On Easter Sunday last year, I led a broadcast service of prayer. Looking back, I recall its main themes: the wonderful gift of faith in the face of death and the need for the Holy Spirit in the task of rebuilding our society. I was joined in the prayer and reflection by a distinguished doctor who specialises in palliative care and by a senior civil servant who was planning for a new future. I do not think that any of us thought that in a year’s time these same themes would still be uppermost in our hearts.
As we approach this Easter, we need time and inner space to gather together so much from a difficult year. Perhaps images from the Easter accounts can help us. I think first of the women, witnessing the death of Jesus and longing to care for his dead body (Lk. 23:49 & 55). They are filled with grief.
So are many people at this time.
So many deaths; so much impoverished mourning, a pathway on which we usually draw so much from family, friends and faith, yet at present all limited in their expression. We bring that grief to our Easter journey.
I think next of the women coming to the tomb the next morning to be confronted by an earthquake and an angel, telling them the news of the Lord’s resurrection. ‘Do not be afraid’ said the angel (Mt. 28:5). Indeed they were not.
They immediately sprang into action, to spread that news and put it into practice.
How often have we seen the disciples of Jesus spring into action during these traumatic times? I think of the wonderful witness given by so many in their care of each other and of those most in need. In one of our parishes, the provision of emergency food has risen by 400% in these last twelve months. That generosity is repeated over and over again: the fruit of faith and the resilience, generosity and service to which faith gives birth.
Then, for a third image, I think of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). Here are two people, their hearts downcast, walking away from Jerusalem, which is a figure of the Church. They have lost hope, lost connection with the first community of disciples. It seems to be breaking up. But Jesus walks with them, even as they head away. And, as understanding begins to dawn, they immediately head back to Jerusalem, back to the Church.
This is where many people may be: habits of gathering in church now broken, more immediately accessible options being taken.
Indeed I heard of one gentleman saying: ‘I used never to miss going to Mass, but now I find that I do not miss the Mass at all.’ Yet I know that the pull of the risen Christ is strong. When we sense his presence within us, in these moments of quiet reflection, when we hear his whispered word, like those disciples we too will take the road back to the community of disciples, back to church, back to our physical presence for the celebration of Mass.
For some, during this lockdown, participation in the Mass has become passive, apart from ‘shopping around’ for their preferred taste. But the grace-filled reality of the Mass is so much more. There is a saying of a great theologian, Henri de Lubac, that puts the truth of the Mass very clearly: ‘The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist’. The Mass is the work of the whole Church, coming together to be the Body of Christ, to receive what we are and what we are to become. There is no other way.
Having celebrated so many ceremonies in an empty Westminster Cathedral, often with heart heavy at the strangeness of it all, I so look forward to those gatherings of the Church which affirm and give life to us all.
This Easter will see us making progress on the journey back to our full life. There is so much to learn from these past twelve months, perhaps mostly for our task of keeping in focus the very core and essence of our faith: prayer, the sacraments, sharing and handing on that gift of faith. We have learned new ways of doing so, some marked by a greater simplicity and sense of purpose, yet some impoverished by improvisation that these times have required.
The words of Hosea can call us to renewal this Easter: ‘Let us set ourselves to know the Lord; that he will come is as certain as the dawn, his judgement will rise like the light, he will come to us as showers come, like spring rains watering the earth’ (Hosea 6.3).
Cardinal Vincent Nichols is Archbishop of Westminster.