Let Beauty Awake: Easter Day sermon by Tom Wright

Acts 10.34–43; John 20.1–18

a sermon at the Eucharist in Durham Cathedral on Easter Day 2009

copublished with the NT Wright page

Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams,

Beauty awake from rest!

Let Beauty awake

For Beauty’s sake

In the hour when the birds awake in the brake

And the stars are bright in the west!

Impossibly romantic, you will think. How could the Bishop allow Easter morning to be subverted, trivialized even, by Robert Louis Stevenson’s high Victorian sentiment? Yes, all right, morning is indeed beautiful, and so for that matter is evening, as in the poem’s second stanza; but how can you go back to that old romantic vision? Hasn’t the whole twentieth century, not to mention what’s already gone of the twenty-first, made it impossible to return to that dreamy, pre-Raphaelite world? Don’t we have to be a lot tougher than that these days?

Well, yes, we do, and I’ll come to that; but I was irresistibly reminded of Stephenson’s opening line as I pondered the twentieth chapter of St John’s gospel and thought and prayed about this morning, about you as a congregation, and about where we are in our culture in this year of grace 2009. Among the many crises we face in our world is a crisis of beauty, and the fact that we can talk at length about everything else – money, the environment, sex, political corruption, not to mention Newcastle United – and only bring in beauty as an afterthought tells its own story. Perhaps it’s time to turn things round the other way, and start with the question of beauty and work in from there. If we do that, the Romantics may serve as a signpost, albeit not as a destination.

We live, after all, in a world that is in danger of forgetting what beauty is about. The subject we now call ‘aesthetics’ actually became a separate subject in the late eighteenth century, with the word itself creeping into English only in the 1830s. That tells its own story. People before then were interested in anything and everything under the sun; why had they not discussed beauty, what makes something beautiful, how beauty works, so to speak, as a separate topic before then? The answer, I think, goes right to the heart of our present cultural dilemmas, and opens up a rich viewpoint from which we may see even the meaning of Easter itself in a new light.

I come to the twentieth chapter of John’s gospel once more, in awe as always of its simple but fathomless power. Recent writers have explored the way in which John’s gospel is focussed on the Temple in Jerusalem, and though the Temple is not mentioned in this chapter, John is the kind of writer who hopes that his readers will have picked up where things are going by now, and will make the connections for themselves. So what has he said so far, and how does it play out in this chapter?

Already in the Prologue, which balances chapter 20 in so many ways as the framework for the gospel, John has declared that the Word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst; he pitched his tent, came to dwell among us as in the Temple; and, in case there were any doubt, John says ‘and we beheld his glory’. The return of God’s glory to dwell in the midst of his people was the great, unrealized hope of the last four hundred years before the time of Jesus; the Jewish people had come back from exile, but God’s glory, the Shekinah, had not returned. The later prophets insisted that God would come back, but nobody ever claimed it had happened. And this was the more to be regretted, because the Old Testament, in a wide variety of ways, had indicated that the Temple, and the presence of the living God within it, was to be the sign and the means of God’s filling not just a building but the whole earth with his glory.

But it is a main theme of the New Testament, often unnoticed, that the return of the Glory to dwell with God’s people was precisely what was going on in the ministry, and supremely in the death and resurrection, of Jesus. According to John, this was Jesus’ own view; ‘Destroy this temple,’ he said, referring to his own body, ‘and in three days I will build it again’. That strange prophecy hangs over the whole of John’s gospel, and as the narrative unwinds we are taken from place to place, returning always to Jerusalem, and to the great festivals in the Temple, which Jesus fulfills and transcends one by one, and always, so John strongly implies, ‘revealing his glory’, fulfilling what the Prologue had said.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time, and when the story suddenly pauses; we have come to the city where the Temple stands, but Jesus takes the disciples instead into the Upper Room and tells them who they are, what God will want of them, and of the coming Holy Spirit. Jesus is the vine, they are the branches; he is the true Temple, and when God’s own Spirit dwells in them they will be living extensions of that Temple. The purpose of the Temple was never to be a hiding-place for God away from his world, but always a sign and a means of God’s desire to flood the whole creation with his glory and presence. And now it’s going to happen. The Chief Priests, the guardians of the physical Temple, declare that they have no king but Caesar; and Jesus goes to his death, at the hour when the Passover lambs are killed in that Temple, to be in himself both Temple and Sacrifice, to complete the work the Father had given him to do, to be lifted up to draw all people to himself.

So what next? Has John forgotten the Temple theme, so vital in his first nineteen chapters, when he comes to the twentieth? Certainly not. Peter and John come to the tomb, and John, arriving first, pauses as before entering a holy place. Peter blunders in, as he would; John follows, and in that place still hallowed by the new physical Temple, the body of Jesus, he saw and believed. And then, after they have gone, Mary stays nearby, and, looking in herself into the tomb, she sees the two angels, sitting at either end of the stone slab where the body of Jesus had been lying. And for anyone still thinking of the Temple, and aware of how the furniture and fittings worked, the implication would be striking, though in recent times only one writer to my knowledge has made the link: this is the mercy-seat, where the ark of the covenant would be, flanked by Cherubim; this is the very throne of the living God. We are in the Holy of Holies, the original of which was built as a perfect cube, representing the whole of creation. Mary, all unknowing, has gone in like the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, but like the pagan Pompey blundering in to the Temple in 63 BC she was surprised by the absence. Nobody – no body, in this case – seemed to be there. But if this place, this empty grave, is the Holy of Holies, the place where you might expect to meet the living God – and if it is now empty indeed – then the implication seems to be that the Glory has emerged, that the Temple has done its work, that the ultimate Passover sacrifice has liberated God’s people and the whole creation, and that now at last the Glory is on its way to do for the whole creation what it did for the Temple, so that with Easter we are within sight of the great promise coming true, that the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. New creation is afoot, a new creation full of glory and beauty.

