Now you see him, now you don't! — an Easter Sermon, accompanied by infants awaiting baptism!
SJF • Easter 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.+
It will come as no surprise to anyone here, when I observe that Harry Potter has become a household name. The series of novels and the series of movies based on the novels are phenomenally popular. Almost everybody knows Harry Potter — though I’m curious to know how many of you here know the name of the author of the novels or the name of the actor who plays the role in the films? Show of hands?
My point is that it’s not the actor or the novelist, or even the character of Harry Potter himself, who is at the heart of the fascination and popularity of the books or movies. It is magic — magic itself: that is what draws such an attentive and loyal and fascinated audience.
Now, it may seem odd for me to be mentioning magic in the context of an Easter sermon — but surely there is something magical about the resurrection, isn’t there? In fact, there was an English stage production of a very old English play — one of the first English plays — about the resurrection — the play dating from the 15th century, and the production from just a few years ago, in England, at the Young Vic — in which the director staged the resurrection scene precisely as a magic act. The body of Christ was placed upright into a wooden cabinet, and chains were wrapped around it and locks placed on the chains. The soldiers stationed at the tomb shivered in their boots — they were costumed as British riot control officers, complete with helmets with visors, truncheons and transparent plastic body shields — and then at a great clap of thunder and flash of light and cloud of smoke, the four sides of the upright cabinet fell down flat to reveal that the body was gone!
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Surely, there is something magical about the resurrection — as there is something magical about so much of life, and death, and life again. It is no accident that there is an overlap between the magical world and God’s world. Even the magicians’ spell, “Abracadabra,” is said to be derived from a Hebrew phrase that only God could properly speak, “abara k’davra” — I create as I speak. Only God has the power to create — to bring into being that which is not — and to do so simply by saying the words, “Let there be...” With those words all things came into being. More than that, God appears to employ a kind of sleight of hand in dealing with the people of God both as audiences to his magic and as the object or props in that magic. God uses the magician’s standard tool of misdirection to deflect and distract the enemies of his people, dazzling them with pillars of cloud and fire, while keeping his people safe in the palm of his hand; hiding them in the wilderness before bringing them to the Holy Land; preserving them in Babylon until ready to be pulled from his sleeve, or like the rabbit out of the top hat, and returned to the land of promise.
And isn’t it a classic example of a magician’s skill for God to say, as he does through St Paul, “Keep your eyes on heaven, not on earth” and then suddenly to reveal Christ to our startled eyes, standing in our very midst? We’ll see Jesus perform that very magic act next week when he suddenly appears to the cowering disciples in their locked and bolted room, and hear how the disbelieving Thomas misses the first show.
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But this is Easter, and we have before us the first startling reappearance of Jesus after his death and burial. It is almost as if Jesus is trying the trick out on Mary Magdalen before he decides to debut it with all of the disciples. The stage is ready — the stone has already been rolled away, and Mary, seeing it, runs off to fetch Peter and the other disciple — the one Jesus loved. But even when they return they still do not find Jesus — only the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered his head. Just as in the magic act, all they know is that he has disappeared: he was in the tomb and he isn’t there any longer. Mary even thinks that perhaps someone has stolen his body.
And then, just as in the magic act, he comes walking into the spotlight from off stage. Mary is still so blinded by her tears, so caught up in the fear and sadness that his body has been stolen, that she doesn’t even recognize him.
And then he speaks a truly magic word — not an abracadabra or an alakazam or even a presto change-o — but the truly magic word as personal to us as our own name; in this case, “Mary.” And then she recognizes him. The magic of hearing her own name called in a familiar voice opens her eyes to see what was already there — her teacher and her risen Lord. Such is the magic of God. None of us in this life is likely to hear the voice of God call our name quite so clearly. That will have to wait until the great day when the Lord calls us each by name and we rise from our graves to stand before him, and be welcomed into the life of the world to come. But even so, and even while we are here, we catch glimpses of the power of God and God’s magic. At the baptism of a child, which we will witness today, we call the child by name, and mark that child with the Triune name of God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that double naming — the naming of the child and the invocation of the name of God — brings about a transformation more magical than any work of any earthly magician. It delivers the child from a bondage more deadly than any strait-jacket ever escaped from by a Houdini. For baptism brings that child new life — new life in Christ — and it transforms the mortal body of the child by incorporating the child into the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people. The child is born again — as each of us was at our own baptism — born again of water and the Holy Spirit, and anointed with the name and power of God.
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Before I close I want to mention one other magical phrase that has some bearing on our life in Christ; and that is, “Hocus pocus.” As strange as it may sound, this magician’s phrase also has its roots in the language of the faith. For it is based on the Latin phrase that translates the words of Christ at the Last Supper, “Hoc est corpus” — This is my Body. We celebrate that great magical mystery every time we gather at Holy Communion, as we do this Easter morning. As he instructed us, we take the bread that in this sacred mystery has become the body of Christ, and we eat the bread which is the sign and celebration of our membership in that body — a membership that begins in baptism.
And we do this because of that Easter morning so long ago when Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared first to Mary and then to the other disciples. The story of God and God’s relationship with his people did not end at the cross. The cross was the turning point, the close of one chapter before the beginning of the next. Jesus was hidden away for a few days between his crucifixion and his resurrection; hidden only so that he might be revealed in greater glory at his rising. It is not simply magic that we celebrate but majesty; not simply something wonderful to behold but miraculously to hold — to hold in our hands, like a newly baptized child, or like a fragment of bread: both of them a sign of the presence of God and the risen life of Jesus. And even more, just as a child is received into the body of the church, so too we receive the body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist into our own bodies, and Christ becomes one with each of us as we are one in him.
And if that isn’t magical and wonderful, then I don’t know what is! Alleluia, Christ is risen!+