The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon, Easter Day (A) – 2011
April 24, 2011
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams delivered his annual Easter Day sermon at Canterbury Cathedral on April 24, speaking on the theme of joy, and the capacity to be surprised by it. In his sermon, he stresses that “corporate prosperity divorced from personal and communal fulfillment or stability is an empty thing … we can’t find fulfillment in just loving ourselves,” happiness must come from the outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty.
The full text of the sermon follows.
We’re now officially told that it’s a good idea to be happy. Politicians have started talking about happiness rather than just prosperity, and there is even a research programme on the subject, trying to identify the essence of human well-being. And it’s nice and entirely appropriate that we are being encouraged to some public displays of shared celebration next Friday: let a thousand street parties blossom!
Now it’s certainly a good thing that people have publicly acknowledged that there is more to life than the level of our Gross National Product, that we’re just beginning to say out loud that corporate prosperity divorced from personal and communal fulfillment or stability is an empty thing. It’s when we try and put more flesh on this that it becomes more complicated – and, worse still, more self-conscious. Some of you might just remember an episode of Doctor Who a couple of decades ago called ‘The Happiness Patrol’ where the Doctor arrives on a planet in which unhappiness is a capital crime, and blues musicians lead a dangerous underground existence. But less dramatically, most of us know the horrible experience of a family outing where things aren’t going too well and Mum or Dad keeps saying, through ever more tightly gritted teeth, ‘This is fun, isn’t it?’
There’s the catch: the deepest happiness is something that has crept up on us when we weren’t looking. We can look back and say, Yes, I was happy then – and we can’t reproduce it. It seems that, just as we can’t find fulfilment in just loving ourselves, so we can’t just generate happiness for ourselves. It comes from outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty – but not from any programme that we can identify. It’s a perfectly good idea to test and tabulate the ways people measure their own happiness – but beware of thinking that it will yield a foolproof method for being happy.
We have just heard the beginning of the resurrection story – a narrative of shock and amazement, utter disorientation. One of the things that makes these stories so believable is just that sense of unexpectedness – the disciples don’t come to the empty tomb and say, ‘Well, there you are; just like he said.’ They arrive never having really believed that their Lord would return from death, and now they find themselves in a disturbing new world where anything is possible; and so bright is the light in this new morning that even the familiar face of Jesus becomes unrecognizable. But as the story goes on in John’s gospel, we are told that the disciples anxiously gathered in their locked room were ‘filled with joy’ when they saw Jesus among them. They have been jolted out of the rut of what is usual and predictable – and joy springs on them without warning, ‘Christ the tiger’, in T.S. Eliot’s great image.
What was it like for those first few hours after the empty tomb had been found, after Mary Magdalene had delivered her breathless message? It must have been a period of alarming uncertainty, half hope, half terror; which of us would really rejoice at the prospect of a miracle that would make us rethink most of what we had taken for granted? But into that chaos steps a figure before whose face ‘the questions fade away’ – the words with which C.S. Lewis finishes his greatest book, Till We Have Faces. And joy arrives, irresistibly. The world is even more dangerous and strange than before, the future is now quite unimaginable; but there is nothing that can alter the sheer effect of that presence.
And that’s another thing about authentic happiness. It doesn’t take away the reality of threat or risk or suffering; it’s just there. This is one of the hardest things to get hold of here. How can I feel ‘happy’ in a world so full of atrocity and injustice? How can I know joy when I’m aware of my own failure, my own shabbiness, my own depression? There are no answers in theory because this isn’t a matter of theory: it simply happens that way. People in the middle of extreme stress will witness to this. We might well remember today some of those in such situations – Christians facing threats and attacks in Pakistan or, right at the moment, in Northern Nigeria; and please pray and think of them, as some fanatics of all backgrounds seek to exploit religious differences there, even in the wake of what appears as a free and fair election. Or we might think of an aid worker in Congo, or a nurse or teacher in a strained and under-resourced institution, or a carer sitting through the night with a terminally ill child – people such as this will sometimes speak, shockingly, of feeling joy in the middle of what they endure. It is not – God forbid – feeling cheerful, it is not pretending that things aren’t so bad after all. And it’s a grim reproach that that’s all too often what people half-expect from Christians, a glib and dishonest cheerfulness. No, it is an overwhelming sense of being where you should be, being in tune with something or someone, being rooted in the moment in a way that doesn’t at all blur your honesty about what’s there in front of your eyes but gives you what you need to sit in the presence of horror and grief, and live.
