Sunday, April 12, 2009
( The following article appeared Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009 in the editorial section of the Birmingham News, Birmingham, Alabama.)
Every year for over forty years I sat down the week before Easter and wondered what to say when I preached on Easter Sunday. The Resurrection is the watershed of the Christian faith. The Open Tomb tells us that Christ has risen. Without this day the church would not exist. We would have little hope and would only stammer at funeral services. For 2,000 years the church has tried to capture in words the wonder of this day. What in the world could any preacher say on such an occasion? This Easter I won’t be standing in a pulpit but this is what I would say if I preached on this special day.
I would tell of my experience of visiting Coventry Cathedral in England. I had heard about this Church for a long time and finally my wife and I finally got there. The church had a long history. They first called it St. Michael’s church. It was largely constructed between the late 14th and early 15th centuries. But its roots go all the way back to 1138. It was one of the largest parish churches in England.
On the evening of November 14, 1940, 500 German planes began dropping bombs on that industrial city. The raid continued until 6:00 the next morning. More than a thousand people lost their lives. Many thousand more were wounded. 60,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. There were 41 raids on the city before the war ended.
Coventry Cathedral, like most of the city was severely damaged by the fire of that November raid. Nothing was left but a bare shell of a church—some of the bricks dated back to medieval times. Church officials met the next morning to survey the terrible damage. That day they determined to rebuild Coventry. In a place of ruin they wanted to build a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. What was left of the old Cathedral was not torn down but left as a testimony of destruction for all to see. And so in 1962 a new Cathedral was consecrated.
The remains of the old church now hold a garden. Birds fly in and out. People walk quietly and stare at the spot where people had once worshipped for 900 years. As you move from the charred remains you enter a breezeway which leads to the new sanctuary. After the bombing someone discovered two charred embers that formed a cross. Surrounded by bombed out windows, these two beams were tied together and hang over the stone altar. Underneath are the words: “Father Forgive.”
The new structure is modern and breathtaking. Over the baptismal font are two hundred glass panels symbolizing the light of truth breaking through darkness and confusion. My eyes were drawn down the long aisle to the central altar where hangs a huge tapestry of Jesus 70 feet tall. This is one of the largest tapestries in the world. The work is simply called: “Christ in Glory.” It took 12 weavers in France three years to create this masterpiece. I was told by the tour guide that the tapestry weighs a ton.
Could there be a better symbol for Easter than Coventry Cathedral? Whatever bombed-out shells we carry, whatever damage we or someone else has done, whatever shambles that may lie at our feet—Coventry reminds me that life goes on.
So Easter comes just in time. Reminding us that life is stronger than death, that light is greater than darkness and that hope transcends all the despair around us. How much we need a symbol of renewal in a time of financial ruin, rage and anger, war and injustice. Knowing that whatever it is we face or carry something good and graceful may just come out of our pain and hurt.
On the outside wall of the new Cathedral, the sculptor Jacob Epstein was commissioned to do a work for the new Church. He fashioned a huge metal Michael the Archangel with enormous wings. In his hand the holds a sword. At his feet the defeated devil-dragon writhes in pain. The force of good finally triumphs after all.
If I were preaching today I would tell the Coventry story. And I would then read the old promise from the book of Psalms: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”