If you looked at the news headlines over the last few days – Bomb kills dozens of Syrian evacuees, North Korea ready for nuclear attack – you might be forgiven for thinking that Jesus had wasted his time on Good Friday and that Resurrection is at best wishful thinking and at worst culpable self-delusion. It might seem a safer bet to distract yourself from Cross and Resurrection by focusing on football or fantasy films. They mightn't change the world – but they might numb the sense of helplessness when faced with the apparent madness that marks our society and the struggles between the sometimes bizarre figures that believe they rule the earth.
But it is precisely into the midst of despair and shattered dreams that the Resurrection stories speak. So what do they say to me this year?
Firstly, the question about what truth is and the idea of 'alternative facts' is not a new one. That began with the half truths of Adam and Eve, blaming each other or the snake and continues in every generation. Pilate articulated that on Good Friday and the Pharisees wanted to spread a different interpretation of the facts, as soon as Jesus' body was found to be missing.We all like to tell a truth that makes us feel comfortable. But Resurrection brings us far beyond our comfort zone.
In our own time, we often think that we will be safer if we bury the truth. Everyone does it, from ourselves to governments. Cover the truth with the cold rock of silence and people might forget about the ugly truth that scars the face of society. We have buried many people and many facts – and often hope that time will erase their memory. But Resurrection tells me that you cannot kill the truth and bury it. The truth will be free and it alone will set us free. That is why many people have queued over these last days to unburden themselves in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
There is a lot of truth-telling to be undergone by our society – and a lot of alternative facts that need to be debunked. Those who tell an uncomfortable story about residential care or murder, social neglect or bad laws will often be unwelcome to the strong. But heavy stones need to be moved away by little people and by grace. The gilded narratives of 100% saintly church or 100% self-sacrificing heroes need to be debunked if we are to cease being prisoners of the past. Only in this way can many people experience the possibility of resurrection. Individual and communal resurrection will not come about merely by changing political leaders or borders. There will be no resurrection for Ireland if we do not get beyond the self-serving narratives and abandon alternative facts. Only by the truth can we be freed.
Secondly, the Easter narratives invite us to be people of hope in the midst of the brutality and triumphalism that marked Good Friday. Hope is not what someone recently called 'baptised optimism'. Hope is most important, not when things work out well – but precisely when our plans lie in tatters. The opposite of hope is not pessimism but despair.
So the hope that our Resurrection faith offers us is not the trite illusion that, if only we had the freedom to do whatever we liked in sexual morality and self-indulgence, then we would be happy. That is an inhuman lie, which is currently unravelling for many. It is a destructive dogma that tells me to offer everything on the altar of the tyrannical God 'Me and Now'. It is a counsel of despair that tells me that the best we can do on Easter weekend is to party and that little else has meaning. It is a message that Calvary is the end of the story for all of us. The message of the Cross and Resurrection is offered to free me from that despairing drive to murder the unwelcome truth about what makes us human – generosity, forgiveness and community. This Easter day, like the Apostles, we are invited by Jesus to speak the uncomfortable truth that the powerful would rather we would forget.
Thirdly, the events of Holy Week are an invitation to reflect on how we respond to death. There was nothing flowery or superficial about how Jesus' friends took his battered body and laid it in a tomb. Our culture seems tempted to use softer words – he passed away, she passed. But death is harsh and often tragic. That is why the Church asks all of us to come before the Lord with our pain and loss, identified by and lying beneath nothing but the Cross. Our hope is always in what Jesus has done on the Cross and in our membership in his body. Before the harshness of death, we have no other badge of honour, no other source for our hope. As St Paul says, if we boast, let us boast of nothing except the Cross of Our Lord, Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14). It is faith in the Risen Christ and not just cuddly toys or anything that offer us hope about the value of living and the meaning of dying.
These are challenging times for those of us who choose to be in church for Easter. For many of our contemporaries, the message that we carry has been damaged by the sin that has always marked the Church. But Jesus invites us not be afraid to roll back the heavy stone for fear of what we might find there and to speak the truth into our reality. It is only then that we can model the truth who is Jesus and encourage our leaders to embrace the healing truth. God can bring life from death and glory from humiliation. As people of faith, we also find it difficult to hold on to hope that is not for this life only (1 Cor 15:19). If that is our only hope, then St Paul tells us that we are the most unfortunate of people. But today we are called to be people who can tell an uncomfortable story about Jesus so that our contemporaries may know that, because of this Jesus, there is more hope and despair, more grace than sin in the world. And finally we will face the harsh reality of death with language that speaks of forgiveness and resurrection and not just of earthly allegiances.
For we are an Easter people, who can see the empty tomb lurking behind Calvary – and, for that reason, Alleluia is our song.
Easter Sunday -April 16th 2017
St Eugene's Cathedral, Derry