At Good Friday service we will act a powerful liturgy written by Dorothy McCrae. A rough cross, using timber fallen from the trees behind the church, will stand before the Communion table. There will be a pot of large, rough stones near the front. We will each take one and leave it at the base of the cross; a symbol of the hard things in our lives. As the story of the crucifixion is read, four people will take down the cross, carry it like a coffin, and lay it on a shroud. A woman will come and sprinkle rose petals over the grave, and we will each follow, and leave a petal of our own. Then, in the silence, we will leave.
On Easter Day, the shroud will be found lying empty, bearing the rose petalled shape of a cross.. We will dress the church, removing the shrouds from the furnishings, and read the stories of resurrection and hope. Yet somehow Easter Day service can lack the emotional power of the Good Friday liturgy.
Easter Day is not dealing with the familiar finality of death. It talks of hope; hope rising from the storm-centre of despair. It proclaims hope where despair has already acknowledged defeat. It proclaims the impossible.
We do not identify with the hope of Easter day in the way we recognize the familiar pain of Good Friday. Too many of our Fridays are not followed by Easter days.
Indeed, many Easter celebrations, a cynic might say, are not even whistling in the dark. They are fatuous; foolish claims about the eternal significance of un-provable events. Confused speculation about divine transactions to satisfy the honour of a medieval God, or a hodge-podge of Hebraic ideas about sacrifice and forgiveness. Even without hostility or cynicism, and with great love for the church, Easter morning service can seem empty by comparison to Good Friday.
I wonder if I'm just too comfortable in my secure Adelaide life.
John Gaden's funeral service began with the hymn
Jesus lives! thy terrors now
can no longer, death, appall us;
Jesus lives! by this we know
thou, O grave, canst not enthrall us.
I wrote of that funeral
For modern sensibilities, the words of the hymn cause many questions in our struggle to understand mind, consciousness, death and reality. I was well aware of that as we sang, but the Cathedral organ and the voices of hundreds around me, took me to another place. There is no literal meaning in these words, but the hymn remains a favourite for me. It says something about the meaningful nature of life, despite the reality of death.
In my grief, faced with real pain and loss, Easter claims gained some reality.
At a funeral, if I am the presiding minister, I have to keep my emotions under control. I am doing a job. My time for mourning comes later. But sometimes something forces its way past my artificial detachment. I took a funeral at Mitcham. The cemetery is high up. You can see the sea and the city. It is removed from the noise of the traffic. This was a day with wind hissing in the pines, and black clouds scudding across the sky. We wondered if we would finish in the rain. It was a 'cold air, hot sun' kind of day. The kind of day when it is not pleasant outside, but it is good.
As I read the liturgy, and said the prayers, the power of the words hit me. "This is real," I thought. "We are really doing something. Out here wrapped in our coats in the wind, but with the sun burning our faces, we are tapping into the reality of all things. These are not just words. We are being linked into that all encompassing reality of God who goes on forever. " It was more than a ceremony. And at that moment this very twentieth century man with his science degree, who knows all the arguments against life after death, was a true believer. Or rather, I didn't believe...I knew. I knew that nothing could separate us from the love of God.
Again Easter claims had a reality.
I also remember an Easter service at dawn. A couple were being baptised. It was still mostly dark. We were chest deep in swell. They were thrust under, and came up gasping and pained with cold. We came up onto the sand bluing round our lips. People wrapped them in rugs, and we barbecued fish for breakfast, a few people on a beach as the sun rose. That had reality, along with the pain, and so few people as witness. It's always more comfortable to come to 9.30 service with the heaters on.
Perhaps Easter only works if we live it. If we have been graced with a peaceful life, and relative safety what can it give us? If we never risk our safe life with discipleship that goes beyond our own self's comfort and security, what has Easter to offer us? Anaesthetised by comfortable living, we won't even have enough discomfort to feel we need to whistle in the dark.