mouth of hell surrounding—have the same rectangular shape. A shape that would have been shared in his time by a table-topped tomb or an ordinary doorway, like that to his own friary cell.
These ordinary doors or graves that become gates to everything we could hope for invite us to view our pains and opportunities completely afresh. They invite us to see and to feel how this thing too good not to be true is waiting on the other side of our lived experience. In our reopening world, especially, we are stepping out of our doors and into new doors for the first time. As we do so, may we be be like Fra Angelico’s Mary Magdalen, questing in hope, our faces expectant to be lit with new strength, new discovery, new faith.