Sermon: Festal Choral Evensong
Easter Sunday 2015
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Last Saturday I found myself in De Montfort Hall for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I must have been to hear that at least a dozen times and often at Easter. But this year it was different. For starters, I didn’t really want to be there because it was the first evening for weeks where theoretically I was free and I wanted to be in my pyjamas and slippers on the sofa with a pizza. But it turned out to be good to experience Handel’s oratorio again.
This was the first time that I had heard it performed in Leicester. It is part of our local history. Charles Jennens lived at Gopsall Hall, near Hinckley. He was an 18th century gentleman who studied at Oxford. He was a solitary man with few close relatives. He was devoutly religious, and lived reclusively in his Leicestershire mansion. From college days some of his greatest pleasure, and closest friendships – particularly with Handel – came from his love of music. Jennens wrote the libretto. The first performance in an English church took place at Church Langton, causing traffic jams all along London Road from Harborough, with every inn in the area fully booked. Jennens painted a word picture of Jesus using bible texts setting the death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of the long sweep of prophecy and biblical story. Jennens’ version is by no means the only way of seeing Jesus, even within the sweep of the bible, but his instincts are right that these events of Easter were not just standalone but part of God’s long loving purposes for the world.
Way back in the mists of time, we are told in Genesis chapter 12 that the patriarch Abraham, aged 75, set out with his wife Sarah from Haran onto Bethel and then onto the wilderness, with the promise that from him God would make a family of blessing for the nations. When St Luke tells the story of the resurrection and how on that same day there is a journey to Emmaus. We often say that this journey is one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus but it is much more. However wonderful glimpses of Jesus might be, they are not quite enough to bring Easter home to us. Did you notice that the disciples who have been in Jerusalem and seen it all and heard it all directly from the women are walking along ‘looking sad’ (v17)? Easter has been announced to them but they do not recognise it.
Luke’s gospel begins with a promise to the reader that this is to be an ‘orderly account’, having investigated everything. So begins a retelling which relates Jesus to all that has gone before – he is a new Moses, a new Elijah, a suffering servant. But this Jesus had not matched the popular expectation of a Messiah – ‘oh how foolish you are and how slow to believe’. So Luke retells and so reframes Easter so that they can see how it might be possible for the Messiah to suffer and to die and to rise again in the light of what the scriptures actually said. The one who had been expected to be the liberator of Israel had been handed over to the chief priests and leaders. Their sadness may well not just have been because they had been through trauma and grief at the loss of their friend but more deeply Jesus had not met their expectations even though his risen presence was with them on the road to Emmaus. This road to Emmaus is the same kind of road even that Abraham and Moses and Elijah travelled. It is one of cosmic story. It is a single history and it only begins to make fullest sense when seen as such.
With our reordered building and our hosting of King Richard’s tomb, we are only beginning to revisit our history here and to notice many things afresh. King Richard’s tomb design came from the Easter story of new light breaking out from a confined stone cave with the head end of the grave slightly raised in hope of resurrection. But I am also delighted that when you kneel down and look through that deep cut, what you see in the distance is the cross on the altar of the chapel of Christ the King. The new light of Easter emerges from the cross, and points back to the cross; from the history of faithful obedience to God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christian thought as seen on the Road to Emmaus, resurrection is not an isolated thing but an integral part of a long complex divine story.
I had to do dozens of media interviews in the last weeks and I began to learn to speak in sound bites to the point when suddenly a producer said into my head-set that we had 7 minutes to talk about something, I could feel a sense of panic arise with me. I could see how we become little packages of isolated communication whereas Easter and in particular Emmaus tells us we are part of a big story, a long story of history which is God’s story. Part of the shift from sadness to joy that can never be taken away is the shift from my little story to my little story becoming part of God’s big story.
A thousand years ago, a byzantine Christian called Simeon wrote these wonderful words which speak of a weaving together of his life with Christ’s:
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand in Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
Where all our body, all over
every most hidden part of it
is realised in joy as Him,
and he makes us, utterly, real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed.
And recognised as whole, as lovely
and radiant in light
we awaken as the Beloved
in every part of our body.
(Simeon the new Theologian, from the Enlightened Heart, ed Stephen Mitchell, London 1993)
Of course, we are foolish and slow to believe. We need the Charles Jennens of this world to piece all this together. But as Simeon’s words show, when we do weave this old story together with our contemporary story, we are changed. In Rowan Williams’ words, ‘it is the place where the past is recovered in such a way as to make it a place for the foundation of a new and extended identity’ (Resurrection p35). His story becomes our story and we all become part of God’s new liberating story. With the Gospel characters we will be able to say ‘were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32)
© The Very Revd David Monteith