Archbishop's Easter Day Sermon
Sunday 23 March 2008
Given at Canterbury Cathedral
'The last enemy to be overcome is death' (I Cor 15.26)
Your hair and your nails may keep growing for a while after you die; but nothing else does. Death is when growing stops - the routine ways in which your body repairs itself and grows fresh tissue, and the ways in which the mind and heart stop developing. We know the suffering that is caused when the mind and heart have already apparently stopped responding even before physical death - the agonizing spectacle of vegetative states or dementia. That's why people sometimes speak of these conditions as death-in-life. Signs of life are signs of response and development, and when they're not obviously there, we don't know what sort of life is really present.
So too we talk of the death of a relationship when nothing moves it forward; and we say that individuals or whole cultures are in some sense dead when they seem to be producing nothing fresh; they've lost the skill of responding and can only repeat, like the unhappy person suffering from some sorts of dementia. We fear dementia because we fear being trapped in sameness, repetition; we fear the death of love and imagination; we fear death itself because it is the end of all change. And we know that it is inescapable.
Recognising that this is so, that all the processes we value because they enlarge and enrich us will one day simply stop, is hard but it is part of growing up. Artists, scientists and psychoanalysts have in different ways warned against the dangerous illusion of thinking we are immortal. Maturity lies in accepting the truth - and then making the most of every moment of sensation so that our response is as deep and wholehearted as may be. 'This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long', as Shakespeare has it at the end of one of his most memorable sonnets (no.73).
Yet here comes the Easter gospel, apparently determined to upset this stoical maturity and to promise us just that eternal life we are urged to leave behind as a childish fantasy. Death will be 'overcome', 'swallowed up in victory'. (I Cor 15.54) Is the Christian gospel just a version of that popular but problematic passage sometimes read at funerals, beginning 'Death is nothing at all' and talking of it as just 'slipping into the next room'?
That's not quite the tone of what St Paul or any of the other New Testament writers is saying - nor of some of the ancient hymns and prayers of the Church in this season. 'Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous', says one early mediaeval hymn (the Sequence of Easter Sunday); and the whole idea of a battle between life and death in the events of Christ's death and resurrection doesn't suggest an event that is 'nothing at all'. Death takes quite bit of overcoming; there's a struggle involved here. And Jesus as he faces death seems to take it with utter seriousness, acknowledging terror and shrinking from it in his desperate prayer in Gethsemane. Easter may tell us that death is conquered, but it doesn't tell us that there was never any contest.
Perhaps that's the clue. Easter is not about denying death, and the resurrection doesn't make the nightmare death on the cross unreal. Death is exactly what the artists and scientists and psychoanalysts say: it is a full stop to human growth and response, it is night falling on everything we value or understand or hope for. Fear is natural, and so is grief at the death of another (Jesus, remember, shed tears for the death of a friend). Don't attempt to avoid it or deny its seriousness. On the contrary, keep it in view; remind yourself of it. When the tradition of the Church proposes that you think daily about death and prepare for it, it isn't being morbid but realistic: get used to it and learn to live with the fear. And meanwhile - Shakespeare was being entirely Christian in this respect - get used to loving and valuing things and persons irrespective of the fact that they won't be there for ever. Love them now, and what you would want to do for them, do now. 'Night is coming when no-one can work', says Jesus. (John 9.4)
So what does it mean to say that, despite all this, death is 'defeated'? When death happens and growing stops, there are no more plans, no more hope of control: for the believer, there is only God left. Just as at the very beginning of creation, there is God, and there is the possibility that God has brought into being by his loving will. When death has done all it can do, God remains untouched and his will is the loving and generating will that it eternally is. When we look at death, we look at something that can destroy anything in our universe - but not God, its maker and redeemer. And if we accept that we shall die and all our hopes and schemes fall into the dark, we do so knowing that God is unchanged. So to die is to fall into the hands of the living God.
