I want us to look on this Easter night at the first of those readings that we heard in the semi-darkness of the Vigil. In it we heard how Abraham almost killed his only son Isaac (Genesis: 22:1-18) We see the story vividly displayed on the Church’s best Chasuble that I am wearing tonight, where Abraham is depicted raising his knife about to slay his son.
This seems a horrific story to us, so to understand it we have to put aside all our modern ideas and get into that ancient world. Think how significant Isaac was for them; the only legitimate son of Abraham, in their old age given to the previously barren Sarah. He was their posterity, the guarantee that Abraham’s blood line would go down through the ages. Remember, these people had no sense of eternal life with God after death as we have. A son, bearing your own name and your blood was essential in the ancient world. Abraham, a devout Jew by this time, was asked to give-over – to hand-over – to God everything he valued most in the world – his only son. And we see that, in obedience to God, he was willing to do this terrible thing, this thing incomprehensible to us. Actually, in the Books of the Kings we do hear of kings who sacrificed their sons, as a sign and a symbol of their devotion to the God of Israel, and, of course, the pagans did the same. The people of Israel also sacrificed every first-born animal to God and so came to substitute animals for the births of their sons, as we see in the sacrifice of pigeons by the parents of Jesus. Clearly then, the story of Abraham’s testing, his willingness to hand-over Isaac, marks this transition from old ways to new, and thus the link with Easter becomes clear.
Abraham represents faithful Israel; Israel which, unlike subsequent generations with their oft repeated rebellion against God, was faithful, faithful at great personal cost, namely, the sacrifice of an only beloved son. Abraham represents what Israel was always meant to be like, for in the ‘handing-over’ – yes the paradidomi – of his son Isaac, we see also the handing over of Abraham in his totality, in all that he is, to God. Faithful in his original call to leave Ur and embark on many journeys, during which he discovered the one true God, Abraham was faithful when it really mattered, so much so that God spared his son, replacing him with the ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Because of his fidelity to God, Abraham would be richly rewarded.
But at this point we see a great difference, for throughout its history, Israel, and indeed all of us, the whole world of which we are part, failed and still fails to be faithful to God in the way Abraham was. The whole world sits in the semi-darkness in which we have all failed God. This Holy week then, and especially this night, is a time when we relive the new eternal story, the story of a different redemption, an epic, in which the victim handed over, is not Isaac, the son of an earthly man, but is Jesus, the only Son of God, sacrificed, for the sins of the world. In this new story there is no last minute reprieve. A much bigger story has been etched out, as we have seen in the handing over of Jesus to death. There has been no happy ending, no promise made to any earthly father, only the gift to the world of God, the Heavenly Father, who allows us to do with his Beloved Son as we will.
In our Gospel tonight (Matthew 28:1-10) we hear the final moment, when the willingness of Jesus to be handed over to the wickedness and cruelty of the world is vindicated by God. This Gospel writer heralds this vindication by lots of action – even an earthquake, as the earth, ever obedient to the creator, plays its part in the Resurrection, just as it had at his death; and a stern and dazzling angel rolls the stone from the tomb. The terrified guards, we are told, were ‘like dead men’; in great and dramatic contrast to the women followers of Jesus who have come to the tomb. Fascinating isn’t it, to see women, previously non-persons and unreliable witnesses in court, given their place of honour by the Church. They see the angel and hear his message
“I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said he would…. He has risen from the dead and now he is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.
And the women believed in what they heard and ran to tell the disciples.
But it was even better, for the Lord simply could not wait to be greeted in Galilee but rushed to meet and share his joy with the women, affirming their witness and all that they represent. It is a curiously gentle and quiet scene, in vivid contrast to the crash-bang of the angel and the unsealing of the tomb. Our Risen Lord is true to his previous personality and meets his followers as beloved friends, those he wants to share his resurrected joy with.
