Sermon for Easter Day 2005, Llandaff Cathedral
There are those who believe that the best seats in this Cathedral Church are to be found in the choir. They are in fact quite wrong. The best seats are actually in the nave, especially those on the other side of the Crossing. Why do I say that? Simple really, I speak from experience. I frequently have to sit in the choir but of choice when I slip into Evensong on weeknights I sit in the nave, for it is from there that one can see Epstein’s ‘Majestas’ in all its glory. The trouble is of course, we are so used to seeing it; we don’t take too much notice of it.
This statue of the risen ascended Christ in unpolished aluminium, sixteen feet in height, caused great controversy in 1957 when it was fixed to the concrete cylinder of the organ case, for it dominates the nave. People still either loathe it or love it. This figure of Jesus has a look of death about him in one sense because the body is so long and thin and narrow and he seems still constricted and bound as if he were still in his burial shroud, and aluminium of course is a greyish death colour. Its sheer domination of the nave and its title the ‘Majestas’ reminds us however of the risen ascended Jesus of Luke and Acts at Bethany with his hands open, his eyes looking heavenward. But perhaps in the light of what I have just said, Epstein was influenced not so much by the writer of Luke and Acts, where resurrection, ascension and the coming of the spirit are separated out into three separate events with resurrection followed by ascension forty days later and the coming of the spirit ten days after that but by the Gospel of John where death, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the spirit all seem to occur at the same time. The risen Jesus with the wounds of his death still visible upon him is declared to be both risen from the dead and the Lord of Life who entrusts the future to his followers and promises them the gift of his spirit.
Epstein’s ‘Majestas’ reminds us that resurrection and ascension are not just other stages in the life of Jesus as if he has put death behind him. Jesus is both crucified and risen although there do not appear to be wounds on Epstein’s death-like Jesus. As one of the Easter prefaces has it “Jesus lives forever slain” and many artists have depicted the risen Jesus with the marks of crucifixion upon him as he himself showed those wounds to his disciples after being raised from the dead. Christianity is a faith founded on the Cross of Christ and suffering is an inherent part of it.
This signifies that the suffering risen Jesus is to be found in the midst of suffering and in solidarity with all those who suffer. He is to be found amongst those who are cast out and crucified. As one theologian puts it “Christ’s body is cast out among the poor and all those who live in desolation. He is among us as vulnerable and powerless. This man challenges all those whose images speak of power and domination beginning with Caesar whose face was on the coins Jesus examined, to tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, whose images used to be seen everywhere in Iraq”. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a marvellous icon of the risen Christ behind barbed wire trying to tear it down, symbolising at one and the same time his destruction of death and captivity but with the palms of his hands bearing the marks of crucifixion symbolising his suffering and his identification with all those who suffer.
We live in a world where there is much terror, death and destruction inflicted not just by humans but by the natural world as the Tsunami disaster last December showed us. In the face of so many ruined lives, we feel helpless and ask where is God in all this? Does he cause it or at the very least why he can’t he fix it? The response of the Gospel is, that the risen Jesus is still the crucified Jesus and just as he was powerless in the face of his own death so he is powerless in the face of so much that happens in the world because the God revealed by Jesus has chosen to be the God who refuses to be the great ‘Mr Fixit’ who intervenes at will but who loves his world and gives it its freedom. So Jesus himself can cry on the cross “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” yet in the hope that God will sustain him he also commends his Spirit to his Father. The God of Jesus cannot fix our tragedies be they personal, national or worldwide or stop bad things happening. He is however the God who identifies with his suffering world.
