Monday, March 24, 2008

The first day of Creation all over again

Easter -- that is, Easter Sunday morning church celebrations with the brass and the timpani, the belt-it-out hymns and anthems, their martial words and proclamations of Victory -- is something I actually dread each year and sigh a big sigh of relief when it is over. For me Easter comes in the middle of the night, the Resurrection that occurred when no one was looking, light out of darkness in quiet and a searing glory that is beyond sounds or words. Easter Sunday at times seems a profanation of that great mystery and the way it should get under our skins and into what life and breath we have left in this world.

I thought about writing about it further, but I suspect it all has to do with my personal idiosyncrasies, and I'd just as soon get back to the regularly scheduled programming of everyday life.

Yet, I woke up this morning, to find this marvelous sermon, by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It takes me to the kind of Easter I seek -- the one that happens on Monday after and every day after that. So I share the part I liked most here (and recommend the whole linked below):
Easter may tell us that death is conquered, but it doesn't tell us that there was never any contest.

Perhaps that's the clue. Easter is not about denying death, and the resurrection doesn't make the nightmare death on the cross unreal. Death is exactly what the artists and scientists and psychoanalysts say: it is a full stop to human growth and response, it is night falling on everything we value or understand or hope for. Fear is natural, and so is grief at the death of another (Jesus, remember, shed tears for the death of a friend). Don't attempt to avoid it or deny its seriousness. On the contrary, keep it in view; remind yourself of it. When the tradition of the Church proposes that you think daily about death and prepare for it, it isn't being morbid but realistic: get used to it and learn to live with the fear. And meanwhile - Shakespeare was being entirely Christian in this respect - get used to loving and valuing things and persons irrespective of the fact that they won't be there for ever. Love them now, and what you would want to do for them, do now. 'Night is coming when no-one can work', says Jesus. (John 9.4)

So what does it mean to say that, despite all this, death is 'defeated'? When death happens and growing stops, there are no more plans, no more hope of control: for the believer, there is only God left. Just as at the very beginning of creation, there is God, and there is the possibility that God has brought into being by his loving will. When death has done all it can do, God remains untouched and his will is the loving and generating will that it eternally is. When we look at death, we look at something that can destroy anything in our universe - but not God, its maker and redeemer. And if we accept that we shall die and all our hopes and schemes fall into the dark, we do so knowing that God is unchanged. So to die is to fall into the hands of the living God.

That is why the effort to keep death daily before us is a source of life and hope. It is to commend ourselves every day into God's hands, trusting that he is eternally a loving creator, in whom there is no darkness at all, as the New Testament says. (I John 1.5) And when we let ourselves go into God's hands, we do so confident that he is free to do what he wills with us - and that what he wills for us is life. The Easter story is not about how Jesus survived death or how the spirit of Jesus outlasted his mortal frame or whatever; it is about a person going down into darkness and the dissolving of all things and being called again out of that nothingness. Easter Day, as so many have said, is the first day of creation all over again - or, as some have put it, the eighth day of the week, the unimaginable extra that is assured by the fact that God's creative word is never stifled or silenced.

Celebrating Easter is celebrating the creator - celebrating the God whose self-giving purpose is never cancelled and who is always free to go on giving himself to those he has called. And resurrection for us is that renewed call: when we have fallen silent, when we no longer have any freedom to respond or develop, God's word comes to us again and we live. (II Cor 5.17) We can't really imagine it; it isn't just a continuation of our present life in slightly different circumstances but a new world. Yet all that God has seen and worked with in this life is brought into his presence once more and he renews his relationship with it all, spirit and body.
From the Archbishop's Easter Day Sermon
Sunday 23 March 2008, Given at Canterbury Cathedral
© Rowan Williams


o-mom said...

So do Episcopals sing This is the Feast of Victory for our Lord? Just wondering.

klady said...

Oh don't ask that. Our music director has us sing that just as a hymn once in awhile (I guess it must be in the hymnal) and it drives me nuts (I don't mind it in the middle of the Lutheran Communion, only because I expect it there, but I just can't stomach it anywhere else).

We don't have anything like that for the Eucharist itself - i.e. no hymn that is part of the service every week -- we just have the various musical settings for the Sanctus (Holy, holy, lord, God of power and might.... etc.) and other parts of the mass, all the same words as the Romans. [Hey, we had traditional Episcopal mass music at our wedding -- you don't recall?]

So the triumphalism is nothing integral to the service or any kind of regular feature -- it all just depends on the background of the composers and lyricists who author the hymns the congregation sings and the choral works the choir presents at the Offertory, before the regular words of the mass begin, and then sometimes a Communion anthem, sung after the choir and musicians take Communion and get situated, while others may still be going to the rail.

In those anthems, depending on the selections, we have occasional strains of mighty Protestantism that courses through some Anglican music. The English, especially, are historically far more evangelical and less Catholic than us, and we borrow hymns from just about everyone -- Methodist, Lutheran, etc. Choral pieces, however, can be just about anything, any style or time period.

Anyway, this year our big offertory anthem was the same used for last year's Easter music at St. Thomas's Fifth Avenue in NYC. I got to like the music o.k. after about 8 weeks of practice but... well, it ain't Easter to me. Here it is:

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem,
Your sweetest notes employ,
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.

For Judah's Lion bursts his chains,
Crushing the serpent's head;
And cries aloud through death's domains
To wake the imprisoned dead.

Devouring depths of hell their prey
At his command restore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where Jesus goes before.

Triumphant in his glory now
To him all power is given;
To him in one communion bow
All saints in earth and Heaven.

While we, His soldiers, praise our King,
His mercy we implore,
Within his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to Thee,
While endless ages run.

Alleluia! Amen.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), from
R Campbell and the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern

This was positively crashing (with the "depths of hell" stuff sung by the basses). And then we had the Hallelujah chorus for the communion anthem -- an immovable tradition where the folks in the pews can sing along (if they have their own music or have memorized it).

Anyway, going from Methodists to Lutherans to Piskiepalians, I've never noticed any appreciable difference in Easter Sunday fanfares. Always too loud and brassy, one way or another.