Sunday, 21 April 2019

‘They have taken away
my Lord, and I do not know
where they have laid him’

A cross shines above the High Altar through the smoke and dust after the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with the Pietà or statue of the ‘Descent from the Cross’ (1725) … a photograph by Christophe Petit Tesson

Patrick Comerford

Easter Day, Sunday 21 April 2019:

9.30 a.m., the Easter Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton;

11.30 a.m., the Easter Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert).

Readings: Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18.

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I wonder how people in Paris expecting to take part in the Easter Eucharist in Notre Dame Cathedral must feel as they hear the words in the Psalm appointed for this morning:

The same stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief corner-stone (Psalm 118: 22)

Many of us must have watched in horror on Monday night as Notre Dame Cathedral burned against the night sky. It was horrific to see. The building itself, as a work of architecture, is one of the great works of art, one of the great landmarks of European civilisation … even for those who do not share the Christian faith.

It was a story of death and burial.

But on Tuesday morning, we awoke to a story of Resurrection. Thanks to the careful and precise work of the firefighters of Paris, the main structure of the building had survived the blaze.

Many of the cathedral treasures had been saved as the cathedral was being evacuated, including what is said to be the Crown of Thorns from Christ’s Passion.

Then, in the morning, we heard not only that the fabric and the structure of the cathedral had been saved, but so too the great organ and the Rose Window – and three hives with more than 180,000 bees.

And one of the first images to emerge in the dust and smoke, through the great west door of the cathedral, in the chancel at the east end, was the Cross standing unflinchingly, unscathed, above the High Altar and above the seemingly untouched Pietà, a 300-year-old white marble sculpture by the French sculptor Nicolas Coustou (1658-1733), showing the Virgin Mary cradling the limp corpse of her Christ Son.

When Mary held that limp Christ-Corpse on her lap, on the womb that had borne him, she too must have thought that everything had come to an end.

But Easter always offers hope.

And the people of Paris must be feeling that they are being offered new hope, fresh hope, Easter hope, this Easter morning.

This is not the first fire to engulf or destroy a cathedral: there was Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, on Christmas Day 2009, York Minister in 1984, Coventry Cathedral in 1940, Saint Paul’s in the Great Fire of London in 1666 … and there will be many more in the future, I am sad but sure to say.

I was in Lichfield Cathedral on the Day of Pentecost seven years ago [27 May 2012] when the fire alarms went off just as the Liturgy was coming to an end, and I remember how the whole cathedral went into shutdown.

But the fire at Notre Dame last week caught the world’s attention, not only because of the ‘immediacy of spectacle’ television news channels offer. People everywhere have connections with Paris. It is the most-visited city in the world, and Notre Dame is one of its most-visited sites.

Of course, there are people to remind us that the Church is just bricks and mortar, that the Church is truly the people, or that the Church is truly the Body of Christ. And, of course, they are right. But who would claim that art is just paint on a canvas, what matters is what is in the artist’s heart? And Notre Dame, on its own, by itself, is one of the great Western works of art.

People may be cynical about the donations to save the cathedral from families that own Louis Vuitton and Gucci, when France is the sixth richest country in the world yet counts 140,000 homeless people, 30,000 of them children.

Yet we know we too would scrimp and save to keep this small church open if the survival of its structure was threatened. A widow’s mite is relative to a widow’s wealth, and who would despise or dismiss it?

Of course, works of art and of architectural history and of beauty rely on the ingenuity of people, and it is people who must be protected above all else.

Yet, once the restoration work commences, it will revive the skills of artists and artisans, carpenters, stuccodores and stone masons, wood turners, sculptors and painters. Countless small businesses will be revived, young people now unemployed will be offered apprenticeships as electricians and painter, joiners and plumbers, all because of this fire, and because some billionaires are not leaving their money resting idly in bank accounts or hedge funds, passively accumulating more interest and more wealth.

And this cathedral will, hopefully, continue to call people to worship God and to communion with each other for another 850 years.

Over the years, on several occasions, I too have visited Notre Dame, the spiritual heart of Paris and of France.

On one visit to Paris some years ago, we were visiting Notre Dame. One elderly family member questioned what she saw as the ostentation of the cathedral, and was disturbed, at the same time, by the large number of tourists trudging through, taking in their 30-minute experience of Notre Dame, without pausing to pray or reflect, even as the Mass was being celebrated in a side chapel.

At the time, I was working for an Anglican mission agency, and I was asked what I thought was the mission of Notre Dame.

I looked around, and noticed the large number of confession boxes, each offering the sacrament of reconciliation to visitors in a different language – French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean … there must have been 10 different languages in all.

I made a quick calculation. It was a leap year. If each priest in each confession box heard only three confessions a day (say morning, noon and afternoon), then over the full 366 days that year Notre Dame would have been instrumental in reconciling at least 10,980 people with God, with the Church and with their own souls. And that is probably a low estimate, a very minimalist calculation.

If the mission agency I was working could state in its annual report that it reconciled 10,980 people, if not more, with God, with the Church and with their own souls each year, it would have no problem in fundraising in parishes and dioceses throughout the Church.

This has been the mission of Notre Dame for over 850 years … over 9 million people, at the lowest possible calculation. This is the mission of every cathedral. Notre Dame is the same age as Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and both share the same dedication and patronage, as does Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

Cathedrals are the mission of the church in cities, where the stranger meets the Risen Christ, where the Risen Christ welcomes the unwelcome, where beauty shines through the grime and dirt of everyday life. Their liturgy and their visible beauty hide a more beautiful, inestimable truth they hold as a treasure for the life of the Church and in the life of society.

For the sake of 9 million people over the next 850 years, I hope Notre Dame recovers quickly from last week’s disaster. Easter always offers the hope of new life.

In my sermons last night, I referred to the Easter hope shared by the colourful and controversial Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran priest and public theologian. On one arm, she has a tattoo of Saint Mary Magdalene because she ‘was the first witness to the resurrection.’ Nadia says in one of her sermons:

‘It happens to all of us,’ I concluded that Easter Sunday morning. ‘God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life, over and over.’

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

‘The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone’ (Psalm 118: 22) ... a cross cut into a cornerstone in the main church in the Monastery of Vlatádon in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

John 20: 1-18 (NRSVA)

1 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. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The Empty Tomb … a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold).

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
you have overcome death
and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
Grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

Preface:

Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Living God,
for our redemption you gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
you have delivered us from the power of our enemy.
Grant us so to die daily unto sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Blessing:

The God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:

or:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Hymns:

286, The strife is o’er, the battle done (CD 12)
78, This is the day that the Lord has made (CD 5)
263, Crown him with many crowns (CD 14)

A panel depicting the Resurrection of Christ in the Royal or MacMahon tomb in the Franciscan Friary, Ennis, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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