Elie Wiesel has written about the terrible hangings he witnessed when he was in Auschwitz during the Second World War. The worst was the hanging of two adults and a young boy. Everyone was lined up to witness the deaths. He writes: The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live Liberty”, cried the adults. But the child was silent. “Where is God, where is he” someone behind me asked. At the sign from the Head of the Camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the Camp. On the horizon the sun was setting. Then the March Past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue tinged. But the third rope was still moving – being so light the child was still alive. For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me I heard the same man asking “Where is God now?” and I heard within me answer him “Where is he? He is hanging here on this gallows?”.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, put to death in the closing months of that same war wrote “Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world. God is the deus ex machina. The Bible however directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help”. What Bonhoeffer is saying is that God is with us in the depths of sorrow and walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. This obviously does not mean that evil will not touch us but it does mean that God is with us whatever we face. As Bonhoeffer went to the gallows he said to his executioner “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life”. In other words he on held to the knowledge that God in Christ had suffered and was on the side of those who suffered since his risen body still bore the marks of his death.
And the Easter stories are all of a piece with this as well. There is a distinct lack of a triumphal note in the Easter accounts of the risen Jesus. Jesus doesn’t walk into the Palace of the High Priest or the Governor’s Mansion to say to them “Well you thought I’d died, well here I am again”. He does not prove his vindication. He goes for a walk in the dark with a couple of his disciples out in the country or he talks to Mary in the Garden and she mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus presents himself to those disciples quietly, unobtrusively, undramatically and the recognition on the part of the disciples was slow. God’s revelation in Jesus was the same in life, death and resurrection – quiet, unobtrusive and waiting for people to respond to him. So the first Easter was not so much a triumph as an epiphany – a revelation, a disclosure and what it disclosed was that God – the eternal God is like Jesus and that Jesus discloses to people the real nature of God.
But the ascended Christ of Epstein has his hands open – almost as if he is saying to his followers – I now entrust it all to you, which is precisely what he did do of course. You will recall that in the Garden of Gethsemane he had asked God to let the cup of suffering pass from him but that nevertheless he was willing to do his will. Part of the temptation for Jesus must have been the desire to continue his work and he must have felt that he was being asked to hand it over to disciples who had proved themselves incompetent and quarrelsome and disunited. He must have been tempted to hang on, to give them a bit more time under his influence to make sure that they could cope. In fact he goes to the cross and hands over his work to those disciples.
Here is a handing over – an entrusting of his work to his disciples. As David Ford puts it “He creates by his death a limitless sphere of responsibility for us. As in his parable of the master who goes away and leaves stewards in charge these hands are an embodiment of a call to responsibility in absence”. Or perhaps it is not so much an absence but a presence through us. As Saint Teresa of Avila put it “Christ now has no feet but ours, no hands but ours, no mouth but ours The Gospel of his resurrection has been entrusted to you and to me”.
There is a further point. The risen Christ appears to disciples who have let him down, either by running away when he was arrested or by denying him and abandoning him to his own fate. The message he has to impart is that whatever has happened, fellowship with him remains unbroken. “Come and have breakfast” he says to his disciples. So much so, that it is to them that he actually entrusts his message and mission to the world. He does not allow cowardice or denial to fracture the relationship he has with them, on the contrary by entrusting them with the continuation of his saving work he gives them tangible proof that his relationship with them and to them is totally unaffected. The disciples do not have to do anything before they are given the assurance that Jesus’ relationship with them continues as before. His commitment to them remains firm, his communion with them is unbroken.
The Anglican Church worldwide has something to learn from this. There are people who seem to think that before you can be in communion with others your beliefs have to coincide or your personal morality has to be of a certain standard or you have got to be willing to sign up to certain minimum requirements be they scriptural, moral or doctrinal or publicly repent of your sins. On this view of things, one can only receive communion with and from those who think like us, behave like us or identify with the causes we hold dear or the beliefs that we subscribe to. The resurrection of Jesus is the total opposite of such ways of thinking and behaving. He takes people as they are, knowing the full extent of their betrayal of him and assures them that his friendship with them is undiminished. Communion is unbroken.
So the resurrection and ascension far from being a reversal of all that has gone on in Jesus’s life is actually a reinforcement of it. His presence is a hidden vulnerable presence in the midst of our tragedies and his work of helping the weak, the victims, the marginalised and the distressed he now entrusts to our care in the knowledge that such ways of living and loving are the only ways to live a truly fulfilled human life and the only way as well to live out the divine life.