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Creation starts with a flame

03 April 2007

Everything must be re-examined in the light of Christ’s resurrection, says Jennie Hogan

New creation: the Easter fire outside Salisbury Cathedral GRAHAM CARLOW

New creation: the Easter fire outside Salisbury Cathedral GRAHAM CARLOW

Genesis 1.1-2:4a; Exodus 14.10-end; 15.20-2; Isaiah 55.1-11; Ezekiel 37.1-14

AT THE Easter Vigil, there is still darkness: it is a Lenten darkness. It is a place with which we are familiar: it is a desert darkness; a darkness we have entered willingly. Going deeper into the reaches of ourselves, into our own desert places, has encouraged us to uproot that which prevents belief, love, and growth. We have been preparing for change.

Creating space for newness has been an essential Lenten task. The new space lets new light in — that is Lent’s purpose. Yet, initially, at this vigil, there is only darkness. The shock of the crucifixion slaughter lingers. The darkness is a good place to hide and cover the shame of it all. The church is dead, de-populated; the taint of tragedy is tangible. With the death of Christ, there is nothing but loss of hope, identity, and memory.

But the first light is lit, and the flame represents more than a flicker of hope: it is longed for and expected. The lit candle is a symbol of the sign of all signs. It is not blinding yet: our hearts, with faith and imagination, must conjure this. Once seen, once experienced, it will seem outrageous and strange, but momentous indeed.

Such is the surprise of the resurrection that its antecedents need to be its supports. It is almost meaningless without them. Memory is brought back to life by re-reading the stories of salvation. God’s faithful acts are not new: God’s earlier acts are plumbed and re-viewed tonight. This is another chance to go deeper, to be nourished and refreshed by these extravagant precursors.

Already a new identity is developing; something different is formed from this flickering light, enabling us to see the sweep of salvation. But this light is different: humanity’s encounters with God are remembered tonight in the resurrection light. Through our reading, our own story is given back to us. In the recounting of God’s loving action upon the world and his people, we quickly recognise the necessity of recovery, and the importance of roots.

WE START with creation; for it is crucial to know our origins. All that exists comes from God, and its goodness reflects God’s generosity. Creation is the first offering of the Father, and it shows great promise.

It is important tonight, though, to remember that God anticipated and decreed that humanity would be united with him. The begotten one was present at creation.

“Let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1.26). So the imago dei is imprinted on each of us; God is already indissoluble from ourselves. But it is not self-evident; it must be explored and encountered. Again, the resurrection light will transfigure this image, and will give each human being a new, closer bond with God.

The creation story, with its neatness, its well-paced ordering, is a warning to us, especially when faced with Christ’s corporeal return from death. We long for tidiness and comprehensible simplicity. The story told projects God as a working man: diligent and dutiful. The resurrection shatters these expectations. More light sheds more meaning on the nature of God.

With this strange resurrection, the time of waiting is over, and yet the event pushes us, testing our belief. But drama is not new, the Exodus story reassures us. Israel, God’s chosen people, is released from bondage in Egypt in the spectacular parting of the sea. God creates; God can control; God loves his people.

God’s Elect journey from darkness and slavery into light and freedom. New life awaits: there are prospects of living differently after God’s decisive action. In their walking over the dried seabed, the slaves must trust that there will be light, freedom, and life.

God triumphs not only over the Egyptian forces, but over evil forces. God’s omnipotence is revealed again. God saves his elect, and then leads them into new territory. This exodus is the proto-resurrection. God’s action enriched Israel’s faith; God’s work filled them with fear and awe. Their understanding of God changed, as did their self-understanding. God’s power to bring about Israel’s freedom through extraordinary acts became a central feature of their identity.

THE WOMEN responded first, as do the women in Luke’s resurrection account. It appears that they process the experience quickly. Miriam knows that praise is the most appropriate, if not the only action possible. She is keen; she is delighted, and her attitude of gratitude is infectious — the other women follow her. “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15.21); the Gloria that follows these Easter Vigil readings will echo their explosion of praise and thanksgiving.

Re-reading the stories of God’s action within the Old Covenant should also bring a sense of comfort. Such solace is needed: the darkness of Jesus’s death, and the uncertainty we live out from the Maundy Thursday vigil onwards, makes us vulnerable. The message of the prophets, God’s brave spokesmen, helps us to believe our eyes. We have not made this up; it is not an invention to quell our fear of death.

The resurrection is historical fact; the prophets spoke of this. They knew that something greater and more spectacular was coming. “I will make for you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples” (Isaiah 55.4). Isaiah encourages his audience to look out for this man. When he comes, he will blind everyone with his glory. But Isaiah is insistent: look, listen, and it will be impossible not to believe or be convinced. This is God’s doing, God’s idea: the God of our ancestors has a plan.

Ezekiel understands perfectly the importance of looking for God’s salvation. He has a vision of dry bones being restored by the same ruach that swept over the face of the waters. The prophet sees, and then tells of God’s power to recreate. He moves instantaneously from witness to apostle, in the same way as the women at the tomb of Jesus.

This swift response is made possible by faith and through knowledge of God’s capabilities and God’s comprehensive power. Ezekiel’s vision looks forward to this moment of resurrection, when the New Covenant is revealed, not only by blood, but also by glory, light, and new life.

The resurrection of Jesus is a visible reality. Soon, it will be tangible. His return from the dead is a far more convincing call than that of a lone prophet’s voice. But the offer remains the same: “Look and respond and live in my glorious light.” God offers such riches to those who live in relation to him. It is all gift; all is grace. Our faith and our future depend on our ability to receive this gift. God has drawn people to himself in variant ways: through shock, surprise, wonder, and enticement.

God does not need us, of course, but God, like any good parent, knows what is good for us.

All knowledge of God is revealed through the light of the resurrection. We are given a new way of seeing God, and, in this light, see ourselves and each other afresh. We are reborn, and so is the Church. Everything needs to be reassessed in this new light.

God is put where God belongs: as the ultimate focus; dislocating our egos, our fantasies, and our fears, too. The resurrection light gives us so much to explore. There is no space for darkness now. Everything must be different.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Assistant Curate at St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster, and Chaplain at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

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