Death and Resurrection in Conflict

PARTICIPATION in the liturgical rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter is for the Christian a living encounter in the conflict between death and resurrection through insertion into these historic events. For Lancelot Andrewes the Feast of the Resurrection is the culminating point of the liturgical year, ‘the queen and sovereign of all the days in the year’, that he expounds in eighteen sermons preached before King James on Easter Sundays between 1606 and 1623. Some of the sermons may sound dull when compared to modern standards but others represent some of his finest work. Nevertheless, a preacher looking for inspiration and insight for an Easter sermon will not be disappointed.

In the first sermon, an introduction to the collection, the central theme of Easter is presented as the conflict between death and resurrection. “The truth is we cannot speak of rising well without mention of the terminus a quo, from whence He rose. By means whereof these two, 1. Christ’s dying, and 2. His rising, are so linked together, and their audits so entangled one with another, as it is very hard to sever them.” (Works, Vol. II, p.195). Dying and rising are to be kept together and their conflict and resolution he expounds in a series of antitheses:

This then we know first: that death is not a fall like that of Pharaoh into the sea, that “sunk down like a lump of lead” into the bottom, and never came up more; but a fall like that of Jonas into the sea, who was received by a fish, and cast up again. It is our Saviour Christ’s own simile. A fall, not like that of the Angels into the bottomless pit, there to stay for ever; but like to that of men into their beds, when they make account to stand up again. A fall, not as of a log or stone to the ground, which, where it falleth there it lieth; but as a wheat-corn into the ground, which is quickened and springeth up again. (p. 192)

His succinct language is graphic and rich as he opposes familiar biblical characters, then angels and men from the Chain of being and concludes with illustrations from the natural world to illustrate death and rising. Easter is the beginning of hope that should give rise to joy because the nature of death has been changed. For the Fathers, Andrewes informs us, Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb represents humanity before this day, for she mourns the dead, as pagans mourn the dead. So Jesus tells her not to weep for there is no cause for weeping now (Sermon 14) “if there be a rising again”. Weeping is for Good Friday. “Is not Christ risen? Shall not He raise us with Him? Is he not a gardener, to make our bodies sown to grow again … leave that (weeping) to the heathen that are without hope; but to the Christian man, quid ploras? (Why do you weep?) he hath hopes; the Head is already risen, the members shall in their due time follow Him.”

Andrewes is explicit in his affirmation of this inseparable character of death and resurrection that is woven throughout his sermons not only in direct speech but in a rich imagery and symbol where contrasts and oppositions are powerfully expressed in the white of Easter and the black of the Passion. So he more subtly brings out the contrast between the darkness of Good Friday and the Paschal light.

Heaven mourned on Good Friday, the eclipse made all then in black. Easter-day it rejoiceth, Heaven and angels all in white. Solomon tells us, it is the colour of joy (Eccles.9: 8). And that is the state of joy, and this is the day of the first joyful tidings of it, with joy ever celebrated, even in albis, eight days together, by them that found Christ. (Sermon 14).

The allusion here is to the practice of the newly baptised in the Primitive Church who after their Easter baptism kept their white baptismal robes for the following eight days. It introduces the sacramental dimension whereby the Christian participates in this Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection by a necessary death in the baptismal waters in order to reach the joy of the resurrection.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham