Death has been swallowed up in victory! Death, where is thy sting? Where, O Grave thy victory?

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, April 20, 2014 - 9:30am

 

 

Long ago, when Christianity had been all but extinguished in these islands by waves of invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes; when this had become a pagan place, where people offered up sacrifices to Woden and Thor, a chance encounter in a marketplace in Rome set off a new train of events.

 

Pope Gregory the Great found himself walking past a slave auction, where some young golden-haired boys from the North were being paraded for sale. When he asked where they were from, he was told:

‘They are Angles.’

‘Non Angli,’ he replied ‘sed Angeli’

‘Not Angles, but Angels.’

 

It was at this moment, so Bede tells us, that Gregory was moved by the fate of these children from the edge of the world, and the seeds of a mission to the English were sown.

 

However, the monks sent amongst the warlike Germanic tribes faced a problem. How best could they communicate the gospel of redemption and peace, mercy and forgiveness, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, to tribes whose culture revolved around epic stories of heroes and monsters, and legendary battles recited blow by blow by poets in a mead hall?

 

The answer of course was to speak the language of the audience. To present Christ as an heroic warrior doing battle with the cosmic forces of Death and Hell. The Christian faith took root in alien soil and as a consequence, Anglo-Saxon cross carvings rarely show the weak and wounded figure of Jesus to which we are accustomed. Instead we find Christ clad in a soldier’s armour- Sometimes trampling down the Lion and the serpent, the symbols of Satan, sometimes wielding his cross as if it were a sword to deliver the mortal blow to the powers of chaos and destruction. Likewise in the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood, the ‘Lord of all mankind’ strides confidently to the cross and mounts upon it. It continues:

 

Then the young hero (who was God Almighty)

Got ready, resolute and strong at heart.

He climbed onto the lofty gallows tree

Bold in the sight of many watching men

When he intended to redeem mankind.

 

What right, we may ask, did they have to recast the story in this way? The poignant story of Christ’s sacrifice that we have rehearsed through Holy Week? His humble self-emptying death transformed into a kind of combat?

 

The answer, of course, lies in the empty tomb. Why do we look for the living among the dead? Death has been swallowed up in victory. Mourning has been turned into joy. The Resurrection is an oxymoron, a contradiction, a paradox. And scripture can hardly speak about the triumph of peace without using the language of victory and conquest:

 

‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

 ‘To the one who conquers, I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’

 

We discover in Jesus’ death and resurrection a dissonance between the way in which we were saved, and the effect of being saved. Between the pain, humiliation and disgrace of the cross, and the glorious triumph of redemption.

 

The two women come to the tomb in the still of the morning, steeling themselves in their grief for what they would find, but the reality the find is far greater and more confusing – an encounter both joyful and terrifying. An angel rolls the stone away. The earth is shaken with an earthquake and the soldiers are scattered. Their emotions can hardly keep pace as they retreat bearing the angel’s message and run straight into the figure of Jesus… What is there to do but fall at his feet and worship?

The resurrection bursts in on us with a thunderclap. Easter announces itself with a cry of Conquest. Where we expected death we found life. Everything that held us back or chained us down has been vanquished.

 

Christ’s death on the cross, which looked to all the world like defeat, was in fact a victory. Like a Trojan Horse, Hell accepted the broken body of Christ within its gates, only for light and love to break out and overcome it.

The serpent who deceived the first humans in the garden has been trodden underfoot.

The forces who, like Pharoah, enslaved God’s people have been swallowed up by the sea, and they have entered the Promised Land.

The armies that led them away in chains from Jerusalem to Babylon have themselves been led away captive, and we are returning home.

 

Christ has conquered, and we are free! Free from death, and free from fear, free from the limits that the world places around us, free to live as beloved children of God.

 

Easter sets us a challenge. Defeat was reassuring. We could be comfortable if we admitted defeat. We could look around and see hunger and suffering, bitterness and grief, war and disaster, corruption and abuse, and shrug, and return to our homes, and console ourselves with the thought that this was only to be expected, that if we knuckle down and accept that things will never be otherwise, if we turn our backs on the world we hoped for and settle for less, we won’t be disappointed.

 

As the first green shoots sprout from the shattered wreckage of war, we discover that this easy resignation no longer holds. We can dare now to hope that anything is possible- that the world can be transformed into the Kingdom of Heaven; that God is beginning again with a new creation, and that we by baptism are born anew into a different world, full of life and potential and hope.

We are not Angles, but Angels. Not slaves, but free.

Christ is Risen, and we are risen with Him. Alleluia!