A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Acts 10 v 34-43; John 20 v 1-18
“Jesus said to her “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”
The day after our sister Cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, was devastated by fire, Greta Thunberg addressed the European Parliament in Holy Week. I apologize if I have not pronounced her name correctly. Greta is the Swedish teenager who has inspired the climate change school strike movement. She concluded her address on Tuesday with words which summed up her call for radical action to avert crisis: “It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take courage. It will take fierce determination to act now, to lay foundations now, when we may not know all the details of how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking”.
“Practice resurrection” writes Wendell Berry, like Greta, a contemporary prophet, the courageous poet of rural America. On our recent tour to Austria that’s exactly what our Cathedral Choir did. I’m not referring to the general conviviality of the week we spent together. Or to the hilarious banter of the grown-ups’ WhatsApp group - hilarious, that is, until it was quashed by a Dean who evidently needs to get a life. Or even to the superlative quality of the ice-cream (although I’m sure the choristers would agree that it was utterly glorious).
I’m referring to Passion Sunday, a fortnight ago, when we were in Vienna. We were in the Peterskirche (again I apologize if I have not pronounced that correctly). It’s a baroque masterpiece in the city centre, the interior of which one visitor has described on TripAdvisor as resembling nothing so much as a psychedelic Easter egg. The Choir was in the gallery. I sat in the congregation, surrounded by the heavy gilt of the statues, a multiplicity of altars, and the billowing purple of the Lenten veils. The priest entered, the incense wafted, and the liturgy began.
But it began to the strains of “If Ye Love Me”, by Thomas Tallis. It was sung stunningly beautifully by our musicians, and my mind and heart reeled. A few days before we were due to leave the European Union an English choir had come to the heart of ancien regime Europe. At the beginning of the holiest season in the Christian calendar an Anglican choir had been received in a Roman Catholic Church which is under the care of Opus Dei. And the Mass was being offered in Latin to a setting of English music from the Reformation era.
“Practice resurrection”? That day I believe we did.
Let’s remember: the upheavals of 500 years ago blew this continent and this country apart in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine. The stone altars of this Cathedral, its gorgeous stained glass, and its holy statuary were destroyed. Citizens of this city were burned at the stake because of their allegiance to one strand of Christian faith and praxis rather than another. Only in my lifetime did a Pope and an Archbishop of Canterbury finally meet. What took place in Vienna would have been unthinkable a generation ago; what took place in Vienna was an experience of resurrection.
I don’t think that’s hyperbole. Mary Magdalene supposes she’s being addressed by a gardener who has tidied the body away. Only when Jesus speaks her name does she recognize who he is. “Mary…Rabbouni”. In the garden on that first Easter morning Mary hears her name spoken aloud by one who knows her; she hears her name spoken aloud by one who has passed from death to life. In the resurrection of her Teacher she is shown who she really is. Not the poor woman plagued by seven demons, as Luke’s Gospel records; not the same woman healed by her Lord; and certainly not the repentant prostitute suggested by the accretions of the Middle Ages; but Mary, a woman eternally known, eternally loved, and eternally cherished. In the resurrection of Jesus we are shown who we really are – you and me, men and women, eternally known, eternally loved, and eternally cherished. This is what resurrection does, whether it confronts us in the garden, as it did Mary, or whether we survey the evidence and are persuaded, as was the first disciple to arrive at the tomb. Resurrection shows us who we are.
Our Choir could sing an English Mass in the Peterskirche because after centuries of bloodshed and bigotry, thank God, Christians are at last able to acknowledge that whichever part of the Church we inhabit we are all his children. In baptism we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ. We share one foundation: the world-changing event that we celebrate today and that is made our own when we are plunged into the waters of the font and raised up from them. It’s why we renewed our baptismal promises in the early light of this morning. Greta is right. What we stand on; what we build on; is important. This is cathedral thinking; it is church thinking; it is divine thinking. Our foundation, our roots, are the very heart of God.
Acknowledging that does not resolve everything. Of course. It’s where the journey begins, and it leaves us with enormous responsibilities (not least that of achieving the full communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ that recognizing our shared foundations should enable). Conscious of where we begin and where we most fundamentally belong, the task of Easter is the task of determining “so, what?” What else are we required to take seriously? Greta Thunberg recalls us to commitment to the sustainability of the planet Earth. That (I suggest) is a non-negotiable for Christians. But the new light of Easter Day may reveal that other beliefs, other attitudes, other causes to which we have attached huge significance or with which we have identified ourselves are far less important than we once believed.
You may have heard me say this before. We are an angry people, and we are a fearful people, because we have allowed ourselves to believe that we are a rootless people. We are not. Peter says to the household in Caesarea that God shows no partiality. Neither must we, for Christ is risen indeed, and he has chosen us. All of us. Let me utter one phrase in a modern European language that I can pronounce correctly. Christos Anestei. Christ is risen. Alleluia.