Dem bones, dem bones: the Easter message
My first ‘grown up’ Easter was in Paris in the mid-1970s. We went to church on Easter Day in the Eglise Réformée in the rue de l’Ouest in the 14th arrondissement and heard a visiting African choir sing A Toi la gloire, words by Edmond de Budry, music by Handel. It is a great Easter hymn, confidently proclaiming the risen Christ, and has become almost the go-to anthem of the French Reformed Church. The choir sang with smiling faces and with great conviction. And then we went and had lunch at the Brasserie Zeyer at Alésia, almost certainly eating gigot d’agneau.
In spite of the confident celebratory tone of Easter hymns, Easter can be a difficult time in church life. Christmas is a much more straightforward, more accessible event; lots of people are coming together for family gatherings, and many of them are pleased to sing the familiar Christmas carols. It is a well-known fact that the church Carol Service attracts both regular members and visitors, and it can be the latter group who complain more loudly when their favourite carol is omitted. Or when it is sung to ‘the wrong tune’. [O little town of Bethlehem is the usual candidate for this.] Easter by comparison has a more ambivalent feel about it. Regular church families are quite often away. Visitors may find it difficult to buy into a sermon that plunges them into unfamiliar waters; the sadistic awfulness of the Cross and the difficult notion of Resurrection life. And Easter promises to be an even more difficult event this year, with church buildings closed and the fact of COVID-19 dominating our television screens and fuelling our fears.
When I was a relatively new vicar [I was never a young minister; I was ordained in my 40s] I used to think it was my job on Easter Day to convince those who were in church, congregation and visitors, of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Which I would do by rehearsing the story of that first Easter and by marshalling the evidence. I was no doubt helped by Michael Green’s little book The Day Death Died. In that book Michael Green, the energetic and persuasive one-time Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford [whose daughter once passed on to us two incorrectly sexed baby rabbits] lays out very clearly the evidence.The rolling away of the stone. The empty tomb. The message of the [one or two] angelic young men. The evidence of the Roman guards. The fragmentary testimony of Mary in the garden, and of the couple walking on the country road to Emmaus. The transformation of the disciples from a frightened rabble into, in John Drane’s words, ““a strong band of courageous witnesses and the nucleus of a constantly growing church”.
As the years rolled by it dawned on me that this approach was not wholly satisfactory. Easter was not the day to argue people into the Kingdom. What was needed was something that connected more closely to our own lives and the world we inhabit. Preferably linked to a news item. So I think I once preached in Duns from a newspaper story about a badly burnt cat that had rescued her kittens from a house fire at great cost to herself. [No, I didn’t descend to talking about Easter bunnies; not as far as I can remember.] If I were preaching this Easter I would certainly want to make reference to the COVID-19 story from Italy; the parishioners clubbed together to buy a ventilator for their elderly priest in hospital, and he gave it away to a younger patient. And then died.
A tour of bones
One of the most interesting Easter-themed books that I’ve come across in recent years is A Tour of Bones, a book by an American woman, Denise Inge, from a Mennonite background. One day she goes down into the basement of her house in Worcester [the Bishop’s Palace, her husband is the Bishop of Worcester]; then further down through a trap-door and finds herself surrounded by bones. “There are no neat bones. Instead, there is notbing here but the chaos of death; bones heaped upon bones in disarray, indignity upon indignity, jaw upon pelvis, femur upon cranium …” For this is an Anglo-Saxon charnel house.
Living in close proximity to all these skeletons causes Denise to ask a number of questions. Why are we so bad at talking about death ? Even those who spend part of their professional lives sitting at hospital bedsides ? Why are clergy sometimes so inept at taking funerals ? Her friend Rachel, a consultant in palliative care, tells her: “Death … takes place more and more in hospitals and less in homes. Therefore people, children included, have less experience of death and dying; it becomes something that happens behind closed doors – and what we don’t see, we fear.”
And this becomes not just a philosophical/cerebral but a physical journey. As Denise sets out to visit four European charnel houses; all in places that are unfamiliar to her: Czermna, in Poland, in former Silesia; Sedlec in the Czech Republic; Hallstatt in Austria, a place where salt has been mined since the 2nd century BC; and Naters, an Alpine village, near the Simplon Pass in Switzerland.
This is not the time or place to summarise the entire book. But the journey provokes significant questions. “The power of the new, the shocking, the astonishing”, writes Stephen Cherry, in his book Barefoot Disciple, “is that it gets past our defences and starts to trouble us.” Inevitably given her Christian background, Denise Inge starts to think about resurrection, wondering just what resurrection life might be like. Many people today who speak of ‘life after death‘ mean a life that follows immediately after bodily death. But this is not what it originally meant. Scripture tells us rather that resurrection means ‘new life after a period of being dead’. In all these debates lies the basic tension between continuity and transformation – how much of the old is to be retained ?
Each of the sites visited provokes different questions. At Czermna the question is: Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed ? At Sedlec: Have you found a lasting hope ? At Hallstatt: What are the things for which you will be remembered ? These are not questions which allow quick or easy answers. This is not the simple crossword puzzle. These are questions to live with. “The journey into bones has become a journey into the interior.”
When the travelling stops two things happen. First Denise’s father dies, of cancer of the liver. And then the baby she and her husband are going to adopt is taken from them. And then Denise herself is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Inoperable. Her questions about dying and living are thrown into a new and urgent perspective.
For me the book is a poignant reflection on both dying and living. “During my travels bones have become for me a metaphor for the enduring and the essential, the deep things that remain once all the skin and the muscle of life is gone.” Paul Tillich has written about modern man’s fear of meaninglessness. “What I have been surprised to discover,” Denise Inge writes, “as these questions chase and wash over me is that preparing to live and preparing to die are in the end the same thing.” This book is not a sentimental tract. Nor is it an unambiguous declaration of faith
Fellowship this Easter
Like everyone else we won’t be doing any travelling this Easter. But thanks to Zoom, of which I had not heard just a month ago, we shall be able to join with Christian congregations in a variety of places. I was encouraged by Tim Keller’s message from New York this week, an exposition of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. I was pleased to share in a virtual eucharist with Bishop Ian Paton and Carrie Applegarth from St Andrews on Maundy Thursday. And another with John Wilkinson and Paul Vrolijk later the same day from Holy Trinity, Brussels. We much appreciated the All Age Worship led by Natalie Jones in Brussels on Good Friday morning. We hope to look in again this Easter at Trinity, Lyon. And we hope to join in with St Marc’s, Grenoble, on Easter Day. I think Alan Golton will be preaching. And I’ll be praying for him and everyone else preaching that day, for the Easter message to be proclaimed with confidence and with imagination.
Easter Saturday, 2020