(Modified 2021-04-04: Added audio recording of sermon.)
St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Easter Sunday, April4, 2021
Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder
It was 8.30 in the morning on April 16, 1927 that a police officer and his wife welcomed their third and youngest child, a boy, into the world in their home at 11 Schulstasse, in the tiny village of Marktl-an -Inn, in Bavaria, Germany. The police officer’s name was Joseph and his wife’s name was Maria, or Mary, and they named their son, Joseph Aloisius.
April 16, 1927 was a Saturday morning, but not just any Saturday. It was Holy Saturday, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the day after the Son of God was tortured and executed on a Cross, when His Body lay buried in the tomb.
That same day, Joseph and Maria brought their son to the church to be baptized at the Easter Vigil ceremonies, a providential connection in that as he was born at 8.30 in the morning, and at that time the anticipated liturgy was also celebrated in the morning. Having emerged from the womb of his mother, to be born in the flesh, he would emerge almost immediately from the womb of the Church to be born anew by ‘water and the spirit’, through the waters of baptism. As a result, the first full day of Joseph’s life, both on earth and in the Church…was Easter.
Small wonder that Joseph Aloisius would one day become Pope Benedict XVI.
Of the enormous theological and spiritual significance and badly neglected observance of Holy Saturday, his birthday, Pope Benedict would write,
“It seems to me that this singular paradox, this singular anticipation of light in a day of darkness, could almost be an image of the history of our times. On the one hand, there is still the silence of God and His absence, but in the Resurrection of Christ there is already the anticipation of the ‘yes’ of God, and on the basis of this anticipation we live and, through the silence of God, we hear him speak, and through the darkness of his absence we glimpse his light. The anticipation of the Resurrection in the middle of an evolving history is the power that points out the way to us and helps us to go forward.”
In his 1998 memoir. Milestones, Benedict would also write, “I have always been filled with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery, since this could only be a sign of blessing. To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: We are still awaiting Easter; we are still not standing in the full light, but walking toward it in full trust.”
I think that perhaps like never before we feel the force of Benedict’s words.
It’s been a rough year, and bad year for the world, where we have been made to feel like never before, the miracle of modern medicine notwithstanding, the utter weakness, frailty, and helplessness of our human condition, the omnipresence of sickness and death, and the silence, the darkness and the absence of God.
God, where are you?
Why don’t you say something?
Why don’t you do something?
Then there is the sneaking suspicion, that perhaps our secularized, un-churched, or de-churched friends and family are right. This whole God thing, this whole church thing is a mistake, an illusion…In fact it’s a joke. It’s time to wake up to the reality and truth of the matter: There is no God, and we are utterly alone, and we just need to make the best of it. When it comes to Easter, let’s just enjoy it as a spring festival and celebration of family togetherness.
Know anybody who thinks like that?
Actually, true unbelievers are quite rare. It’s not that people don’t have a faith, it’s just that they do not believe God the Father raised His Son Jesus Christ from the dead, believing instead in “progress”, that it lies within us, through politics, to eliminate injustice, and, through technology, to “make the world a better place.” Such is the faith of modern man.
And among the Bishops and clergy there is perhaps the sneaking suspicion that COVID will prove to be the nail in the coffin of a struggling church, and that, if and when this is over, people will come to the realization that, when it comes to the Church, who needs it? We can happily get along without it. Why give of my time, my talents, and my money to the parish? Or, perhaps it will be more the case that when it comes to “meeting my spiritual needs”, I can stay put and watch some service in the internet in the comfort of my own home. Besides, the coffee here is way better.
But then again, perhaps we will have come to the realization just how important and precious “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2.42) is to my life. My very existence as a Christian depends on it. Cut me off from this, and I’m toast.
I had a wonderful visit Friday before last at Evening Prayer from the newest member of our parish, a little girl, who was just seven days old. Her parents had brought her to the church to share in the worship of God, which she did with her cooing and gurgling. I thought to myself, “My, my, this little girl has no idea about what is going on, and what kind of a confused and confusing world she has been born into.” But her parents know, and they know about the storied world of the Scriptures that we have been born into in the Church, a world which that evening funnily enough included a story about a talking donkey, who meets an angel armed with a sword (Numbers 22), and a song by a Virgin Mother celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God in her womb (Luke 1.46-55) . What could be more important for parents of a new born than to beat a path to the parish church to immerse their child in the story, the song, the prayer, the faith, the hope, and the love of the Christian community?
I suggest to you this is a matter of some urgency.
And so here we are, it’s Easter Sunday, and we have come to the church to proclaim and to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and we are pleased to be able to broadcast this service into the ears, hearts, and minds of the parish family.
If our celebration this morning is somewhat muted, somewhat restrained, after all the church is quite empty, the organ is silent, and as to our parish traditions here at St. Mary’s, there will be no Easter lunch, no Easter egg hunt, no blessing of the Easter baskets, and no paradise cake today. That is, as it should be in the face of the ongoing the threat to public health.
But I somehow can’t shake out of my mind the scene that unfolded before my very eyes on Good Friday at the end of the Stations of the Cross Prayer Walk, where, after the closing song and blessing, I stood and watched as some of our children and young people rummaged around for twigs and grasses on the lawn with which to fashion crosses which they then planted in our parish garden, as a silent witness to passers-by…
I asked myself, “What is this? What is going on here?” And it wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the answer came to me: This is what we call faith, and this is what we call hope. This Jesus, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, who descended to the dead, rose again on the third day, has ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, and through Baptism in water in the name of the Trinity, has adopted us into His family, and made us very members of Body of Christ, and heirs of His Kingdom.
However muted, however restrained our celebration is today, the voice of proclamation, the voice of prayer, and the voice of praise, has not been silenced.
“Through the silence of God, we hear him speak, and through the darkness of his absence we glimpse his light. The anticipation of the Resurrection in the middle of an evolving history is the power that points out the way to us and helps us to go forward…”
One of the things that COVID has forced upon us is to hold to the tension that lies at the heart of our faith: and that is experience of the silence, the darkness, and the absence of God on the one hand, with the experience of the voice, and the light, and the presence of God on the other.
It’s very interesting to me that up until the 8th century we do not have in the iconography of the Church, any depiction of the Resurrection. You may wonder, “How is that possible given the centrality of the resurrection for the Christian faith?” Well, what we do find in the iconography is depictions of the crucifixion that are quite unusual, in that the Body of Jesus on the Cross is upright, with his arms stretched out, and eyes wide open.
What is going on here?
What we see in the icon is that, as the Scriptures record, it is the Living One who was crucified, and the Crucified One who lives.
In the Resurrection, it is not as if the experience of God’s silence, absence, and darkness gets left behind, but neither does this wipe out the experience of the voice, the light, and the presence of God.
Rather, as was the case with Mary Magdalene that first Easter Sunday, in our hurt, in our loss, in our grief, in our confusion, in our sin, and in our shame, we hear the voice of the One who knows us, loves, and calls us each by name, reassuring us of sins forgiven, and a love that is stronger than death, and bids us to go, “tell the brethren” of His resurrection and ascension, and in the telling to know how it is that His resurrection is the power that points out the way to us and helps us go forward.
We are still awaiting Easter; we are still not standing in the full light, but walking toward it in full trust.