More than just a feeling, then, a passing emotion, certainly more than a self-conscious determination to put a brave face on things. Once again we have to be clear that it depends on something quite other than our efforts and our will power. And that takes us into a further dimension of joy. What we can contribute by our will or effort is not a system for making ourselves happy but a habit of readiness to receive. The person whose mind is completely cluttered with anxiety, self-absorbed worry or vanity or resentment, is going to find it hard to give way to moments of gift and surprise. That’s why people who are fairly used to taking time in silence and reflection may often be people in whom you see joy coming through. It’s also why, for many of us, like the disciples at Easter, it takes something of a shock to open us up to joy, some experience that pushes its way through the inward clutter by sheer force and novelty. Perhaps part of the message of Easter is very simply, Be ready to be surprised; try clearing out some of the anxiety and vanity and resentment so as to allow the possibility of a new world to find room in you.
But this means in turn that rather than battling all the time to lay hold of a happiness that we have planned according to our fantasies, we should concentrate on challenging the things that make us anxious. About six weeks ago, I was visiting Manchester to see some of the work done by local churches and other faith groups for community regeneration; and I found myself listening more and more carefully for what these groups were saying about how the local people they worked with thought about well-being. They didn’t have extravagant plans – but they simply identified a few conditions that would relieve loneliness, boredom and fear. Good and reliable mental health care, specially for the young; access to fresh air and space; opportunities to be creative, whether in growing vegetables or running a drama group. And it was impossible not to wonder where some of these hopes were on the scale of official priorities, in local or national government. On the same visit, an unscheduled stop at a local library in a rather devastated council estate revealed a lively group of teenagers who were regular users, welcomed by staff, glad of a place to do homework, gossip and feel secure. Space, opportunity, the time to discover a larger world to live in – where are the clearly articulated priorities in public discussion that would spotlight all this, so as to make us think twice before dismantling what’s already there and disappointing more hopes for the future? Talk about the happiness of the nation isn’t going to mean much unless we listen to some of these simple aspirations – aspirations, essentially, for places, provisions or situations which help you lay aside anxiety and discover dimensions of yourself otherwise hidden or buried.
Because, ultimately, joy is about discovering that the world is more than you ever suspected, and so that you yourself are more than you suspected. The joy of the resurrection has a unique place in Christian faith and imagination because this event breaks open the shell of the world we thought we knew and projects us into the new and mysterious realm in which victorious mercy and inexhaustible love make the rules. And because it is the revelation of something utterly basic about reality itself, it is a joy that cannot just be at the mercy of passing feelings. It roots itself in the heart and remains as a foundation for everything else. The Christian is not therefore the person who has accepted a particular set of theories about the universe but the person who lives by the power of the joy that is laid bare in the event of the resurrection of Jesus. To be baptized ‘into’ Christ is to be given a lasting connection with joy, a channel through which the basic sense of being where we ought to be can always come through, however much we choke it up with selfishness and worry. Sometimes, clearing out this debris needs a bit of explosive – encounter with an extraordinary person or story, experience of passionate love, witnessing profound suffering, whatever shakes us out of our so-called ‘normal’ habits. But we can at least contribute to this by giving time to clearing the channel as best we may, in silence, in the space of reflection. And we can also ask persistently what it is in our social environment that will most help create this for others, especially those who live with constant anxiety because of poverty, disability or other sorts of disadvantage.
Christian joy, the joy of Easter, is offered to the world not to guarantee a permanently happy society in the sense of a society free from tension, pain or disappointment, but to affirm that whatever happens in the unpredictable world – sometimes wonderfully, sometimes horribly unpredictable – there is a deeper level of reality, a world within the world, where love and reconciliation are ceaselessly at work, a world with which contact can be made so that we are able to live honestly and courageously with the challenges constantly thrown at us. And on the first Easter morning, it is as if ‘the fountains of the great deep’ are broken open, and we are allowed to see, like Peter and John at the empty tomb, into the darkness for a moment – and find our world turned upside down, joy made possible.
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