Sermon for the Easter Vigil 2017: Holy Week and Hamlet

Easter 2017 Dawn Vigil brazier crop

Resurrexit sicut dixit

+ In the Name…

‘He is risen – as He said’

This has been a busy Holy Week for all of us – in the pews, the choir, and the sanctuary. Everybody seems to have done about three jobs, folding service sheets, digging an Easter garden, getting the kindling for the brazier, and in my case, working on Hamlet. I knew Holy Week would be tight – but I never reckoned on Hamlet.

And yet how fortunate the collision has been. The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and Shakespeare’s greatest play have been resonating illuminating, each other all week, both played with passionate conviction in church and on stage. The Hamlet in question is the current Almeida production – and through it I’ve looked with new eyes on the Gospel [1] we have just heard. Famously Hamlet has nine corpses – four of whom get killed with bewildering suddenness in the last ten minutes. Why? This isn’t some barn storming melodrama. And it was at the Almeida that I learnt the shocking truth. Three quarters of the Hamlet cast are killed so they can enter Beatitude.

At the end of this production the dead bodies rise, and walk with assured grace into Paradise. Polonius and his children greet each other, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern embrace, Gertrude is in the arms of the villain Claudius, old Hamlet waits for his son…

And from the vantage point of that last scene you can look back over the play and see it anew. Better than that, if you see the play again, you can read the whole tragedy in the light of Heaven. I’ve seen Hamlet dozens of times and thought I knew it – the Prince of Denmark is in a play he doesn’t want to be in, he’s betrayed by everyone, lied to, rejected, and murdered. And he does nothing about it. But it was only when I saw this production that I realised that Hamlet’s maddening refusal to be the hero, the man of action, is absolutely correct. Hamlet is killed out of hand, refusing the only recourse offered him by his society – violent revenge – instead he embraces death, forgives his murderer, and enters felicity. The horrors turn out to be rubbish, irrelevancies as, looking back from the last scene, you see that the whole cast has been stumbling all the while towards redemption.

And so it is with the Easter Gospel. Jesus’s friends are in a story they neither understand nor wish to be in. They hang out with Jesus because He’s charismatic and attractive and looks like being the Messiah everyone wants, the guy who’s going to set Israel free. And yet it turns out to be so difficult. Jesus frightens them, they get caught up in storms and visions and police traps. Jesus’ actions are bewildering and dangerous. People desert Him, Peter tries to stop Him, His family think He’s mad, Judas betrays Him.

And then we get to this day – dawn on Easter Sunday. Yes, there’s an angel and an earthquake and the soldiers fall down as dead men, and the women are terrified. But that’s just the convulsion. What’s happened? Something that Jesus had said all along. But it’d never been clocked up, nobody rated it, and yet it was where the whole story was going. The disciples had been stumbling to redemption all along. As the angel patiently says to the women at the tomb –‘He is not here, He is risen – as He said.’

Jesus knew He’d be betrayed, rejected, lied to and murdered. But, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, He endured the Cross and pain – for the joy that was set before Him. Jesus knew the end, and it wasn’t about a pile of corpses. The end of the Gospel is one corpse actually, one tomb, one resurrection. But the Gospel is not a five act play – cue happy ending, a few manly hand shakes and lets go back to fishing.

The ultimate end of the Gospel is due to be rather grander than Hamlet, not one corpse, but all the corpses there will ever be. Everyone will ultimately die – so that everyone can enter Beatitude. I don’t know how many acts there are to God’s great drama, but I know that the first Easter Sunday was the turning point. As we stand by the empty tomb this morning we can look back from it and see Jesus moving steadily to this point – or from it, and see that Christ, being risen, dies no more. Hamlet finished this evening, I won’t be seeing it at the Almeida again, but Easter Sunday is eternal.

And, this morning, the church has used to make that point – the great timeless symbols of our liturgy, fire, water, candles, bells, music and, supremely, the sacraments. The rite of Baptism, in which we are baptised into Jesus’ death, so that we can rise again with Him. And the Eucharist. The meal springing from that death haunted Last Supper. What could the original disciples have made of that? Jesus saying that His Body would be broken for them and His blood poured out. But the moment He’s risen, Eucharist is one of the first things they do – gathering to break bread and pass round the wine, knowing they are in the presence of the Risen Christ.

That great turn, that huge shift in understanding, happens tonight.

It’s as though the disciples have been staggering up a mountain in the dark. Christ dimly ahead, but rocks and branches banging into them, gaps appearing at their feet, and the distant roar of danger in their ears. But at the top of the mountain it’s all different. Looking down in the dawn light the journey falls into place: the dangers yes, but the chasms you didn’t fall into, the boulders you could have dodged – and the clear path – the one Jesus led you along, running through the trees and shining in the light.

Christ is risen, just as He said He would be. And from now on, everyone has a foot in Heaven.

[1] St Matthew 28: 1-9, the appearance of the angel at the Empty Tomb and the message to the women.