And it is in that context that we may be able to understand the wondrous exchange which then takes place between Jesus and Mary. She imagines him to be the gardener; well, if we are in the new Eden, the new creation, that’s the right mistake to make. He calls her by her true name, Miriam, as opposed to her Greek name, Maria; think of her history and of her true identity and explore the ramifications of that. He warns her not to touch him, as the High Priest might warn worshippers not to come too close to powerful holiness. And he commissions her to tell his brothers that in him, and in the events that are now taking place, heaven and earth have come together at last, the new Temple is established, and the access to the Creator God which you would normally get through going to the Temple and offering sacrifice is now openly available through Jesus himself.

Now all of this would make, and indeed I hope does make, an appropriate reflection as we come to worship this Easter morning. But what has it got to do with beauty?

Everything. Perhaps surprisingly, the word ‘beauty’ occurs very seldom in the Bible. When it does, there are two main focal points; human beauty (often with a health warning; this doesn’t last!) and, particularly, the beauty of the Temple. If this is the place where the living God is to dwell, against the day when he will flood the whole of his beautiful creation with his presence, then the Temple must be made, and was made, as a supreme object of beauty. Josephus says that if you hadn’t seen the JerusalemTemple you didn’t know what beauty was. When the ancient Israelites thought of the Temple, they thought of beauty, and vice versa.

The church, at its best, has always known and celebrated that. One of the things that strikes you when you go to a city like Rome is that so much of the great art is found in a context of prayer and worship. Paintings which in this country would by now be in a secular museum are still there in churches, with people saying their prayers not of course to the paintings but through them. Part of the irony of the great Byzantium exhibition in London this spring, as the catalogue admits, is that those massively beautiful works are meant, not to be hung up in a gallery, but to stand on the iconastasis as a sign of the heavenly realms beyond. The same is true of music: I love our many musical traditions, secular though they are, and I would not choose to be without Brahms and Schubert, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But something different happens, as indeed sometimes though not always with all four of those composers, when they write for worship, standing in the great tradition of Bach and others, who themselves stood in an unbroken though rapidly developing tradition of the most beautiful music being written not just to adorn but to express, appropriately to express, the love of God the creator and the answering love of humble and worshipping hearts. The reason ‘aesthetics’ was created as a separate subject in the time of the Enlightenment was that God had been banished to a far-off realm with nothing to do with our present world. For a while art continued, like the empty tomb, to reflect the fact that He had lain there. But then, discovering its independence, it began to do what politics did, and lurch to and fro between ugly extremes. The results, and the various counter-movements which have protested against them, are written into our cultural history. That is where we now start.

The crisis in art today, where nobody much seems to know how to move beyond the sterile opposition of kitsch sentimentalism on the one hand and in-your-face brutalism on the other, is not to be solved, as Roger Scruton in his recent work seems to want to solve it, by a return to an early Romantic sensibility, however preferable that might be to some of what’s on offer today. The only way forward is to put back together what ought never to have been separated, so that, just as with God and public life, God and politics, God and art need to come once more into the same room and do business with one another. As with God and politics, this will be a huge struggle because there are so many ways of getting it wrong. But the church desperately needs artists of every sort, from sculptors to storytellers, from painters to potters, from singers to seamstresses, and so on; artists whose work will draw attention not to itself, the nemesis of an atheistic aesthetic, but rather to the glory of God. After all, if new creation has begun, if beauty has awoken afresh in the new Temple, the living home of the living God, as he awakens from the tomb, and if beauty is now let loose in all the world, it will rightly generate new forms, new possibilities, new delights. It will come closer and closer to its two senior cousins, Love and Truth, showing with them how to avoid the other false polarization, a brittle objectivity and a collapsing subjectivity, because it will be kept in place by the work of image-bearing, Spirit-filled human beings as they reflect the glory of God into the world and the glory of the world back to God.

Let Beauty awake, in the morn from the cool of the grave,

Beauty awake from death;

Let Beauty awake,

For Jesus’ sake,

In the hour when the angels their silence break

And the garden is bright with His Breath.

I have told you what you already knew: that Easter carries with it a strange and powerful beauty. But I hope that, by exploring the biblical roots of why this is so, I may have surprised some of you at least into asking, afresh, What can we do to celebrate, more consciously and deliberately, the reawakening of beauty which comes with the light of Easter Day? How can we take this forward, as an explicit project, so that a world so full of ugliness and functionality, and in consequence so full of unbelief or false belief, can once again be wooed into belief and love? These are questions we have been asking as a Diocese for some while now, and I am thrilled at the various project that have sprung up as a result. Let us deepen our awareness of the beauty of God, the fair beauty of the Lord in his living Temple, and continue to explore our vocations in that light.

I first met Stevenson’s poem because Vaughan Williams set it to music, as part of his cycle ‘Songs of Travel’. But I also met, by the same route, the poem with which I close, which puts back together again the beautiful and the mystical, the aesthetic and the theological, both in form, content and expression; and I reflect on the fact that as I met these two poems through meeting their secondary music, so poetry itself, and painting, and drama, and all art whether high or low, can be a door through which we can pass to that which is more original, higher up the chain of being, taking us to Beauty in person, to Truth in person, to Love in person. Listen to George Herbert, contemplating Easter:

I got me flowers to straw thy way;

I got me boughs off many a tree:

But thou wast up by break of day,

And broughst thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,

Though he give light, and th’East perfume;

If they should offer to contest

With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,

Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?

We count three hundred, but we misse:

There is but one, and that one ever.

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