APRIL has indeed become the cruellest month. Even as life blossoms in our gardens, death stalks our streets and hospitals. As Henry Scott Holland, Canon of St Paul’s, lamented a century ago, in the passage from his sermon that nobody quotes: “But how often death smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law! It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us.”
And now we must fight on through grief, resisting an enemy that seems to have defeated our friends, while the indifferent April sun shines on. And shall we keep Easter in spite of the grief, in spite of churches locked and empty, in spite of packed hospitals, exhausted doctors and nurses, clergy and carers pushed past their limits?
Yes, we shall keep Easter, and not in spite of these things, but because of them. For it was into the cruellest of Aprils that Christ came to find and save us. He came to take on death at its worst, to experience for us, with us, and in us that hideous combination of exposure and isolation, which was his cross. To know with us what it feels like to perish within reach, and yet beyond the reach of the ones we love.
But if he shares our Good Friday, and especially this dark one that we are all sharing now, it is so that we can share his Easter. On this strange Easter Day, we will discover that he is not lost somewhere in our locked churches, any more than he was sealed in the sepulchre. He is up and out and risen, long before us. He is as much at work in the world as the spring is at work in the blossoms. On this Easter Day, the Risen Christ, who might have been a wafer in the hands of the priest, will be strength in the hands of the nurse, a blessing in the hands of the carer. He goes with them to their work as surely as he came to us in our church.
Victory over this virus is some way off, but victory over death is already achieved. It was because he knew that in Christ “death is swallowed up in victory” that Canon Scott Holland was finally able to say that “Death is nothing at all.”
A Dean of St Paul’s who lived through just such times as ours had said that before, with even greater power. John Donne saw more than his fair share of “poison, war, and sickness”, but he could still fling this great defiance into the face of death. It is Christ’s defiance, and, this Easter, it is ours:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Malcolm Guite has launched a new YouTube channel: A Spell in the Library.
In this episode, he talks about how he came to write this column, and reads it.