That is why the effort to keep death daily before us is a source of life and hope. It is to commend ourselves every day into God's hands, trusting that he is eternally a loving creator, in whom there is no darkness at all, as the New Testament says. (I John 1.5) And when we let ourselves go into God's hands, we do so confident that he is free to do what he wills with us - and that what he wills for us is life. The Easter story is not about how Jesus survived death or how the spirit of Jesus outlasted his mortal frame or whatever; it is about a person going down into darkness and the dissolving of all things and being called again out of that nothingness. Easter Day, as so many have said, is the first day of creation all over again - or, as some have put it, the eighth day of the week, the unimaginable extra that is assured by the fact that God's creative word is never stifled or silenced.
Celebrating Easter is celebrating the creator - celebrating the God whose self-giving purpose is never cancelled and who is always free to go on giving himself to those he has called. And resurrection for us is that renewed call: when we have fallen silent, when we no longer have any freedom to respond or develop, God's word comes to us again and we live. (II Cor 5.17) We can't really imagine it; it isn't just a continuation of our present life in slightly different circumstances but a new world. Yet all that God has seen and worked with in this life is brought into his presence once more and he renews his relationship with it all, spirit and body.
That is the overcoming of death - made clear to us in the only way it could be made clear, by the historical, tangible recreation of the life of Jesus, still recognizably who he always was, yet changed in ways we can't grasp in their fullness. Death is allowed to do its worst in him - not only in the form of physical pain and final extinction, but in the terror and desolation with which Jesus approaches it. He lets go of everything, even the hope that God will intervene to spare him. He descends into Hell, and is brought up again by the creative call of his Father. A true struggle, an agon as the Greeks said, an agony of conflict; and a victory - not a reversal or cancellation but a new thing, risen life, the new age begun.
And so when we proclaim all this today, we as Christians are charged to address ourselves to two different sorts of delusion. On the one hand: we face a culture in which the thought of death is too painful to manage. Individuals live in anxious and acquisitive ways, seizing what they can to provide a security that is bound to dissolve, because they are going to die. Societies or nations do the same. Whether it is the individual grabbing the things of this world in just the repetitive, frustrating sameness that we have seen to be already in fact the mark of an inner deadness, or the greed of societies that assume there will always be enough to meet their desires - enough oil, enough power, enough territory - the same fantasy is at work. We shan't really die - we as individuals can't contemplate an end to our acquiring, and we as a culture can't imagine that this civilization like all others will collapse and that what we take for granted about our comforts and luxuries simply can't be sustained indefinitely. To all this, the Church says, somberly, don't be deceived: night must fall.
On the other hand, this alone would only be to echo the not very helpful remark of John Maynard Keynes – 'In the long run, we are all dead'; not much of an Easter message! So the Church says: 'We shall die, we shall have no choice but to let go of all we cling to, but God remains. God's unshakeable love is untouched by death, and all we do and all we care about matters to him. He and he alone is free to make us afresh, to re-establish the world on the far side of every catastrophe.'
It isn't so much that Christians say, 'Death is not the end'. In an important sense, it is the end, and we must prepare for it as people of faith by daily seeking to let go of selfish, controlling, greedy habits, so that our naked souls are left face to face with the creating God. If we are prepared to accept in trust what Jesus proclaims, we can ask God for courage to embark on this path. We don't hope for survival but for re-creation - because God is who he is, who he has shown himself to be in Jesus Christ.
The vital significance of the Church in this society, in any human society, is its twofold challenge - first, challenging human reluctance to accept death, and then challenging any human acceptance of death without hope, of death as the end of all meaning. Death is real; death is overcome. We are mortal, and that is basic to who and what we are as humans. But equally we are creatures made so as to hear the call of God, a call that no power in heaven or earth can silence. That conviction is the foundation of all we say about human dignities and rights, and it is the heart of our Easter hope. The gospel, by insisting on both our limits and our eternal hope in God, safeguards equally the humility and realism we need for mature human life and the sense of a glory embodied in our mortality because it has been touched by God. Death is real; death is overcome. On that basis we claim to have a word to speak to our world that can renew every corner, every aspect, of our humanity.
© Rowan Williams