It’s Easter Sunday, we’re focused on the body, the risen body, and I’m going to take the risk of being a bit personal.What are you smelling of today?I guess that there could be many answers: Jo Malone, Givenchy, Chanel, or Penhaligons?And that’s just the men.So I’m thinking that you’re a pretty fragrant lot and that’s appropriate and splendid because fragrance is part of the resurrection story.
The gospels of Mark and Luke both mention women coming to the tomb with spices and ointments to anoint the body of Jesus.John says that this had already been done.Mary Magdalen, whom we meet at the tomb in today’s gospel reading, is also closely associated in the Christian tradition with a perfumed ointment that she had used to anoint the feet of Jesus.Had she also used the huge quantity of myrrh and aloes that John speaks about to anoint his blood-spattered and mutilated body for burial?
And here’s a question; if the lifeless body of Jesus had indeed been so carefully washed and scented before being wrapped in linen and laid in the tomb, did the risen body still carry the scent of this loving attention, as it carried the scars of his wounds?
These are questions we might not be able to answer, but they are important because they point us towards a persistent detail in the resurrection accounts that links the scent of spices with the experience of resurrection.And in the early Christian tradition, this detail of what is going on at the empty tomb finds its way into the narrative about our life in Christ as those who have been baptised into his death in order to share in his risen life here and now, on earth.
St Paul, writing to the Church in Ephesus, encourages the Christians there to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5.2).The imagery is very simple.The fragrance of the sacrifice is a symbol of its beauty and its effect.This fragrance is a power that overwhelms the stench of death, commented on at the death of Lazarus, in a reference to the power of smell that is common in our description of corrupt practice in any walk of life: we say, quite frankly, that it stinks.
However, we are now moving into new and challenging times and past expectations are being superseded.A terrifying example of this has been seen recently in our own country, not far from here.It is the chemical weapon attackon 4 March on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
The military grade nerve agent, Novichok, is the most deadly chemical weapon that has ever been made.Like a fragrance, it blows, apparently invisible, in the air, though it has no smell and is in fact dispersed in a very fine powder, rather than a gas or vapour.
It is a tribute to the fallenness of human ambition, that we should be able to deploy our God-given resources of intellect and imagination on a project that will secure the indiscriminate torment and death of other human beings.That in itself is shocking: it bears the unmistakable stench of evil, sin and death.But what is equally significant and instructive for us is the European response.
On the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week, 17 European Union states, together with Norway, Ukraine, Macedonia and Albania, responded to a UK initiative and expelled a significant number of alleged Russian spies. Against the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations, this event in Salisbury called for a response from our European neighbours that transcended political and economic boundaries.
The issue is essentially a moral one.It is morally unacceptable for processes of retaliation, irrespective of how they might have been authorised, to be undertaken on foreign soil, with the intent of taking life, and in the certain knowledge that this would put at risk the lives of innocent people who were simply going about their daily lives, shopping on a Saturday in Sainsbury’s.
The political analysis of this, and how it plays out, will take time to assess.But for us who are today’s living embodiment of the Christian tradition in Europe, the coalition of opinion that has gathered in protest at Russian aggression is itself a response that should command our attention, posing this question: How do we as Christians help to shape the moral conscience of Europe and its future?
That is a challenge we have been engaging with in this diocese for nearly a century.Next year Chichester will be hosting the biennial Coburg Conference, which brings together Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians in theological dialogue; last year I was their guest at the celebrations in Coburg to mark the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation.My own experience of this international and ecumenical work suggests that the Christian Church has a vital role to play in shaping the moral life and culture in Britain and the Europe of the future.
Immediately prior to last year’s Luther celebrations, a conference in Rome, entitled (Re)imagining Europe,gathered together delegates from all the EU member states.It had been carefully prepared by regional bishops’ conferences, consulting students and young people, as well as leaders of industry, politics, and legal and cultural life, many of whom also attended the gathering in Rome.
They were drawing from a vision that was formed at the very moment when Europe was descending into the second world war, indeed when Bishop George Bell was seeking to support Christians who were separated from us by that conflict, but not in faith.In 1940 the French theologian, Jacques Maritain, who was widely read and respected in England, wrote a remarkable article entitled, “Europe and the Federalist Idea” in which he said: “A federalist Europe can only live through the spirit of Christianity…There are enough indications to be able rightly to claim that the hope is becoming a reality despite all of the failures and miseries…and, perhaps, despite repeatedly having to start again from new”.
Nearly a lifetime later, Pope Francis addressed the President of the European Parliament, and others attending the (Re)imagining Europe conference in order to outline what contribution Christianity can make to the reimagining of our future life together.He chose as his guide the rule of St Benedict which, in its prologue, asks this question, from the Psalm 34.12“Who is it that longs for life and desires to see good days?”
Pope Francis spoke of the need to recover a vision of Europe that is about life and good days for everyone, which requires giving space and attention to people not to statistics, that is founded in the quality of its community life, that is confident in its capacity to sustain dialogue between people of different cultures and faith, that is generous in its inclusivity, committed to solidarity in its care for the marginalised, that promotes an economy whose virtuous circle prioritises care of the environment, the family, and the human person above profit and exploitation, and, above all, that promotes justice as the foundation of peace and freedom.
Many of these themes are also to be found in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new book, Reimagining Briain. Both leaders understand the power of the statement in a second century Christian text that declares, “What the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world”.
As we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, and renew our baptismal life in the apostolic witness of his Church, let us pledge ourselves to the revitalisation of a Christian heart and conscience in this land that is one with the great European tradition of Christianity by which we ourselves have been formed.Justin Welby puts it like this: “The UK grew from Christian roots: my hope is that in the future it rediscovers the power of the narrative that has shaped it for so long and set its values so deeply”.
These values are set out in the vision of the Old Testament fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.It is a fulfilment of the longing for all peoples to be welcome at the feast of life and goodness, for the tears of sorrow and disgrace to be wiped lovingly from our faces.Today, this vision comes within our grasp, its fragrance filling our hearts with recognition and joy, as we meet the Lord, newly risen from the tomb and say, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation”.