Thursday was St George’s Day – the national saint’s day for the English. It was also Shakespeare’s Birthday and for me that is particularly special as a fellow son of Stratford. Shakespeare knew the pains of plague and pestilence. His son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at the age of 11. There was an outbreak of plague in Warwickshire, and while it is not known that this was the cause of this grief, he clearly knew what plague brought and its darkness enters his poetry and playwriting. Scholars cast oceans of ink on identifying who the various people in his sonnets were, but one might be his son and the subject of the outworking of his grief, as deep as can be. His Sonnet 33 contains these lines:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven’s sun staineth.
The intensity of the imagery suggests a powerful loss with reference to heaven’s sun – which may be Jesus – and therefore his cross which staineth with his blood. Shakespeare would have known that passion and resurrection are linked. In the darkness there is light and we are at its mercy. Human beings are mortal, as in his wonderful song in Cymberline where fearing no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
The pain and grief are real, and he doesn’t spare us with easy resolution or quick hope. His writing can hold the pain and us while we are going through it. The rawness has a place to be expressed. It is not a giant’s leap from Shakespeare and plague to where we find ourselves at the moment.
St George also turns out to have a connection with sickness and plague, and therefore what we are going through. There was an interesting item on the World at One on Radio 4, also on Thursday, about St George and the plague. During the Medieval period he was one of 14 Holy Helpers, invoked in times of plague and leprosy. St George doesn’t just slay fire-breathing dragons, as depicted in one of the windows in St John’s, but also the monster of disease which can terrify and torment us. In our time of adversity and anxiety, in the face of a new pestilence and virus, we look for a modern St George to come riding over the horizon to slay this contemporary dragon. St George today wears a scientist’s coat and his lance is a laboratory, researching an antidote and vaccine.
One of the questions we naturally ask when something as catastrophic as this virus strikes, is how does this sit with God’s world? Did God make it and if so why? This is one of the biggest questions and it is not new. The Psalm set for today spoke of the snares of death encompassing me, suffering distress and anguish, calling on the name of the Lord to save my life (Psalm 116:3-4). And in the second reading, there is a hope of being born anew, not of perishable, but imperishable seed (1 Peter 1:23). By implication we are mortal now, we perish and we long for a life which doesn’t.
This problem has a name in the study of theology, it is called theodicy. It is the problem of evil, of suffering, of mortality. And all we know is that we are fragile creatures, incredible as we are, and not immune to pain and suffering, to loss and grief, to our own frailty and temporary nature. What we are going through is part of how the world is. But so is the hope we have in Jesus Christ. And it manifests itself in surprising places. For the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), it did so in something so simple as the breaking of bread.
We see the hope of new life and glory within the pain, when heaven’s sun staineth. It is remarkable that in the darkness, and hope does not remove the depth of pain and passion, we find songs of praise at their most profound. Songs of anguish, as with the psalm, end in hymns of praise.
Easter comes not to a comfortable world where no evil or pain happens. Rather it comes precisely in the garden after a burial. It comes in hands bearing the marks of the nails breaking bread. It comes to those who can’t work it out, like Thomas in the upper room, rather than to those who have it all sorted. If you struggle with this, then it is to you that Easter comes because you know that the winter’s rages, the sun which lasts but an hour, the ravages of plague, are painful in the extreme. And we long in our anguish for salvation. And it comes. It comes in life which is imperishable and endures in ways this one doesn’t. This is a hope that goes beyond the confines of this life. And for that it can endure and cope with the worst the world can throw at it.
The light of Easter is that the world is not random or a mistake, but it is temporary – bound by time. It has a beginning and an end and so do we. As mortal, fragile creatures, like Shakespeare’s chimney-sweepers, we will come to dust. But that is not the end and the light of hope, the victory over dragons, is a hope to hold us and inspire us. We live now in its light with praise and thanksgiving. We live for the kingdom to come and in its light now – the light of Jesus Christ rising from the grave. We see that light reflected in the care, the compassion, the loving and sharing. Pain and suffering do not negate any of that, but they do hurt and we don’t understand why. We just have to trust that in and through this God has it, has us, and will not let go.
Shine on in hope and love, in goodness and truth, in praise and thanksgiving, because it is here that you will see the sun rise and its warmth fill your heart with joy and gladness; it is here that you will see the light and hope of Easter.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Sermon for Easter 3, Live-streamed Sunday 26th April 2020