EASTER DAY 2021 – Durham Cathedral

John 20.1-18


‘We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.’

Pope John Paul II gave us this memorable acclamation in an Angelus reflection in Australia in November 1986.

Taken out of its original context it could sound rather glib so here is the context:-

We do not pretend that life is all beauty. We are aware of darkness and sin, of poverty and pain. But we know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the Resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery – the mystery of his Death and Resurrection. “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!”. We are not looking for a shallow joy but rather a joy that comes from faith,…



In all the gospels Easter morning begins in darkness, pain, sorrow and grief. In John’s account, Mary Magdalene is clearly filled with grief. She is constantly weeping. She cannot get away from the body having been taken and the question ‘where’. To Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved she says ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him’. To the angels appearing to her in the empty tomb, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ To the one she supposes to be the gardener, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ What was she thinking, ‘I will take him away’. How would she do so? Where would she take him? What would she do with the body?

These are the tears, words, emotions and actions of one deeply consumed with grief. She does not realise it is angels talking with her she is just taken with the missing body. Maybe it was her red tear-filled eyes that meant she did not recognize the gardener; although I suspect more was going on here from Jesus’ side than simply that explanation.

Mary Magdalene was a person consumed with the darkness and the pain of grief.


Here on Easter morning 2021, we are a nation filled with grief.

We now have nearly 127,000 Covid deaths since the outset of the pandemic. But the total number of deaths over that 12 month period is around  5 or 6 times that number. In 2020 around 1 in 9 deaths were directly attributed to Covid; we easily forget that people are still dying from cancers, heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimers, liver disease and many other causes.

For every one of these deaths from March onwards, the number of mourners at funerals was strictly limited; many had not been able to sit with their dying relatives in hospitals or care homes; the capacity to offer in-person dying and bereavement support from all quarters was severely curtailed. The build-up of curtailed and restricted grieving is one of the major contributors to the increase in mental health concerns across all ages. We have not been able to express our grief well. We have not been able to share communally in our grief as families and communities. All sorts of ways have been sought to help people do so but simply we have a huge amount of pent up grief.

Grief makes us act strangely. People want to know where the body has gone. They hang onto the cremated remains rather than laying them to rest. They struggle to express their grief. Like Mary they do not spot things right in front of their eyes. Like Mary the grieving at times talk apparently irrationally. Like Mary they will seek help wherever they think they might find it.

As a nation, we will need to find ways of helping people express their grief in the months ahead. There is need of support groups, places for conversation, and for counselling. For some, there will be need for therapy. It is a task that will be needed in our schools, colleges, universities, workplaces, care homes, hospitals and communities.

As the church, we will need to support and work with others in this task. But we have our own specific responsibilities as well. We must find ways of helping people remember their loved ones well. We will need to do so in ways that allow weeping to flow freely; anger to be expressed; questions to be asked and grief to be expressed in word, song, music, poetry, art, drama, dance. Lament must happen. Memorial services, quiet spaces and opportunities for prayer will be part of what we can offer.


Yet we are not simply another arm of social services. We are those called upon to witness, ‘to testify that Jesus is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead’. We will always then frame our lament, and our comfort, within our conviction that Jesus Christ is risen. We will do so declaring that death is not the final point; death is not the end. When Jesus cried ‘It is finished’ from the Cross it was a cry not of defeat and failure but of completion. He had completed all that the Father had sent him to do. He was the seed falling into the ground and dying so that it might bear much fruit. Jesus was raised. He is risen and death is overcome.

Might it be that Jesus kept Mary Magdalene from recognising him so that she could express her grief in full? She could say that she wanted to take his body away and care for it. She had to be able to state her grief so that she could hear her name clearly. His refusal to let her touch him was not unkind, it was part of the good news of the resurrection. He had told the disciples in the upper room that it was ‘better that he went away’. The good news for Mary was that she did not have to hold onto Jesus’ body to be with him because he was going to be with her and the others in a whole new way continually through the Holy Spirit.

In his walk with the disciples to Emmaus later that day again he would keep them from recognising him because they needed to pour out their hearts, express their doubts and questions. They needed the opportunity to hear him unfold the Scriptures. They needed to see him break the bread, but then he can disappear because they cannot hold onto the time-bound physical presence of Jesus for he is now to be available and with them all the time, everywhere. In these 40 days of Easter this is what they all have to learn.

So we now must convey the glorious truth that the risen Jesus is open to being with us all the time. In grief, we do not have to hang onto objects that symbolise presence because the actual presence of Jesus is here. We need time and space to express our grief. We must not be hurried into recognising the reality of resurrection. We cannot shout Hallelujah until we have shed our tears, spoken our words of loss, anger and question but there comes a time when if we will let go we can find the full hope of Easter.

We have been, and remain, in a time where we know all is not beauty. As we emerge from these dark times we know that humanity is not able ultimately to save itself. But neither do we “abandon ourselves to despair. For we are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

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