12 April 1998
Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon
Sunday 12 April 1998
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen. Remember how he told you while he was still with you in Galilee?’ Then, Luke tells us, ‘they remembered his words’.
This is a passage that has long fascinated me. It joins together two important ideas; first that the women were looking in the wrong place for the risen Christ and second that it was their failure to remember the true meaning of his words that had led them to do this.
But shocking and terrible experiences can often lead to memory loss. Who can blame the women for forgetting? They had witnessed the most terrible thing in the cruel death of their dear leader and they were shattered beyond belief; their men-folk had already gone underground. No wonder the presence of two young men at the tomb of Jesus surprised and frightened them greatly.
But then, we are told, ‘they remembered his words’. And it is on that transformative act of remembering that I want to focus our thoughts this morning. For what happened that first Easter Day was a reshaping of their memory.
Of course, if questioned, they could have told you that Jesus had made reference to his coming death and that he had hinted at terrible and disturbing things to come, but it did not add up to a complete picture. As far as their immediate situation was concerned they were suffering from amnesia. Nothing linked up; they were confused and disoriented. The transformation came much later as ‘anamnesis’ (remembrance) replaced ‘amnesia’ (what they had forgotten). And that change was life transforming.
We all know how our memories affect us. They provide, to some extent, the interpretative map of our lives and it is when we lose the whole or part of that memory that we have the disorienting and frightening experience of feeling lost. In Prof. Oliver Sacks’ book The Man who mistook his wife for his hat, he tells the story of a fine musician who, one day, came to his surgery for a consultation. Initially, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the man. Certainly his music was unaffected. But then the psychiatrist picked up a glove and asked him what it was. His patient guessed. ‘it looks like a coin container for five different types of coin’. His memory of what a glove was had gone, and it left him bewildered.
If that is an extreme example of the significance of memory to us we can think of other examples where memory may play a crucial role in determining the way we live our lives either positively or negatively. Think, for instance, of the destructive potential of memory whether in Kosova or Rwanda where the bitterness of past conflict continues to sour relationships and forbid the possibility of healing or transformation. Or, indeed, of Northern Ireland until Good Friday.
Yesterday’s historic peace settlement in Northern Ireland has the potential to transcend the bitter memories of the past. We salute the dedication of politicians and community leaders in reaching an agreement. A lasting peace will become a reality as anger, hatred and violence are replaced by love and mutual acceptance. In that, communities and Churches will play a prominent part. May Northern Ireland be given the grace to forgive evils that have divided whole communities and look forward to a new future.
Think of the constructive power of memory. For instance, there is the richness of warm memories when we remember the goodness of people or the loving relationships we’ve enjoyed in the past. At Easter, as at other anniversaries, many such memories come flooding back. I am often struck when talking with those who have been bereaved by the very ordinary things that they remember. A lady said this to me only last week as, with a hint of a choke in her voice, she thought of her father : ‘As my old dad used to say’ she said as she recounted a memory of her father’s love of gardening. Or, you will have noticed as I have done, the way that people who have been bereaved talk about the things they remember their loved one doing: the way he held his cup, the way she used to pour the tea, the way he held his head when he was speaking. Oh yes, memories are deeply important and go to the heart of what we value most. They reveal our own precious capacity to love and be loved.
Similarly a constructive memory is vital to the health of any society. We belittle the traditions from the past at our peril for by doing so we can lose out on many of those lessons our ancestors learnt, often at great cost. Of course I am aware of the danger of any society or institution becoming stuck in the past. A truly healthy society needs to be open to change and transformation whilst always being firmly rooted in the past, and able to drink deeply from those well-springs of truth embedded in its traditions.
Indeed, as we approach the Millennium, one of the most worrying problems for the Church in our land is our nation’s loss of memory of its rich Christian past. Just as one mark of old age can be, sadly, when a person’s memory starts to fade, so as the years lengthen from Christ’s birth, we, as a society, are in danger of losing our memory of who He is and all he did, of how the Christian faith has shaped our country down the years, and the debt we all owe to the Christian moral tradition. Talk of the ‘Millennium experience’ will be hollow if our society has lost its knowledge of our Christian traditions in which to anchor and reflect on that experience.
So too, what the angelic beings were saying to those women was a call to them to get back fully in touch with their memories. ‘Remember how he said to you..’ In other words ; ‘Come on, remember the clues he left around. Surely his death could not defeat him? Recall the strength of his teaching; remember the wonder of his presence; let your memory linger on the hints he dropped’…
Perhaps, then, as they scoured their memories for such clues they began to see the point of the angels’ question: ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ They were looking in the wrong place. Death could not stop him; he was risen!
We must acknowledge, that question has a challenge in it for us all. For people are looking for Christ today, perhaps sometimes without knowing that they are looking for him specifically. They may call it the search for meaning and fulfilment in their lives; or for a love they have not known; for hope for the future; or for peace in their hearts. The challenge therefore for us as his Church is so to convey the good news of the risen Christ that they find him in the joy of our lives, in our services week by week, in the way we conduct our business, in the relevance of the Christian message and in its impact on behaviour and life.
Do not be fooled into thinking that the resurrection and Christianity are all about things that happened in the past. Modern, thinking people still encounter Jesus today. This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of that remarkable writer C.S.Lewis, the author of the ‘Narnia’ series, ‘The Problem of Pain’, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and many more beside. But he had not always been a Christian. His struggle to find faith led him to experience three separate shifts of thinking; from atheism to a shaky belief in God as he realised that arguments for God were stronger than total unbelief. And then from that point to full Christian belief as his thinking led him closer to a personal and knowable God. He described the final step in these words:
‘I of course knew when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. "Emotional" is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, becomes aware that he is awake’.
For Lewis, the resurrection became an experience that morning, as Christ found him, just as he found those women who went to the tomb on that first Easter Day.
And here is a final question: How do remembering and experience connect?
My answer must of necessity be brief. Our memories hold past, present and future together. We do not live digital lives with each day or each moment unconnected to the next. Rather, today arrives out of yesterday, and so will tomorrow out of today. And just as remembering is impossible without experience - otherwise there would be nothing to remember- so remembering itself to be fully experienced is an act that has to be repeated, lingered over, savoured and delighted in as we recall what has enriched us in the past and feeds us still. And it is this act of ‘remembering’ which the New Testament writers called ‘anamnesis’ - the vivid reliving of an event which makes us partakers of it. Remember how a few verses later Luke depicts two disciples returning from Jerusalem, heavy of heart. They meet a stranger who walks with them and then breaks bread with them. As he does so they realise it is the Lord! But when did they recognise him? The evocative words say it all: ‘they recognised him in the breaking of the bread’. Perhaps, even today in this service, we shall recognise him again in our breaking of bread, as from many different backgrounds and nationalities we share in the Church’s act of remembering. An act which is founded on experience - as we find Christ in our lives; as he shows us his hands and his feet and as we hear his voice; ‘It is I. I have conquered sin and death. I am risen’.
May this resurrection hope fire our hearts with joy, deepen our faith with hope and lead to fresh confidence in our lives this Easter Day.