‘While it was still dark’

Happy Easter. We have had a very good Holy Week at Southwark Cathedral. It was a joy to get into the church and a real joy to have Dr Paula Gooder as our guide through the week. This is the sermon I preached early on Easter Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 25.6-9, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18.

As this slow unlocking of life continues I realise that there’s so much that I’m looking forward to – something of that freedom that we used to enjoy, to do what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it, to go where we wanted to go when we wanted to go there.  I miss the theatre, and I miss restaurants, and, believe it or not, I miss hotels.  I really enjoy staying in hotels, it’s a guilty pleasure!  Airbnb is fine but there’s nothing quite like being in a hotel as far as I’m concerned.  But one thing that always frustrates us and that’s when there are insufficient plug sockets next to the bed.  We’ve resorted to always travelling with one of those multi plug extension leads in the luggage and when we’ve forgotten to take it we have to search out a hardware store wherever we are to buy one!

The reason?  Well it’s simply that there are so many things nowadays that you have to charge overnight.  There’s the phone, my watch, the iPad, maybe the Kindle if I’ve had a day of reading, my shaver, all those kinds of things.  And some of them do need to be on charge overnight and linked to the Wi-Fi so that they can update themselves and put things into the cloud and do all the work they seem to do when we’re asleep so that we can pick up our lives and our gadgets in the morning, fully charged and ready to go.

St John’s account of the resurrection begins with these words

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

So often when I’ve been thinking about Easter and Mary Magdalene in the garden I’ve been thinking about the second half of this wonderful Gospel reading.  Mary is on her own in the dawn light when she encounters Jesus, but mistakes him for the gardener, when he calls her name and she doesn’t quite realise who she’s meeting – until it all becomes clear.  And I’ve often thought about what things look like in that half-light at the beginning of the day and made that connection, which we so often do with our Easter hymns, that resurrection comes with the dawn, that life begins as the sun rises.

But Mary in fact comes to the tomb, to the garden, in the dark.  Unable to sleep, she’d picked her way through the still sleeping disciples and their companions, quietly closing behind her the door of the room where they were staying, not wanting to disturb anyone whilst they were sleeping, not wanting to have to explain to anyone what she was doing, what she was feeling or to express her raw grief to anyone else but wanting the cloak and the anonymity of the darkness to help her come to terms with what’d happened to Jesus.

And so through the dark, silent, abandoned streets she makes her way to the garden and the tomb, the cave in which she, with the other women, had left him as the sun had sunk behind the horizon and the Sabbath had begun.

‘While it was still dark’, John tells us, ‘while it was still dark’ the work of God had taken place, while the world was sleeping God was active, in the dark rather than in the dawn resurrection took place.  Even the stone had been rolled away ‘while it was still dark’, there was nothing to be done by anyone, all the work had been completed, overnight, while everyone rested, ‘while it was still dark’. God is active in the darkness, God is at work even when we are unaware that divine work is being done.

In one of his Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’ the poet T S Eliot writes this

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

It was ‘all in the waiting’. Mary was waiting, but she was waiting not as we waited for this Easter Day but waiting to complete the work of burial that she’d begun.  She could wait no longer and so she entered the darkness and discovered that in God

‘the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’

One of the images that has long been used for the resurrection is the butterfly.  If you go into the retrochoir and look at Comper’s reredos in St Christopher’s chapel you were see painted there beautiful butterflies to remind us of the new life that Jesus brings.  How can that caterpillar become the lovely butterfly, but through the tomb of the chrysalis.  Hidden away, in the darkness, out of sight the work takes place and from the darkness something amazing, something beautiful emerges.

We’ve lived through a year of waiting, of loss, of false starts, of dashed hopes, of postponed joy, of grief, of sickness.  For all of us it’s been hard, for some it has been unbearable.  And now we’re gradually emerging, looking forward to different things happening, picking up our life, embracing, loving, laughing.

But what this Easter Day reminds us is that God has been at work even in the lockdown, even in the darkness, even in our isolation, even when God has seemed very absent, even when we have felt at our most alone.  God does not have to wait for the dawn to do the work that needs to be done.  Jesus steps from the darkness of the tomb into the darkness of the world that

‘the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’

And we emerge too, daring to step into the unknown, daring to test the water of the world, daring to pick up where we left off, daring to embrace, to love, to laugh.  We’ve waited a long time for this but in Jesus, in the resurrected, butterfly-beautiful Jesus we know that

‘the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.’

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading reassures us of the truth of all of this

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
   This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
   let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

My friends, the night has passed, the new day has dawned, the Lord is risen and God’s work has been done.  Bread has been broken, wine has been poured, the table is set and all is ready.

We’re simply invited to step into the future and to leave the stillness behind, to join in the dance that has already begun.

God, draw us from the darkness into the light and to the banquet and the dance you have prepared for us. Amen.

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