174a Hoylake Road
Whisper it: Miracles occur.
One of my favourite paintings is by the Victorian pre-Raphaelite artist John Waterhouse. It is titled Pandora’s Box after the famous Greek legend. At the beginning of time, when the world was perfect, the gods left behind on earth a beautiful large jewelled box. Pandora was a curious girl and could not resist opening the lid and taking a peek. And when she did, all the horrors of the world – disease, hunger, evil, greed – were unleashed. Too late, she closed the lid. Only hope remained in the box.
Waterhouse though is most interested in the look on Pandora’s face. He has captured that one moment, frozen in time, when Pandora has just opened the box. The viewer does not see inside: all you see is the look on Pandora’s face. It is a mixture of curiosity, wonder and perhaps above all fear. The fate of the world is written on Pandora’s face.
Mark tells us in the very earliest account of this day that the women arrived at the tomb when it was dark. Mark captures that moment. He does not show us what is inside the tomb. Instead, he is more interested in the look on the women’s faces. And that look is one of fear. Don’t take my word for it – look at the original Greek in the New Testament. The final word in Greek of the first authentic gospel account of Easter is afraid (Mark 16 v 8). Make no mistake, whatever it is that has been opened in that tomb, whatever it is that those curious women see, they are afraid. And that is the last word in the first account of Easter.
The first pop star of modern times was Al Jolson; he sold millions of records (remember those?) in the 1920s and 1930s and made the first talking picture. But before that, he was a star of the theatre stage. His favourite part of his act was to walk out to the footlights at the front of the stage and call out to the manager: “Turn up the house lights. I wanna see their faces!” Jolson knew that to sing at his best he needed to see people react to his singing: he could only touch his audience by his music if he could see their faces.
Easter touches us by the look in people’s faces. For today, for the most part, Jesus remains in the shadows. Light and dark, chiaroscuro. By remaining in the shadows, Jesus lets us see the details of Easter appearing in the illuminated faces of the women, then Peter, then one by one the others. Easter is written on the faces of those first witnesses to resurrection. For in barely five or ten minutes, that look Mark has frozen in time for us – that look of fear – has changed. The women are running down the hillside now to tell the others, and it is not fear on their faces, but surprise, then wonder, then joy. It is, if you will, the reverse of the legend of Pandora’s Box. From a sealed tomb now opened, love has been unleashed into a broken world. Only fear remains inside. Look at their faces again. They are laughing now, crying with joy and amazement. The laughter lines of Easter: the wonderful fate of the world is written on their faces.
Say it: miracles occur.
And yet this miracle is so small, almost undetectable at first. The new world begins not with a bang but with a whimper. And that’s the thing about God. My God is smaller than your God. Remember those childhood boasts from the playground to your friends: “My Daddy is bigger than your Daddy!”? How quick we are to boast as Christians: “my God is bigger than your God!” No, he Is not. He is much smaller. So small, in fact, that he chooses not earthquakes or chariots of fire to announce his new creation but an unmarked empty tomb and a group of women with Easter written all over their faces. Easter seeps out into the world, dripping slowly into the lives of those first followers one by one, turning faces etched with despair into faces lit up by joy. Remember the story of the broken clown and the little girl? Well, today we have learned to live and laugh again. Look at those faces: today we see the laughter lines of Easter!
And now we too approach the empty tomb. And in our church life, now – but not before – we can reverse the darkness of Good Friday. I mentioned how we achieve the darkness of Christ’s death in Moreton Church by the “stripping of the church” on Thursday evening with flowers and decorations removed, lights dimmed and a black funeral cloth draped over the bare pulpit and communion table. If our church were open this morning for Easter, worshippers would be confronted by a strange sight. The curtains would be closed, the lights dimmed, and no music from the organist; the black cloth would still be on the communion table and not one daffodil or flower in sight! Then we sing a “dawn” hymn about the women approaching the tomb; the curtains are opened, and the lights slowly come up, the organ plays, the black cloths are removed, and the Easter flowers are finally brought in. The church is transformed, flooded with light.
But try singing this to yourself to that same tune, Aurelia:
This Easter celebration is not like ones we've known.
We pray in isolation, we sing the hymns alone.
We're distant from our neighbours — from worship leaders, too.
No flowers grace the chancel to set a festive mood.
