Monday, 1 April 2013

Easter: Off-beat Reflections

It may have been the coldest Easter Day on record, but in Durham it was golden. I wish it could have gone on for ever. In an ultimate sense it does, of course: resurrection is not just for Easter. And now we are celebrating the Great Fifty Days of Easter that take us to Pentecost with alleluias all the way.

The sights and sounds of Easter Day linger on. The lighting of the new fire an hour before dawn in the cloister garth as dark as grave; the rattles, whistles, bells and cymbals that accompanied the first great alleluia! shout; the quantities of water freely ladled out of the font as candidates were baptised; the new copes lending brilliant colour to the day’s celebrations; magnificent choral music (including an Easter piece by Widor of Toccata fame, said to be the loudest anthem in the choir’s repertoire); the pleasure on choristers’ faces as my wife and I gave them eggs and chocolates after the services. Worshippers came in great numbers and, from what they told me afterwards, were genuinely touched and inspired. As I was.

But two memories stand out, both of them surprises.

The first was of administering communion at the dawn vigil service. Twenty were confirmed, of all ages from young choristers upwards. It is always moving to see the candidates kneeling round the great Cathedral font as the bishop moves round the circle laying hands on them. They received communion before anyone else. And as they knelt at the altar and I gave them the sacred host, a wonderful scent filled the nave sanctuary.

It took me a short while to realise what it was: the perfume in the chrism oil that had been liberally poured on to their heads at the font. Two weeks before, I had preached on the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with her precious ointmentThe aroma filled the house, says the gospel. But yesterday’s was the scent not of burial but of resurrection. It was an unexpectedly tender and beautiful experience.

The second also happened during communion, this time at the mid-morning sung eucharist. I was administering at the west end. What felt like a never-ending flow of people came up to receive the bread or to be blessed. Most of these I didn’t know personally: regulars are always far outnumbered by visitors and guests at the great festivals.

But at the end someone came up whom I knew extremely well. It was my eldest daughter carrying her month-old son Isaac, our first grandchild. I put out my hand to touch him and give him his first church blessing. That touch was charged with a significance I can’t put into words. It was as if all of life seemed to be gathered up in this tiny child. I wondered if Simeon felt something like it when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple. It was as if I was being offered a great gift.  It wasn’t I who was the giver, but he. The intensity of the moment subsided as it had to.  But it will be unforgettable, I am sure of that.

They were both off-beat experiences: not about sight or hearing which tend to dominate our consciousness, but about scent and touch. I have heard it said that these are the more basic, primary among our senses. A baby depends mainly on them to recognise mother. And at the end of life, touch and smell outlast the other senses leaving a person who is gently slipping away with something like the experience of beginning life.

I don’t pretend to understand these things. But I did glimpse how in a wonderful way, Easter speaks to each of our human senses. Our meeting with the risen Christ is not just a matter of seeing and listening but of allowing him to encounter all our human faculties, so that we can become more fully human through his resurrection. To recognise this and not to be afraid of it is what it means to be embodied, for the incarnate Jesus and for us.

‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’ said Irenaeus famously. That’s one of the gifts of Easter.  Maybe it's not so off-beat after all.

My sermon on the anointing at Bethany is at

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