Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Four Days of Easter

Easter stretches over four days, with the day measured from sundown to sundown - for us it begins on Thursday evening and stretches through to the close of the day on Monday.  It is an emotionally harrowing time for those who take it seriously and hence requires preparation, which is why Christian traditions include Lent, a period of fasting and reflection, in the month beforehand.

The period describes the four literal days of Jesus' death and resurrection, but also four figurative days or periods of time, four states of being in which Jesus' followers live and which we pass through over time.  Let me explain.

Easter Friday is a day of fear and anxiety.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, defenceless and surrounded by powerful enemies who are closing in on them.  The idyllic, hopeful life they lived as a band of brothers and sisters, travelling together and creating a new Kingdom of God, appears to be collapsing.  As the day progresses, things get worse - they are ambushed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested, put on trial and finally crucified.


I often feel that we are living through Easter Friday right now.  I feel very pessimistic about the future of our world and our culture, groaning under the pressure of climate change, resource depletion, global inequality and the rise of right wing nationalism.  Of course for many these are very "lefty" concerns but although other people's unease takes a different form, its emotional content is the same - a fear of the rise of radical Islam, the loss of cultural identity and the collapse of traditional moral frameworks.  We disagree about diagnosis and prescription, but we share the fear and anxiety.

Throughout Easter Friday, the death is avoidable.  Other decisions can be made, it is possible to turn back from the brink.  This is what we campaign for, and what we pray for.  It may yet come about, but also it may not.  Jesus was crucified.  We often skip over the pain and fear of this event in our worship, mashing the crucifixion with the resurrection, but this will not do.  We have to live through the pain of Friday and Saturday before we get to Sunday.

I imagine that this kind of fear and anxiety is what people were living through in the 1930s.  They could see that their society was groaning under multiple stresses and strains.  The global economy had gone belly-up and ordinary people struggled to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.  Various countries were re-arming and becoming more aggressive.  But who was the greater threat - was it the rise of fascism, or was it the rise of communism?  Across the decade people rode a roller-coaster of hope ("Peace in our time!") and despair up until the Germans invaded Poland and all hell broke loose.

Easter Saturday is the day of mourning and despair.  The worst has happened, Jesus has been crucified, the one who was the source of hope is dead and buried.  There is nothing the disciples can do but live through it.  Inside they feel empty, hollowed out, barely able to even put one foot in front of the other, or prepare and eat the food their brains know they need but their bodies reject.  They huddle dejectedly in their borrowed room and dare not think about the future.

It is, to some extent, analogous of the years from 1939 to 1945.  The war had come.  It would not end until millions had died, soldiers and civilians, old and young, from bullets, disease and famine, and millions more had been displaced, their homes destroyed.  Those who survived could only watch in horror and feel that numbness of trauma and grief.

Yet there is another side to this moment, expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he wrote in his German prison.

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,
are bound; in helplessness now you see your action
is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing
to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.

The challenge of faith becomes real because now there is no alternative, you cannot take action, you can only trust in the power above you or beyond you, whether that be God, or Fate, or History.  Your action is on hold, you can only watch and wait in pain and anguish.

Easter Sunday is the day when hope breaks through.  The hope is tentative.  The one the disciples  thought was dead appears to have risen from the tomb.  At least, the tomb is empty and reports are circulating.  Can they trust them?  They're not sure.  It seems absurd that it could be so, especially after they have resigned themselves to despair, when their grief and mourning are still fresh and raw.  And what does this new hope mean?  They hoped before, when they were travelling with Jesus through Galilee learning about the Kingdom and attempting to practice its life among themselves.  Look what happened to that!  Surely the enemy will snuff out this new hope in the same way.

So they still can't do anything.  They can still only wait and see, perhaps cautiously investigate a little to find out the truth, but still keeping a low profile, knowing the authorities are still watching them.  Yet this is a different waiting.  There is still fear, there is still some level of despair and pessimism, but there is also a glimmer of hope.

