Homily for the Easter Vigil
St George’s Cathedral
8th April 2023
Gospel: Matthew 28:1-10
Dear People of God, on this most holy of nights, let us echo the words of the angel: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed! Again! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
It is good to be with you, sharing this celebration of Easter in the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese and Province. Thank you for being here. Thank you to the Dean, the clergy, the church-wardens, the music director, organist, choir, verger and staff, the flower arrangers, and especially the regular worshippers who maintain this beautiful site of worship, this iconic landmark which speaks in this city of God's presence and God's glory.
In our Gospel reading tonight, it's interesting that Matthew does not specify, as Mark does in his telling of the Easter story, why the women came to the tomb. Mark says they were carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body, but Matthew leaves the reasons open. His account allows that the women, like those of us here tonight, come to the tomb for many different reasons. Some come overwhelmed by a sense that promises, hopes and dreams have been irreparably broken, that trust has been severed, that anxiety has been deepened, that they have suffered losses too great to be measured, or that the future is bleak. Whatever the reasons that brought the women to the tomb, and whatever the reasons that have brought you here tonight, take heart from the angel's assurance: He is risen!
It is notable that Matthew records that the women feel both fear and joy at hearing the angel's news. That's easy to understand – even tonight, absorbing the meaning of such earth-shattering news as a grave that is empty and a Lord who is risen, forces us too to explore a range of conflicting emotions. Just like the women at the tomb, it is only after we acknowledge and engage with the radical meaning of the Resurrection that we can move on, into the new life of Easter.
Matthew goes on to make a profound point through meticulous use of language. He says in verse 2, “suddenly there was a great earthquake” – some translations say “behold there was a great earthquake”. Note too that in verse 9 it says “suddenly Jesus appeared to them”. Again the translations that use “behold” in verse 2 use it again in verse 9. In using the image of an earthquake, Matthew suggests that things beneath your feet literally shift, they change and consequently the things around you change. By using the same word, Matthew is reminding us that when we meet the risen Lord, “on the road” of life’s journeys, with all its fears and joys, its hopes and anxieties, things change. Perceptions change.
In the case of the women at the tomb, despite the fear, despite the conflicting emotions, despite the fact that they cannot explain fully what they have seen and heard, what begins to grow in them is courage: a courage that empowers them to defy the religious and political establishments who have crucified Jesus. Growing in confidence, they are not intimidated. Instead they begin to shape a different, almost defiant narrative of new life emerging in the most unlikely places. They reaffirm the need to encourage others with the good news. Indeed, they resist and defy the culture of death.
So too can we in South Africa today draw hope and courage from the Easter story.
Looking around us, it is easy to despair. Too many South Africans cannot find a way out of the tomb of poverty to live lives of dignity and hope. We are experiencing a near biblical vortex of greed and corruption in which the unscrupulous steal from the poor and swallow the hope of ending inequality. Incompetence leads to bad governance, and money that is available to improve people's lives goes unspent. Too many South Africans are shut up in tombs of community violence, gangsterism and fear, while others are trapped in toxic relationships and live with the horror of domestic violence perpetrated against women and children.
Do our politicians offer any hope? You would think that if they were truly focussed on the well-being of their constituents, they could overcome their differences enough to collaborate in coalition governments to put an end to corruption and provide decent services to our communities. But instead they play in-again-out-again revolving doors, changing mayors and speakers the way other people change their socks. The trickle of disconnected announcements on investigations arising from the theft of money from the President's Phala Phala farm still hasn't explained satisfactorily why such large amounts of money weren't banked, and the ANC's refusal to allow a parliamentary inquiry is reminiscent of the cover-ups of the Zuma administration. If we are to build the nation we want, one based on transparency and honesty, the President needs to give us a single comprehensive account of what happened and why it happened.
