Thinking Anglicans

Rowan Williams' Easter Sermon

The text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon is below.

Canterbury Cathedral 11 April 2004

A good few years ago, I heard a distinguished American scholar of ancient history commenting on the proclamation of the resurrection as it would have been heard in the classical world. ‘If an educated Greek or Roman had been told that someone had been raised from the dead’, he said, ‘his first question would have been “How do you get him back into his grave again?”’. The point was that most of those who first heard the Easter gospel would have found it grotesque or even frightening. Resurrection was not a joyful sign of hope but an alarming oddity, something potentially very dangerous. The dead, if they survived at all, lived in their own world – a shadowy place, where they were condemned to a sort of half-life of yearning and sadness. So Vergil at least represents it in his great epic, unforgettably portraying the dead as ‘stretching out their hands in longing for the other side of the river’. But for them to return would have been terrifying and unnatural; the boundaries between worlds had to be preserved and protected.

Even the ancient Hebrews, who first made resurrection a positive idea, thought of the condition of the dead in just such a way: and resurrection was something that would happen at the end of time, when the good would be raised to receive their reward and the wicked their punishment, as in the prophecy of Daniel. But the news that someone had been raised from the tomb now would have been as disturbing for the Jew as for the Greek, if not perhaps quite so straightforwardly frightening. When St Matthew tells us that between the death and the ascension of Jesus many holy people of older days left their tombs in Jerusalem and appeared to many in the city, he is portraying not a scene of happy reunion but a true earthquake in the established order of the universe. It all helps us make sense of that unmistakeable element in the resurrection stories in the gospels that speaks of terror and amazement.

But why might resurrection be such a problem? Apart from the total confusion of present and long-term future which resurrection involved for the Jew, and the untidy blurring of boundaries between worlds for the Greek, there is another factor. When the dead did appear in vision or dream in the ancient world, it was often to denounce their killers; and the ancient empires specialised in mass slaughter. What would it have meant to a Roman to be told not only that the dead could return but that the ‘firstborn from the dead’, the firstfruits of the harvest, was one who had been among the victims of the empire’s legal system? Ancient empires grew and survived by assuming that enormous quantities of human lives were expendable and unimportant; those who fell victim to the system simply disappeared. But what if they didn’t? Here was a message that might well cause alarm: an executed criminal, instead of disappearing into oblivion, is brought back into the world and his friends are told to speak in his name to his killers, telling them that for their life and health they must trust that he has made peace for them with God.

And what was worse still was that this was seen not as an isolated matter: the risen one was only the first. His rising from death guaranteed that all would be raised, that no life would be forgotten and obliterated, or even relegated to the everlasting half-light of Hades. Death does not end relationships between human persons and between human persons and God; and this may be sobering news as well as joyful, sobering especially for an empire with blood on its hands. We forget so readily what Christianity brought into the world; we are so used to it that we think it is obvious. In the ancient world there was absolutely no assumption that every life was precious. Fathers had the right to kill their children in certain circumstances, masters their slaves; crowds flocked to see criminals or prisoners of war killing each other in the theatres; massacre was a normal tool of war. Some philosophers defended a theory of abstract human equality, but they were untroubled by the political facts of life in which lives were expendable in these familiar ways. It is a shock to realise just how deeply rooted such an attitude was. And when all is said and done about how Christianity has so often failed in its own vision, the bare fact is that it brought an irreversible shift in human culture. Human value could not be extinguished by violence or death; no-one could be forgotten.

The gospel of the resurrection announced many great things, but this must have been one of the most disturbing of all. Here and now, God holds on to the lives of all the departed – including the lives that have been wasted, violently cut short, damaged by oppression. All have worth in his sight. If God can raise as the messenger of his word and the giver of his life a man who has been through the dehumanising process of a Roman state execution, a process carefully designed to humiliate and obliterate, then the imperial power may well begin to worry.

We don’t live under an empire like that, thank God. Yet we look back on century in which imperial powers have in so many ways sought to obliterate their victims, as if the resurrection never happened. At Auschwitz there is an inscription in Hebrew from the Old Testament, ‘O earth, cover not their blood’; the Holocaust, along with the mass killings of the thirties in the Soviet Union or the revolutionary years in China, went forward at the hands of people who assumed as blandly as any ancient Roman that the dead could be buried one and for all and forgotten. Cambodia and Rwanda and the Balkans remind us that it doesn’t need to be an imperial power; it may be your closest neighbours who turn into murderers.

Now we may not have that kind of blood on our hands; but there are times when we are convicted of sharing something of that assumption about the dead. Who is there who has not felt a little of this conviction, reading in these last few weeks the heartbreaking stories that mark the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda? It is not that we wielded the weapons; but the nations of the world stood by in indecision and distractedness while the slaughter went on. Some lives, it seems, are still forgettable; some deaths still obliterate memory, for those of us at a distance. And as I speak, the carnage in Northern Uganda continues; just a matter of weeks ago, a mass killing there failed to make anything like an adequately serious impact on great tracts of the media; and most people here are not aware of the nearly one million displaced persons in that region, living in continual fear, and the nightmare situation of the hundreds of thousands of children kidnapped to be soldiers, to kill and be killed. When deaths like this are forgotten, the gospel of the resurrection should come as a sharp word of judgement as well as of hope.

But hope, of course, it is. We may and we should feel the reproach of the risen Christ as we recognise how easily we let ourselves forget; and nearer home, we might think too of those who die alone and unloved in our own society – the aged with no family (or forgotten by their family), the homeless addict, the mentally disturbed isolated from ordinary human contact. But Easter tells us to be glad that they are not forgotten by God, that their dignity is held and affirmed by God and that their lives are in his hand. In that gladness, we should be stirred to turn our eyes to look for those likeliest to be forgotten and to ask where our duty and service lies. God’s justice rebukes our forgetfulness; and the truth that he will never let go of the lost and needy, so far from being an alibi for us not to bother, is a reminder of the responsibility of service and reverence laid upon all of us.

But the goodness of the resurrection news is most evident for those who have lost people they love to any sort of incomprehensible evil – the tragedies of dementia, the apparent meaninglessness of accident, the horrors of violence or injustice. Think back for a moment to the days when death squads operated in countries like Argentina or El Salvador: the Christians there developed a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope and their resistance. At the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those killed or ‘disappeared’, and for each name someone would call out from the congregation, Presente, ‘Here’. When the assembly is gathered before God, the lost are indeed presente; when we pray at this eucharist ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’, we say presente of all those the world (including us) would forget and God remembers. With angels and archangels; with the butchered Rwandans of ten years ago and the butchered or brutalised Ugandan children of last week or yesterday; with the young woman dead on a mattress in King’s Cross after an overdose and the childless widower with Alzheimer’s; with the thief crucified alongside Jesus and all the thousands of other anonymous thieves crucified in Judaea by an efficient imperial administration; with the whole company of heaven, those whom God receives in his mercy. And with Christ our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, by whose death our sinful forgetfulness and lukewarm love can be forgiven and kindled to life, who leaves no human soul in anonymity and oblivion, but gives to all the dignity of a name and a presence. He is risen; he is not here; he is present everywhere and to all. He is risen: presente.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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Roy Moffett
20 years ago

A highly thought provoking text, which calls, in our current context, for a reponse to all those religious zealots who would commit murder in the name of their God that we should ask our God to “forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

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