I imagine that this is how people felt in 1945 as news of the war's end started to filter through.  At first people would not credit the truth.  After all, they had been living the war for six years.  Then for some it was a huge relief, and there was dancing and partying in the streets as the truth of peace started to dawn.  But for others it was not so joyous.  Where were those loved ones they hadn't heard from for so long?  Would they come home, or were they gone forever?  Could the threads of the old life really be taken up again after so much death and destruction?  The war had ended, but what would the peace be like?  Big Country capture it well in their song, Come Back to Me.

The day they had a party
Right out in the street
Flags and flowers and singing
For the homecome hero's treat
I sat in the kitchen
Without a fire on the range
I knew this house had lost the cause
To ever make me warm again

Come back to me
Days are all too long
Come back to me
You never should have gone
I was so young and full of pride
And you were wild and strong
I never knew how weak I was

I watched them gather round him
When he stepped down from the car
While tears fell on my cigarette
He handed out cigars
I have your child inside me
But you will never know
I never will forget you
While I watch that child grow

When we go to church on Easter Sunday we should not be too quick to celebrate as if it was all over.  There is no easy escape from the fear and pain of Friday and Saturday.  Many of those who walk through the doors of our churches are still mourning.  Indeed, many of us like me are still living in Easter Friday, still looking at the future with trepidation.  Many are still grieving over actual losses of various sorts.  Peter's painful realisation that he was not as courageous as he thought still resonates on Easter Sunday, his personal loss will not heal overnight.  Many things have been lost forever.  Resurrection or not, those days in Galilee are gone and will not return.  It is a new hope, born out of pain and renunciation, hope still tinged with and indeed born in grief and loss.

Many of us have experienced the easy joy of evangelical conversion, and found it wanting.  We were assured that Jesus had risen from the dead and so all was well, but as time passed we realised that all is not well.  Hope is not to be so easily won.  It is a discipline which needs to be learned and practiced amidst fear, uncertainty and grief.  Easter Sunday reminds us that even when it seems otherwise hope is still possible, rebirth is still part of the story.

Easter Monday is the day for beginning the rebuilding.  This is not simply restoring what was lost.  There will be no return to those heady days in Galilee.  Their Master will no longer travel with them in the flesh, although they feel him with them in the spirit.  Instead, out of the ruins of the old they build the new.  The old ended in Jerusalem and this is where the new begins, in the very teeth of the Jewish authorities who had Jesus killed, and from there they build not a replica of their Galilean life but something wholly new and different.  What they build is not perfect.  There are many tensions and divisions, and over time it is partly subverted by the Powers that Be.  Nonetheless, the resurrection, the rebirth of hope, allows them to build, and continues to allow rebuilding time and again.

This was also the task of 1946 and the years and decades that followed.  The dead could not be brought back to life, but their widows and orphans could be provided for.  The bombed out buildings could not be rebuilt, but something else could be built in their place.  Many considered it unwise to try to pretend the war had not happened.  The ruins of Coventry Cathedral were left in place as a reminder of the destructiveness of war and the new cathedral built next door.  The Nazi concentration camps were not bulldozed but turned into harrowing museums of genocide to remind later generations not to do the same.  But new social and political relationships were devised, new political and social institutions were built, whole new nations emerged, new infrastructure was put in place.

If we forget Easter Monday we leave the job incomplete.  New hope remains just that if it does not give birth to new life.  We are not asked to rejoice at the mouth of the empty tomb, we are asked to "go into all the world".  Jesus says, "As my father sent me, so I send you".  We have work to do.  This work is informed by grief and pain as well as by hope, and comes out of living through all three and looking them squarely in the eye.  It is not naive optimism, it is clear eyed determination to bring good out of evil, to answer destruction with rebuilding, to respond to death with life.

The four days of Easter need to be understood as a cycle not just of death and new life, but as a four step process that encompasses all of life.  Sometimes in our lives we will experience the fear and anxiety of Friday, sometimes the grief and emptiness of Saturday, sometimes the tentative but exciting new hope of Sunday, sometimes the energy and determination of Monday.  Sometimes we will feel a bit of all four.  Easter reminds of to observe all four steps, to look out for where our fellows are on the journey and respond with love and understanding.  It reminds is that where we are now is not where we will always be.  If we hope or are full of energy now a day will come when we suffer and mourn.  If we suffer and mourn now, new hope will dawn and we will be re-energised.

Wherever you are on the cycle, may you have a blessed Easter.

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