Last night I concluded my reflection saying “On Good Friday Jesus goes ahead of us, into the darkness of death itself, to conquer that darkness and therein to light a fire, the fire of Easter light”. In his death Jesus enters the world of the dead to break its bonds asunder. To unpack this, let me take you to some words from St Paul.
Romans 5:12, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. And from 1 Corinthians 15, words made famous through Handel’s music in the Messiah, “Since by man came death, through Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
The stories of creation at the beginning of Genesis are foundational stories, not because of their historical truth, but because they teach us theological truth. The story of Adam and Eve teaches us that all the world was created by God, that the world was created in order, that mankind has a particular place and responsibility in that order, and that mankind has rebelled against God. The Apple is a symbol of our rebellion, of our disobedience, of sin. Through our rejection of God’s divine intentions for the world, sin has formed a chasm, a gulf between Man and God. In Genesis Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden until sin forced them from the presence of God. So it is that Adam comes to typify sin, and Jesus is portrayed as the second Adam, the one who undoes the mistake of the first Adam. As John Henry Newman put it in the hymn, “O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight, and to the rescue came. O wisest love! That flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.”
In the wonderful 15th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes about death and resurrection. The chapter comes to a wonderful climax, and you can almost hear Paul’s voice becoming louder and stronger as he proclaims, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
On the cross we see the love of God revealed to us, and in the empty tomb we see the power of God revealed to us. In an extraordinary turn of events, the shame of the cross has become the glory of the cross. As the world looked on it seemed that the powers of this world and the powers of darkness had done their worst by crucifying the incarnate Son of God. But the power of God is so immensely great that even as they savoured their apparent victory, God was at work. In dying, Jesus entered death and broke its power. There is now no sting in death, there can be no sting in death because Jesus has paid the price of our sin and opened access to the grace of God.
One of my favourite Easter hymns puts it so very simply, “Jesus loves, thy terrors now, can no more, o death, appal us. Jesus lives, thy terrors now, can no more, O grave enthral us. Alleluia. Jesus lives, henceforth is death but the gate of life immortal: this shall calm or trembling breath, when we pass its gloomy portal. Alleluia.”
On the night before he died Jesus spoke to his disciples with his final words of instruction and encouragement, and he prayed for them in what has become known as his high priestly prayer, John 17. In that he talks of his crucifixion as the moment of glorification. What is glory? It is sometimes described as fame, renown, honour or admiration. Other definitions talk of worship, praise and thanksgiving offered to a deity, and others speak of overwhelming beauty or splendour. All of these draw together in the idea of glory in Jesus’ prayer, but it is even more, the glory is the full revelation of God to mankind. The whole life and ministry of Jesus has been building up to this great crescendo. From the moment of his birth every word, every action, every event showed us something of God, like gazing through the many facets of a beautifully cut diamond. But all of it was a preamble to the cross and tomb. Here love and power meet to reveal the face of God to the world, a God who cares for us so much that he is prepared to die for us. A God who cannot stand aside from the great chasm that has separated us from him and refuse to act. A God who is prepared to be reviled and insulted, beaten and spat upon, rather than react in anger. In the Passion we do not see simple dogged acquiescence with the situation, we see Grace incarnate towering above petty vindictiveness. Jesus teaches us not only how to live in grace, but how to die in grace.
After the resurrection has been proclaimed, the disciples remain in the upper room. Confused or ashamed, we cannot be certain which, or indeed more likely a mixture of both. Perhaps as we stand at the empty tomb we can identify with that, we know, but we do not fully understand. And like them, we need the risen Jesus to stand in our midst and speak to us, to teach and guide, to explain and unravel, to invite us to place our hands in his wounds and see that the power of God cannot be separated from the love of God, that passion and pain are so closely intertwined. If, in our confusion, we cling to nothing else, let us remember that wonderful Latin phrase, “amor vincit omnia,” love conquers all, the love of God conquers all our sin and brings us life through death, breaking the power of sin, and let us reflect on the words of the great Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, “At the evening of our lives it is on love alone that we will be judged.”