The hope of Easter is represented by the rolling of a stone away from a tomb, and we can seize on that hope in South Africa today by rolling away the stones that entomb our society in order that we might have life, and have it abundantly. I like to think that the radical American civil rights leader and gay activist, Bayard Rustin, had this in mind when he wrote that “every community needs a group of angelic troublemakers.”
Who could step up to be the angelic troublemakers of South Africa today? I believe we should be urging the young people of our country to dig deep into the radical roots of the old struggle against apartheid, and to take up the New Struggle, a new struggle for a new generation, a struggle to regain our moral compass, a struggle to end economic inequity, a struggle to bring about equality of opportunity and realise the promises of our Constitution.
History is replete with moments when people failed to read the signs of the times and paid the penalty, sitting on the sidelines watching their societies fall apart and become ungovernable failed states. But it is also replete with moments when active citizens, especially young people, seized the day and brought about real transformation. We saw it during the North African spring of a decade ago, when the people of Tunisia rose up and others across the region followed them. We saw its potential when students campaigned for fees to fall in South Africa. Recently I have been encouraged to see how young people such as the writer Panashe Chigumadzi, supported by the philosopher Cornel West, have been rediscovering the radical roots of Desmond Tutu and his support for the black consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s. I know that some of us fear that talk of revolution implies violence, and most of us deplore the rhetoric which we heard before the EFF's attempt to shut the country down last month, in which tyres displayed on social media ahead of protests were described as “tools of trade”. But, as earlier generations of South Africans demonstrated in the defiance campaigns of the early 1950s and late 1980s, it is possible to wage a revolutionary struggle in a disciplined and dignified manner, one that is all the more powerful because it is waged peacefully. There is no place for violence in a constitutional democracy.
South Africans do not have to continue on our current path. By adopting the New Struggle, we can inspire the multitudes of disillusioned young people who despise politicians, who spurn politics and who won't even register to vote, but instead pursue a rampant consumerism because we have failed to give them a vision which would attract them to public service. Let us urge them to organise in their communities, as well as regionally and nationally; let us urge them to register with the Independent Electoral Commission and to campaign to rejuvenate our politics.
The resurrection account in Matthew's Gospel challenges us to work for justice unceasingly. Once we have rolled the stones of our many graves away, we have a commitment to ensure that the poor, the exploited and the misgoverned are never dragged back to tombs, to history’s worst examples of people’s inhumanity to others. Last week I travelled to Johannesburg and rural areas of the Eastern Cape and Lesotho to visit the widows of those killed by police at the Marikana mine in 2012. There, I am pleased to say, a delegation representing Reimagine SA, the Sibanye-Stillwater mining house, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute and the mine labour group TEBA – supported by kings and local chiefs, especially King Ndamase Ndamase of the AmaMpondo – have implemented a programme to provide various forms of assistance to those widows and their families. That is commendable.
As people of faith we also have a commitment to work unceasingly for peace in the 40 or more places in the world ravaged by war, unsettled by hatred and denied a future by the greed and power-lust of a few. I have visited some of those areas of war and violence, notably Ukraine last December. We need to continue calling on all those caught up in conflict to give peace a chance, since the only people who gain from war are those who manufacture and supply weapons. Everyone else suffers to the point of death.
A final point. Both the angel and the risen Lord instruct the women at the tomb to tell the disciples to go to Galilee. They are instructed not to stay trapped in the past but to return to the places that marked their lives together, that were infused with energy, where they learnt important lessons, opened their hearts to fresh expressions of faith and had their hope restored. We all need to return to such places for a fresh outpouring of the resurrection life, and to make our congregations and our communities places where those who have been hurt and let down by life and history can find healing and new hope; where those who have been released from tombs can begin again, renewed and restored. That is what an Easter Church needs to look like.
Like the women at the tomb, may we have the courage to go out, not only to proclaim that Easter message but to work tirelessly to make it a reality so that the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and our Messiah.
May God bless you and may you and your families experience richly the joy of Easter. God loves you and so do I.