This sermon was preached at the solemn Mass on Easter Sunday, which can be viewed here.
Towards the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, there’s a scene where Cordelia describes the deconsecration of the Marchmain family chapel. Having removed the Blessed Sacrament and the altar stone, the priest:
… emptied the holy-water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary, and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.
The picture of the empty tabernacle calls to Cordelia’s mind a phrase from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah which features in the Divine Office for Maundy Thursday: Quomodo solo sedet civitas plena populo. “How solitary doth sit the city that was once full of people”. The city, of course, is Jerusalem, and the melancholy chant expresses what the Jews felt about their Temple and its liturgy from their exile in Babylon.
It doesn’t take any great stretch of the imagination to apply the prophet’s lament to the situation that we find ourselves in today, and if it seems a little odd to be harking back to the liturgy of Holy Week on Easter Morning, it is because Holy Week and Easter are, this year, taking place in a context which none of us have ever experienced before, and which we’re unlikely to experience again. For many of us it will feel as though someone has pushed the pause button and the liturgy has got stuck in the middle of Lent, or as Cordelia puts it “as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday”. Today is the day above all days when the church ought to be, and normally is, full of people celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord, but as I look down the empty church, the only words that seem appropriate are those of the prophet: Quomodo solo sedet civitas plena populo. “How solitary doth sit the city that was once full of people”.
In this situation, it helps to remember two things. The first is that God is in complete control and knows what he is doing. That might seem a bit difficult to believe at the moment, and we might be tempted to think that what this means is that God only “gets his own way” so to speak in the long run. But it’s not really like that at all. When we say that God is in complete control, we don’t mean that he is prepared to lose a few battles here and there in the knowledge everything will come right in the end. On the contrary, he is the Creator of all things, and nothing whatever is at any time outside his control. His will is done at all times, by everyone and everything, irrespective of the intention of the creature. All those phenomena which seem to show the reverse to be true, including the Passion and Death of Our Lord and the many forms of suffering caused by the coronavirus, seem to do so only because we see them from a limited viewpoint.
The second thing we should remember is that God’s love is perfect and unfailing. He who is the Creator of all things visible and invisible formed his creation in love. In love he gave his only begotten Son to redeem it to himself when it had fallen, and in love his Holy Spirit sustains it continually. God’s activity is motivated by his love, and there is no rebellion against him which can quench it.
If we believe that God is in control at all times, and that his love is perfect, then we can accept the adverse situations we encounter as a share in the suffering, and therefore the vocation, of Our Lord. We can follow him only if we are prepared to take up our own cross and to tread the way of Calvary after him. For those who sincerely love God, therefore, suffering becomes not simply something which must be accepted, but a source even of real joy. The ability to experience both pain and joy is a beautiful spiritual gift that allows us to be visible witnesses of the hope we have in the Resurrection. The Good News of the Resurrection does not push to one side our vulnerabilities as though they are now of no concern. But, now, with the assurance of the ultimate victory of the love of God over anything that life might throw at us, our laughter and our tears take on a new meaning: they become part of the great story of the salvation of the world. As the poet John Donne put it:
And when God shall come to that last act in the glorifying of man, when he promises “to wipe all tears from his eyes”, what shall God have to do with that eye that never wept?
There may be many eyes weeping this morning and in the days and weeks to come, but if the lesson of Holy Week is that there is no resurrection without the cross, the lesson of Easter is that every cross has its resurrection. The changes and chances of this fleeting world remain. The glorious news of the Resurrection does not sweep them away, or short-circuit the human condition. Instead, it speaks to us no matter where we are, no matter what we have to face. The ultimate assurance is now revealed. Nothing can change that. Nothing can change the reality that is so much greater than whatever our individual personal circumstances might be, but which still reaches out to us regardless and gives the challenges we face new meaning. Death and sin have been overcome, and the Lord has truly risen.