Easter Day, 2016
Sermon preached by
The Right Rev. Dr Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in the Cathedral Church of St Fin Barre, Cork
‘We are witnesses to all that God did …’ Acts 10.39
The way we tell stories or report events matters. How they affect us and the changes they bring about in us matter even more.
One of the things that has genuinely taken me by surprise in this centenary year of the Easter Rising 1916, has been the diversity of views, and the rigorous debate, openly, sometimes vehemently, articulated in the public space: in books, articles and speeches, letters to newspapers, on social media, in television and radio programmes, and in formal debates. I know I was only six in 1966, but insofar as I recall it, and certainly as I’ve seen it being re-run in recent days in some of the archive material from that time, the tone was monochrome and deferential. There was a single narrative about the men, and it was the men. Few seemed to risk telling the story from a different perspective.
This time around it feels different. Last week on Proclamation Day, the children in the schools I visited were genuinely engaged when I told them that in 1916, in Ireland, my family were on the ‘other’ or, so to speak, what was, ultimately, the ‘losing’ side. From the outset, this time, including in our own lecture organised for the Diocese by you here at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, the watchword seems to be ‘complicated’. It’s a word I used; and which Professor Diarmaid Ferriter endorsed in his lecture, in the light of ever greater access to historical sources. It’s a word which was used again on the RTE Prime Time programme last Wednesday:: ‘Ours is a complicated and troubling history…’ the presenter, Barry Cummins, said. And what followed on that Prime Time programme was a vigorous debate on whether or not the rising was justified.
We have to be very careful about reading backwards,’ said Diarmaid Ferriter. Dr Ferghal McGarry (Queen’s University Belfast) says that ‘the Easter Rising has lent itself to endless re-interpretation over the past century, with new meanings and associations ascribed in response to events that occurred long after 1916.’
That there is a debate, that there is introspection, that people are seeking understanding is, are my mind a healthy things. Hopefully, it is a sign of our growing maturity as a nation. Hopefully, it’s a product of our diversity, that we are truly becoming a ‘rainbow nation’. It’s an affirmation of our acceptance that we are a pluralist society with shared yet different different memories, with shared history experienced and recalled differently. Our President, Michael D Higgins, has referred to ‘a hospitality of narratives’. He has been consistent in this, and in doing so, cites the work of the French, Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur who said that it’s about: ‘taking responsibility in imagination and in sympathy for the story of the other through the narratives that concern the other’.
Key to it all from my perspective, as I said here on St Patrick’s Day is that our commemoration must empower us to reflect on our present, and to ask what sort of country we have become and are becoming today and the future we envision and strive for.
All of this does, I believe, have something to say to us as we meet here as Christians today to celebrate Easter. (As an aside I would say that for years now I have publicly stated that it would have been preferable to have had the national centenary celebrations on the actual date itself, in a month’s time, with a new public holiday to mark it, but that advocacy never gained traction). Diversity of recollection, of memory, of experience, of narrative, of textual and linguistic style, of outlook even, are facets of the inspired scriptural text, and the failure of many to grasp this leaves us ill-equipped for reflection on the things of faith today. It is a source of much division between believers.
It strikes me that what we do accept now in relation to our very recent history – barely two generations ago – (two of my lives, as I said to the schoolchildren, would have had me as a 12 year old in sixth class at the time of the Easter Rising) – we do accept, that the events are open to interpretation, that they were experienced differently depending on where one was, in terms of humanity, place, ideas and allegiance; and they are still being reported and remembered differently, all depending, once again on a similar vast array of factors.
Why then does it come as a surprise to some, that in relation to the Easter events that – many centuries ago, before the era of the printing press, film, photograph, and archive – there are a number of versions told of the events of that first Easter, indeed of the entire life of Jesus? The unthinking critic or adversary of Christianity will often point to discrepancies between the Gospel accounts as if somehow that undermines the entire truth of things. But this was the era of the oral tradition where, yes, sacred and transforming things were handed on carefully, but not without the difference that comes from human perspective and witnessing. Key words and key sayings were handed on preciously by word of mouth.
In the first Reading from Acts Peter recollects the story in his way – more than that, he says that God chose him and the other apostles to be witnesses of it all and to hand it on:
You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead … (Acts 10.36-41)
Today we also heard Luke’s account of that first Easter morning; as we know there are other Gospel accounts with different emphases and insights. Throughout his Gospel, Luke has repeatedly portrayed the disciples as people who have difficulty grasping the truth, and now, today, it is the women who make the breakthrough. Most of the disciples are cynical: ‘these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ (Luke 24.11) Peter at least does shift himself: he doesn’t believe either, but goes to see for himself.
Again, with this Easter event, key to our recollection, our commemoration, our Paschal celebration has to be the question – what does it mean for us today? What does the resurrection of our Lord mean for us today? What difference does it make that Jesus is risen from the dead? Of course, the short and traditional answer that we were brought up on has been – well this gives us hope that ultimately all will be well, and we only have to hang on in there. No matter how horrible life can sometimes be now, we know that in eternity we will find peace and salvation. And that is reassuring, not least when we stand at a graveside and the committal prayer declares confidently: ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
The theologian Marcus Borg, who died in January last year, urges us, however, to move beyond preoccupations with the physicality of the resurrection, beyond the question ‘what actually happened?’ to ‘what does it mean? ‘Easter’ he says ‘is about much more than what happened to the corpse of Jesus.’ How did that first day of that Easter week change the disciples back then? How does it transform us today?
It is, he says, about our continuing experience of Jesus as Lord, present with us still today, here and now.
I have many abiding images from this past week alone. First, of a little boy who appeared again and again on Sky News bulletins – I don’t want to profile or stereotype – but he looked to me as if he was from the Middle East. He was about 8 years old standing next to his mother in the chaotic aftermath of the departures lounge at Brussels airport – his hands covered his face and he rubbed his eyes, and the tears flowed – bewildered. Brussels – again the news reports – uncertain and conflicted, reported in such a variety of ways even by eye witnesses, inconsistent reports, rumours, retracted statements, clarifications, breaking news – but what does Easter mean to those people grieving, wounded, affected for ever?
And not only Brussels: 41 killed and more than 105 injured in a suicide bomb at a soccer stadium south of Baghdad yesterday. On St Patrick’s Day – 37 killed in Ankara and 125 wounded. Paris? People still living with the scars of 9/11, London 7/7, Northern Ireland, terrorism, war and violence anywhere in the world. What does Easter mean in these situations? Or closer to home, and hugely tragically, that pier in Buncrana; what does Easter mean? In the ordinariness of the challenges and struggles of our own lives, what does Easter mean, and what does it expect of each of us?
We are called to be witnesses to the love of Christ, to the peace and compassion of Christ, to the hope that stems from the Easter message of resurrection after crucifixion – and we are not only to be witnesses, but, in Christ’s name, to be also instruments of that love, peace, compassion and hope, instruments of the Risen Lord’s presence to each other and to the world today.
‘All this is from God,’ said St Paul ‘who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation’. (2 Corinthians 5.18) Today, like Peter in the Gospel, the good news invites us to go home, and to be ‘amazed at what has happened’ and, as reconcilers, as bridge-builders, to live and work, in the name of the risen Christ, in the power of his resurrection. Like Peter, we too have been ‘chosen by God as witnesses.’ ‘We [too] are witnesses to all that God did …’ Acts 10.39