Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Sunday Evening: The smell of Easter

I’m not going to say much this evening, partly because I have preached something approaching 5000 words over the last three days already, and I think enough is probably enough, both for me and for those of you who have followed through the whole lot.

But I did want to just draw out some thoughts from the poem I’ve just read and the readings we’ve heard today, thoughts which are triggered, in a sense, by the way in which words can sometimes sell us short, no matter how many of them we use. The problem is that words are a poor substitute for real experience. Real experience of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ would have been made up of so much more. It would have been known in all our senses – the sights and sounds of the events, of palm leaves ripped from trees, of nails being driven into wood and flesh, of crowds jostling and shouting, of the stone being rolled across the mouth of the tomb to seal it, of weeping in grief and then in joy on Easter Day.  Then there would have been the taste of Easter, of bread and wine at the Last Supper, or the sour wine offered to Christ on the cross, of fish shared in a meal on Easter evening when the risen Christ appeared to his disciples in the locked room where they were hiding. The thing which struck me most though, from our readings and poem tonight, was what Easter might have smelt like. Smell is one of the most evocative of the senses, almost impossible to describe, but unmistakeable and powerful in its ability to bring back memories, and conjure up moods and associations. What did Holy Week and Easter smell like? It started perhaps with the smell of a donkey, that animal smell, not unpleasant, but sharp and pungent. There was the smell of that night time garden of Gethsemane too, full of the scents of springtime, of blossom heavy in the air. But that was soon overwhelmed by the smell of fear – almost everyone in this story was afraid it seems to me; Christ himself as he wrestled with what he knew was coming, his disciples as they saw their dreams of him turn to dust on the cross, but the fear of Pilate and Herod and the Jewish authorities too, who saw Jesus as a threat so dangerous that only death was the answer to it. Then there was Golgotha, the killing field outside Jerusalem – we can barely imagine what that must have smelt like. The Romans normally liked to leave the bodies of their crucified victims where they were to rot; it was a powerful message to anyone else who might be inclined to cause them trouble.

It is important to bear in mind these smells as we imagine the women coming to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning on Easter Day. They come, we are told with spices and ointments, the ones usually used to anoint bodies at the time of burial. They hadn’t had time to do this for Jesus on Good Friday, so they were doing it now. Those spices and ointments were designed to mask the stench of death, to overpower it so that it would be possible to come close enough to mourn. But these women knew quite well that by now, on the third day after his death, decomposition would have thoroughly set in. All the spices in the world probably wouldn’t be enough. As they walked to the grave they were frightened of what they would find, not just of what they would see but of what they would smell. They knew the reality of death. As in most cultures it was usually the women who did the physical business of preparing bodies for burial. But still, it had to be tried for this man whom they had loved so deeply.

But when they got there they found that instead of the stench of death there was an empty tomb, smelling just of good clean rock, with graveclothes neatly folded and two angels announcing the resurrection.

In the Old Testament when Isaiah wants to speak of new hope and a new beginning for the people of Israel after their long exile in Babylon, he proclaims that on the day when God delivers them they will be given “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” It is this idea which Gerald Manley Hopkins poem picks up and links with Easter. “Beauty now for ashes wear/ Perfumes for the garb of woe.”
Resurrection isn’t just an intellectual idea, something to be grasped with the brain. It is something which affects the whole of our lives, which is known through our actions and attitudes, in the depths of our being, perfusing us like a scent, getting into every part of our being. The life and love of God, undefeated by all the hatred and destruction the world can throw at it, changes everything for us when we have discovered it. Life smells different from death. We may not be able to put it into words, but we know it when we find it.

But in order to discover that new life God promises, the new hope, the new beginning that we long for, like those women at the tomb, we have to be brave enough to go to the place we fear the most, the place we are sure will stink of death, the places in our lives where we have failed, the places in our world where people suffer. Like that tomb in Jerusalem, these are the places where God chooses to work, first, foremost and most powerfully , the places where he is needed most yet least expected. If we stay in our locked rooms, in our comfort zones, then we will never know the fullness of Easter joy, that Christ is risen indeed, not just in Jerusalem, but in us.

Easter Gerald Manley Hopkins

Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.

Build His church and deck His shrine;
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine-
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not 'tis Easter morn ?

Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter's robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.

Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe.
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.

Seek God's house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls alway
Make each morn an Easter Day.

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