Sunday, March 23, 2008

Death is real; death is overcome. (Rowan Williams' Easter sermon)

A typically fine Easter sermon today the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. Two choice excerpts:

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)
and further along:

...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.
It is particularly dismaying (although the Archbishop didn't mention it) how we work to deny death and greedily 'assume there will always be enough to meet [our] desires - enough oil, enough power, enough territory', and do so specifically by bringing death, or the threat of death, on others. In our fear and anxiety of death, a primary way we are able to keep it at bay is through the death of others, perhaps as some perverse propitiatory sacrifice of a false deity. Such is the thirst of idols - or, more particularly, since idols are simply transference of human perversity, such is our thirst.
And if you'd also like a little something else, here is NT Wright- albeit from five years ago - musing on what sort of sermon you probably heard today and giving some theological indications of how it might have been a rather bad or good sermon.

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