No gathered choirs are singing; no banners lead the way.
O God of love and promise, where's joy this Easter Day?
With sanctuaries empty, may homes become the place
we ponder resurrection and celebrate your grace.
Our joy won't come from worship that's in a crowded room
but from the news of women who saw the empty tomb.
Our joy comes from disciples who ran with haste to see —
who heard that Christ is risen, and then, by grace, believed.
In all the grief and suffering, may we remember well:
Christ suffered crucifixion and faced the powers of hell.
Each Easter bears the promise: Christ rose that glorious day!
Now nothing in creation can keep your love away.
We thank you that on Easter, your church is blessed to be
a scattered, faithful body that's doing ministry.
In homes and in the places of help and healing, too,
we live the Easter message by gladly serving you.
(Words by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, 2020:
reproduced with permission)
Now we approach too the empty tomb from the safety of our own homes. Did I say “safety”? Beware! Easter is not a safe place to be on your journey! If we have made our God too big, we have perhaps also made Him too safe. That moment of danger is described by C S Lewis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where Jesus is (perhaps?) depicted in the form of a lion, Aslan.
“If there is anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they are either braver than most or just silly.” “Then isn’t he safe” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Easter is a dangerous place to be, wherever you celebrate it. Look into that tomb if you dare! But if you do, your face too will slowly change, and the laughter lines of Easter yet appear on faces stained with the tears of too much suffering.
Proclaim it: Miracles occur.
And then this small God, this tiny beginning to a new world, will take hold of us. As the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us.” Physicists know that it is the smallest and most unseen of particle reactions that can start a chain of events leading to an explosion of devastating power. And who at this time has not reflected on the tiny start of this virus, almost unannounced when one person was admitted to hospital in Wuhan with “a new form of pneumonia” in December, less than four months ago? As the women run down that hill, Easter written on their faces, a chain reaction, a contagion if you will, has started from such small beginnings. And Easter is highly infectious. Let him Easter in us. Where will it end? He continues to Easter in us in the most unlikely of places. Love once unleashed from that tomb outside Jerusalem is unstoppable.
Many years ago during the dark days of Communism I visited what was then East Germany and our Communist guide took our party to the ruined Frauenkirche, the great Protestant church that was destroyed in the fire that followed the Allied bombing in February 1945. It lay in rubble. The Communists wanted it that way. The rubble was safe. It did not threaten them. God was dead. And then in 1989 against all expectations, another small miracle. Communism fell. And the first thing the newly united Germany did was to rebuild the church from the rubble. Not a new church, but the same church was to rise again, stone by stone, numbered brick by numbered brick, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The final piece of the jigsaw, a cross to replace the golden cross that melted in the heat, was donated by the people of Coventry, a city that had also suffered from bombing during the war. Recently, I saw the rebuilt Frauenkirche and remembered our Communist guide. But to rebuild a ruined church is not safe. It is dangerous. And it was done not in one giant miracle but in a million tiny steps with individual stones, some of which bore and still bear the blackened scorch marks of the inferno. That is the chain reaction of Easter. Stone by stone, we are reassembled.
More recently, another great church was almost destroyed by fire: Notre Dame in Paris, which suffered a huge roof fire on 15 April 2019. I am sure you remember the news footage at the time. Last Christmas the badly damaged cathedral did not host Christmas services for the first time since the French Revolution. But then on Friday, Archbishop Michel Aupetit led a Good Friday service there with a small group of worshippers and musicians, some wearing masks and hazmat suits. Central to the worship and on the altar lay The Crown of Thorns of Christ, a sculptural icon that had survived the fire. France too has suffered from the ravaged of coronavirus, but as that small group focused their attention on the Crown of Thorns, it was an affirmation that Christ has suffered, Christ has died – and Christ has risen!
The story has ended, the world said, on Good Friday. God is dead. And he was. We were in ruins, we were the charred embers, there is no denying that. But stone by stone, one at a time, we have come together, we have let him Easter in us. We still bear the scorch marks of suffering and death, but from every living room in the shadow of our closed churches know this: a small God rebuilds his people. The churches will reopen again. God will Easter in them.
In Dresden, in Coventry, in Chennai, in Paris, in the ICU units of our hospitals, in every hospital ward, at every bedside and in every living room today, in every lockdowned village and town across the world:
Shout it: miracles occur!