Archbishop Mark Coleridge preached this homily at Easter Sunday Mass at The Cathedral of St Stephen, 21 April 2019
In recent days fire has been much on our minds and before our eyes – never more so than at this Easter time when we light the new fire, as we did last night. Fire is deeply mysterious and potent – in its capacity both to create and to destroy. No wonder they thought in other times that it came from heaven – and even in Greek mythology that Prometheus had stolen it from heaven. For this trespass, we are told, Prometheus was sentenced to endless torment: he was bound to a rock and each day an eagle would come to feed on his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day. So much for the thief of fire from heaven; so much for the price of human trespass.
Human beings through the ages have even worshipped fire, seeing it not just as something from heaven but a power which actually contains the divine. Even today there are groups who worship fire. Dim traces of this are found even in our own culture where we light eternal flames in shrines that look like temples, as we’ll see on Anzac Day.
Here today we don’t steal fire from heaven nor do we worship it. But we do receive fire as a gift. There’s no need to steal, because the God we worship is an extravagant gift-giver and wants to share with us the fire that none can extinguish, the light no darkness can dispel. There’s nothing promethean about what we do this morning, no hint of trespass in our celebration. We don’t storm heaven; God in fact storms earth, bursting from the tomb as the fire of life. God trespasses gloriously into a dark world.
The fire of God has power both to destroy and to create. The inferno of Notre-Dame showed dramatically the destructive power of fire and our frailty before its force. But from day to day we also see the creative power of fire – to provide warmth and prepare food, to give light, to purify and to heal.
No wonder it stands as the prime symbol of the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. In the darkness of the tomb, there’s a corpse which, left to itself, can only decompose. But into that corpse the Holy Spirit is breathed. The breath of God enters the corpse, the fire of God enters the darkness – and Jesus walks from the tomb, radiantly alive as never before, entering a new dimension of being in which he has a body, unmistakably, but a body now unconstrained by space and time and a body coming to meet us as he met the women on that first Easter morning.
Like fire, he comes to destroy. In dying, Jesus descended into hell we say – and in that descent he destroyed hell’s power, the power of all the hells of this world. He destroys all that destroys the human being, all that turns us into corpses, lining up among the living dead. War, starvation, poverty, slavery, abuse but also anger, fear, resentment, depression, addiction – and so on the list could go. Just as Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea, so all these, our pursuers, are burned today by a fire that nothing can extinguish. Of that consuming fire, a small flame flickers, the flame of this Easter candle – a humble flame, fragile but strong enough to dispel every darkness.
And that was always God’s plan. In the beginning, God’s first word was “Light!”, and every other word God speaks, supremely the Word made flesh, re-echoes that first word. The moment when God brings light out of darkness in the beginning looks already to the moment of Easter when the same all-creating word will bring Jesus from the tomb. It was the same word that brought babies from barren wombs and slaves from Egypt. But all of these look to the event that we celebrate this morning, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. For them, the empty tomb and the encounters with the Risen Lord came out of nowhere, turning their world on its head. But the Resurrection didn’t come out of nowhere; it came from the fathomless depths of God and was always part of God’s plan – for us and all of creation.
Through Holy Saturday we sat by the tomb of Jesus, wondering if it’s more than a dead-end, the defeat of life and the triumph of death. Jesus rises from the dead, we’re told, though we struggle to grasp the meaning of that and even think at times, like the Apostles, that it’s sheer nonsense. Still we trust that the tomb, in ways hitherto unimaginable, becomes a womb. This is our faith; it’s the faith of the whole Church; and we are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The tomb is a womb from which not only Jesus but a teeming host comes forth. Jesus isn’t the only one born from the dead. As St Paul says, he’s “the first-born from the dead” (Col 1:18), “the first-born of many brothers and sisters” (Rom 8:29). All of us have been born from that womb, and today four new-born sisters and brothers are given to us – Naomi, Brendan, Alessia and Jorge. They come fresh from the tomb which has become a womb.
This is the womb of the Church we call Mother. In these times the womb of Mother Church may seem old and lifeless, weighed down as she is not only by age but by her many troubles. The Church can look like the ageing Elizabeth who, we are told in Luke’s Gospel, was barren (1:6). But, as the angel had promised, Elizabeth conceives against all the odds and gives birth to John the Baptist (Luke 1:57). So too now new life stirs in the seemingly barren womb of the Church – but only because Jesus rises from the dead and turns every tomb to a womb. Just as the birth of John gave joy to Elizabeth and many others (Luke 1:58), so too the gift of new brothers and sisters gives joy to the Church at this Easter time, whatever our troubles may be. We thank them for their decision, and we praise God for the gift that they are
Darkness and light, death and life, destruction and creation, tomb and womb: between these we move on this Easter day – journeying out of one and into the other, not by our own strength but by the strength of him who first made the journey, his great exodus in Jerusalem (cf Luke 9:31). The Easter event is God’s masterpiece. It’s never back then and back there; it’s here and now; it’s always and everywhere. The Risen Christ himself stands among us today, in Brisbane and in this cathedral, speaking the words of fire that echo down through the ages and through every corner of the cosmos, “Peace be with you”. Amen.