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Liturgy: Jo Spreadbury on the resurrection in worship

by
24 March 2016

“ALL the resources of the Church — music, flowers, bells, colours — are used to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. . . The Easter Gospel is proclaimed with all the joy and splendour that the Church can find.” Thus the Common Worship introduction to the Easter Liturgy in Times and Seasons.

Christ’s mighty resurrection is emphasised as a dominant note throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter: “The tone of joy created at the Easter Vigil is sustained through the following seven weeks, and the Church celebrates the gloriously risen Christ.”

The resurrection, for which there can never be adequate words in liturgy and prayer, thus gives something of a challenge for more reticent Anglicans who wish to sustain the season of celebration, and to do justice liturgically to this cornerstone of our faith. Cranmer, one suspects, shared this reticence: his Collect for Easter Day, emphasising moral rather than cosmic significance, is a masterpiece of modified rapture: “Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect . . .”

Happily, there are centuries of resources.The Exsultet or Easter Proclamation dates back at least to the seventh century, and celebrates the light of Christ’s resurrection triumphing over the darkness of death, as the Paschal candle is lit:

“This is the night when Jesus Christ vanquished hell, broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave. . . This is the night that gave us back what we had lost; beyond our deepest dreams; you made even our sin a happy fault.”

In a fourth-century hymn, “Aurora lucis rutilat”, even Hell responds as the risen Christ appears to his followers:

“The glad earth shouts her triumph high,
and groaning hell makes wild reply: Alleluia.”

Charles Wesley’s 12-verse hymn “All ye that seek the Lord who died” depicts something of what occurred within the tomb:

The bands of death are torn away,
The yawning tomb gives back its prey . . .
The body breathes, and lifts His head,
The keepers sink, and fall as dead.

In another Wesley hymn, “Love’s redeeming work is done”, Jesus himself is greeted as the Resurrection (John 11.25).

One of John of Damascus’s Easter hymns celebrates “The Day of Resurrection” as “the Passover of gladness, the Passover of God”; another with a succession of titles:

Now the queen of seasons, bright
with the day of splendour,
with the royal feast of feasts
comes its joy to render.

In the Orthodox tradition, Easter Week is called “Bright Week”, and the holy doors of the iconostasis are kept open for the whole week, representing the open tomb with the stone rolled away, and with the epitaphion, or shroud, visible inside.

The Resurrection exceeds our praise. As Stuart Townend’s “See what a morning” has it:

And we are raised with Him:
Death is dead, love has won,
Christ has conquered.
And we shall reign with Him,
For he lives, Christ is risen from the dead!

 

The Revd Dr Jo Spreadbury is Precentor of Portsmouth Cathedral. She also chairs Praxis.

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