Romans 6.3–11; Matthew 28.1–10
a sermon at the Easter Vigil 2008 (with Baptism and Confirmation)
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
Well, we never thought it would come to this. A white Easter! And so the papers and the airwaves are full of people grumbling about the ridiculous system – as they see it – of choosing the date for this most central and vital of Christian festivals. How dare Easter be so early, they ask? Christmas, after all, is always on the same day, so why shouldn’t Easter be? As if! – as if the greatest news the world has ever heard was just a cosy little celebration that could be parked conveniently to suit the whims and holiday plans of late-modern Britain! The debate shows no understanding either of why the system is what it is, or of the fact that one of the glories of the Christian world has always been our keeping of Easter all together, around the world – which is why the continuing division between the Easter and Western churches on this point remains such a sadness. Commentators today make it sound as if Easter was something that belonged to us alone, so that we could play around with it at will. I am reminded of the time when there was an eclipse of the sun coming up, and the radio kept broadcasting warnings telling people not to look directly at the sun, especially through binoculars; and one good lady wrote to the BBC to say, If these eclipse things are so dangerous, why are they having one in the first place?
Of course, the regulations for how you find the date of Easter are wonderfully arcane. I once attended a clergy conference at which, in the after-hours relaxation time, someone stood up and simply read out, as a comedy turn, what the old Prayer Book says on the subject. I won’t give you the whole thing, but just get the flavour of it:
To find Easter, look for the Golden Number of the year in the first Column of the table, against which stands the day of the Paschal Full Moon; then look in the third column for the Sunday Letter, next after the date of the Full Moon, and the day of the month standing against that Sunday Letter is Easter Day . . . . To find the Golden Number, or Prime, add one to the Year of our Lord, and then divide by 19; the remainder, if any, is the Golden Number; but if nothing remaineth, then 19 is the Golden Number. . . . To find the Sunday Letter, add to the Year of our Lord its fourth part, omitting fractions; and also the number 6; divide the sum by 7; and if there is no remainder, then A is the Sunday Letter . . .
And so on, and so on. That speaks of an older age when clergy with a love for mathematics and railway timetables had more spare time than they do today.
But what’s it all about? Why not simply fix a date? The point – which is lost on the general public, alas, but which we need to grasp and hold on to for dear life, because it is all about dear life – is that Easter is simultaneously the fulfilment of the old creation and the birth of the new creation. It must therefore be both in some kind of harmony with the way the present creation actually is and a sign that something new is going on. That is why, on the one hand, Easter is timed to go with the first full moon after the spring solstice, in line with the timing of Passover in the Jewish calendar, which was based on the moon rather than the sun; and it’s why, on the other hand, it is gloriously right that Easter should keep us guessing, should jump out on us from behind the apparently locked door of ordinary time. Easter is rooted in Passover, and you don’t get the point of it unless you realise that. That’s why we read the Passover story at the centre of our Vigil.
But Easter goes way beyond anything that Passover itself could say or do. The resurrection of Jesus is simultaneously the reaffirmation of the old world, the old body, the old God-given life, and the shocking new birth of a new form of life, a life that has gone through death and out the other side, a new sort of physicality that the world has never seen before. So the full glory of Easter is not something you could ever get to by complex calculations and Golden Numbers and Sunday Letters and all the rest of it. Easter remains a new gift, a fresh gift, a surprise present from the world’s creator. That’s why I was delighted when I saw it was going to snow this Easter. Great! Bring it on! Surprise us! In Matthew’s gospel Easter was heralded with an earthquake. Why not! What else would you expect, if the whole of creation is being remade? Some of you will have been startled to be invited to a service beginning at five o’clock in the morning. Well, why not? That’s what it’s all about! The day Easter becomes boringly predictable it will stop being Easter. Easter is God’s surprise party, with surprise presents for everyone.
And you, today, are part of that present, that gift. When you get baptised, you are not just receiving the truth of Easter for yourself. You are becoming part of the truth of Easter that God is giving to the world. When you come for confirmation, you are praying, and we are praying with and for you, that the new life of Easter will not only transform you but, through you, will bring new life and transformation to God’s world. Remember this day, Easter 2008, the day of your confirmation: you are snow-at-Easter people, people who will go out, please God, and surprise the world by the showing that there is a new way of being human, a new way of living and loving and learning and laughing, a way which is simultaneously the rich fulfilment and the radical transformation of all that has gone before.
That double note of surprising fulfilment and surprising transformation is what the world finds most deeply challenging – and that challenge finds an echo in our own hearts and minds. Can I really live up to this? Can I really be an Easter person? Will it all go away in a few days like a dream – dreaming of a white Easter, maybe, but watching it slip off into sentimental irrelevance? St Paul gives the answer in that bracing reading from Romans – and let me say that since the letter to the Romans is built foursquare on the truth of Easter you would do well, you snow-at-Easter people, to make it your own, to read Romans right through fast, and frequently, and get to know its flow and its weave, and then to pause and ruminate on this verse and that, and particularly on this Easter-in-action passage in chapter 6. There’s a great fad at the moment for ‘finding out who you really are’; well, here’s how St Paul puts it. This is who you really are, if you’ve been baptised into Christ Jesus and confessed him as Lord: you are people who have been buried with Christ in baptism, so that, just as he was raised by the Father’s glory, we might walk – that is, behave, conduct ourselves – in a new way.
How can that be possible? Well, just as this year Easter has come forward so far that it’s met the snow and wind of winter head on, your new Easter life comes bursting into the wintry ways we normally live, giving you the moral courage to say Yes to the way of life that Jesus pioneered and No to the stiff, frozen lifestyles of the world around. Christian ethics, so called, isn’t a matter of struggling to keep a bunch of odd old rules. It’s about allowing the genuine humanness of Jesus Christ to come forwards to meet us and catch us up and enable us to look sin in the face and refuse it, and to look at the life of worship and generosity and vocation and service and welcome it. Of course this is going to take time, and you’re in for a lifetime of finding out more and more about what being dying-and-rising people, five-o’clock in the morning people, snow-at Easter people is all about. You are to be a sign to the world both of fulfilment and of contradiction – to show the full glory of what human life was meant to be, and to cut across the shallow lies that drag us down and make us, frankly, sub-human. Like Easter itself, Christian living appears as strange and shocking – You mean you really have to be kind to people, to be patient, to forgive people, to put their interests ahead of your own? You mean you really can live without being greedy and snatching at power and using other people as objects in your quest for pleasure or prestige? Most of the world has no idea you can live like that. You might as well have snow at Easter. As one of the greatest early Christians put it: it’s ridiculous, and that’s why it’s true. Nobody would have made this stuff up.
Because the central fact of our faith is a fact which simultaneously flies in the face of all received wisdom and then, when it’s done that, turns out to make sense, glorious sense, of all received wisdom by putting it into a larger framework altogether. It takes the same kind of faith to believe that Jesus rose from the dead as it does to reckon that, because I am one with him in baptism and confirmation, I can and will not only share his resurrection on the day when God makes all things new, but also begin to live that new life in the present. It looks impossible; without God it actually is impossible; but, since God is the God of creation and new creation, it is not only possible but true. And you, today, are part of that truth. Welcome to the family, snow-at-Easter people. This isn’t a dream. It’s true.