Here then is the final handing-over of Jesus; this time, not to pain and ignominy, but to triumph. Here he defeats all the shame which marked his the frightened denials and desertion of his followers, and the uselessness of the female witnesses at the cross. Now he stands on the road back into Jerusalem, risen to full life once more, alive, happy and able to meet and communicate and as we shall see later, even eat with his followers. Handed–over to death, he has defeated death and now can finally and in truth hand-himself over to the entire creation as their Redeemer and vindicator. And in his self-gift every one of us can also be made into what God the Father always intended us to be; perfectly one with him and the Son, and destined for eternal life. In the resurrection of Jesus you and I are now the paradidomi, handed-over to the world in his name. We are his great victory sign.
This Easter Sunday morning I hope that all of you, apart from our visitors, have noticed the change in appearance of our church here in Eynsham. No, I don’t mean the change from Good Friday, where the church itself went into mourning, with the altar stripped and bare, very different from what it is like now in its Easter finery – although I hope you noticed that too! The change I want you to think about is the restoration of the tabernacle to its original place behind the main altar at the centre of the Church.
There it is, the place where the risen Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread, is especially present for us at all times. Notice, I say, especially present, because of course, we believe what Jesus taught us, that he is present to us in all sorts of other ways, most of all – when we pray together – Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20) and – when we help others – Jesus said “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40). We know too that this is the promise of the risen Jesus in every situation in life, for he said “Lo I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20)
But we also know that he promised that he would be especially present in the Bread and Wine taken and blessed, as he told us to, at the Last Supper, the great event we celebrate at every Mass, and most of all last Thursday night. Jesus is quite clear about this. He hands them the bread, and says “This is my body” and then he says “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) But note that his words, “in memory”, are from the Greek “anamnesis”, which does NOT mean remembering a past event, but means bringing the past event into the present.
It always astonishes me how many people say they are Christians, but do not follow this teaching. They seem to think that coming to Mass, coming to Church, is an option when they feel like it – a little entertainment for them when they feel like being a bit religious. But Jesus said quite clearly “Do this in remembrance of me” at the most crucial moment in his earthly life, as he was about to hand-himself over to his suffering and death on the cross. So he clearly did not mean – do this when you feel like it, or when you have time. Indeed he said – “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) – a challenge we all should face every day.
So although it is absolutely true that the risen Jesus is with us at every moment of our lives – not just when we are in Church. It is also absolutely true that he calls us to acknowledge him and deepen our Communion with him, by meeting him at Mass, and by extension meeting him as he is present in a special and wonderful way for us in the Blessed Sacrament, present in the Tabernacle in every Catholic Church.
Can I ask you therefore not to take this his special presence for granted, not to get so used to the tabernacle being there that you hardly notice it.
That is why the correct thing to do when we arrive in Church, and when we leave, is to acknowledge this special presence of Jesus with our physical bodies, and not just in our minds. If you are fit, unlike me, the proper thing to do, as many of you know, is to genuflect. This literally means knee-bending, and means going down on one knee, kneeling for a moment and then getting up, often making the sign of the cross at the same time. Now if, like me, you can no longer do this safely without being in danger of falling over, then you should make what we call a profound bow. This is not just a nod of the head, but actually bowing from the waist more or less as low as you can manage.
Some Catholics do not even know why they do this when they come into Church, and if you ask them think that they are genuflecting or bowing to the altar or to the cross. But you all know, I am sure, and should be teaching others, that we do this not to worship any man-made object, but the real presence of Christ himself before us in the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle. It is absolutely no use us celebrating Easter, celebrating the mystery of God with us at all times, celebrating the wonder that God in Christ has even defeated death for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, if we do not then show clearly that we believe this is a real presence, a real Resurrection, by what we do, not just by what we believe.
Of course that doing, that putting into practice, must mean the way we live our lives, the way we treat other people; but we must also do it by practising our religion, practising our faith. It is so easy to drift into a vague kind of Christianity, but when we do that, we are letting down Jesus. He took up his cross so that we might have life, so that we might not be luke-warm, but might follow him with all our heart and mind and body and soul. That surely is the way to celebrate Easter.