Sermon preached at Eucharist on Easter Day (1 April 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
On Easter Day, the Dean considers how we can encounter the resurrection and "to invite the life of Jesus Christ into your own heart and life, to have your own world up-ended by the power of the resurrection".
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. And a very happy and a very disturbing Easter to you too.
I wonder how different your Sunday morning has been so far. Easter Sunday isn’t a slightly more special morning service when after worship we go back home to resume ordinary life. This is the celebration of the resurrection, the point where God breaks into history, our history. Jesus Christ is not dead; he is here to encounter us this morning, and to change the rest of our lives.
I need to warn you, warn you about something that’s going to happen later in this service. If you know in advance then you’ll be ready for it. I regretted not warning people once before, and I don’t want you to be caught out: rather, I want you to be ready to catch and use the moment, like a surfer waiting beyond the breakers climbs onto a large wave coming into the beach and rides it in, rather than being bowled off your feet by its power and then complaining to me about it afterwards.
“What is the Dean on about?”, you may be thinking. Some years ago I was Dean of Bradford, a much smaller cathedral in the north of England with a loyal and lovely congregation, who knew what music they liked and liked what they knew.
The Assistant Director of Music came to me shortly before Easter asking for a different kind of musical setting for the Eucharist from the normal Mozart, Schubert or Haydn that people liked to hear. I thought hard about it, and in the end said that he could just change the Sanctus and Benedictus – that’s the bit that the choir sings in the middle of the special prayer over the bread and wine. And I wondered whether to tell people about it beforehand, and decided it would be all right. And it wasn’t. I got complaints. Lots of them. I’d ruined the Easter Sunday service for some of them, and shocked others. Although the choir loved it.
The musical setting that caused this fuss was the one we’re having this morning, the Messe Solonelle by the French composer Jean Langlais – you’ve already heard the Gloria, but you’ve not yet heard the Sanctus and Benedictus. So that’s what I’m warning you about.
Why have I asked for this musical setting this morning? It’s to help answer the simple question: How can you encounter the resurrection?
In the four gospel accounts there is no description as such of the resurrection of Jesus. It’s actually rather low-key. Only Matthew reports a bit of drama – a little earthquake as the stone is rolled away.
But otherwise the transformation of Jesus from death to eternal life is hidden, and we only see some externals: puzzled and distraught women, a couple of perplexed disciples, one or two men in white, a figure so ordinary that it’s mistaken for a gardener.
Not much of interest to note compared to the Passover celebrations in the city next door to the tomb, or the power and pomp of the empire back in Rome.
But the consequences of the resurrection have been huge. A cataclysmic event begins in obscurity, the first rock sliding down the hill that sets off the landslide, overtaking the disciples and turning their lives upside down.
And so it is this morning. On one level we meet as usual in a relatively low-key way around the table of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist to remember the Last Supper, here in this wonderful building with lovely music.
That’s the happy bit of Easter.
But on another level: here on this table and here among us is the presence of the risen Jesus, the bread and wine, the blood and body, for us to encounter and be transformed by and into, that we may live not our own lives but with the resurrection life of Jesus.
We’re not here to have a few moments of happiness: we’re here to be disturbed, bowled over, transfigured, remade by the presence of Christ within and around us.
Which brings us back to what I need to tell you about the music for this morning. Jean Langlais was born in France in 1907; his father was a stone-cutter and his mother a seamstress.
He went blind at the age of two and had no memory of light. He was lucky to go to a special school in Paris for blind children which specialised in music, and discovered the organ and composition.
At one point a friend of his who had gone to the shrine of Lourdes in southern France and regained her sight urged him to try doing the same, but he refused. He said:
“If I could see like everyone else, I would have followed in my father’s footsteps as a stone-cutter. One must believe that the Virgin Mary had other plans for me, which came about because of my blindness. So may her will be done.”
As a blind organist, Langlais composed music by working it out in his head and then dictating it to a scribe. He composed today’s Messe Solonelle over a period of 12 years in his mind, and dictated it to a scribe in 13 days.
When we get to Langlais’ Sanctus later in the service, give yourself to it as you would to the sound track in a film, and more than a film.
In this music Langlais, who being blind can’t be distracted by what he sees, expresses in his medium of sound the rending of the earth, the rising up of the dead, the transfiguration of Christ and the glory of God.
This is the sound track of resurrection, of fear and trembling, transformation and wonder. But this is a soundtrack which doesn’t accompany a set of images – it is visceral, gutsy, physically moving.
You might want to close your eyes, to hear it as Langlais wrote it, because the music comes first.
The Sanctus is sung after we remember what Jesus did with bread and wine: the music is a sudden eruption of the divine into our ordinary world, with power and awe, coming from below, from the depths of the grave, taking us to the heights of heaven.
The Benedictus which follows straight after it has a sudden change of pace: it represents the strangeness, the hiddenness, of what God is doing in resurrection, a bit discordant, mysterious, slow – hang on in there with it, let its strangeness lead you, as it links back into the Hosanna in Excelsis with its triumphant ending.
How can we encounter the resurrection?
Be ready like a surfer to catch the wave of this music when it comes later in the service, not to see as Langlais sees, for he could not see at all, but to listen beyond sight, to hear and feel the strangeness and the power and the wonder of Christ’s resurrection, and to take the opportunity, here, now, to invite the life of Jesus Christ into your own heart and life, to have your own world up-ended by the power of the resurrection.
Do have a very happy and a very disturbing Easter.