A Word about the Readings
by Father Gethin
(The readings may be found here)
In her masterful 19th century metrical rendering of the ancient Irish hymn ‘St. Patrick’s breastplate’, Cecil Alexander recounts our Lord’s Resurrection with this remarkable line: “His bursting from the spicèd tomb.” The verse captures, with a profound clarity and depth, the sense and significance of this day, the day without which, St. Paul tells us, ‘all our preaching is in vain.’
Consider her words: first of all, ‘His’—that is, Christ’s; in other words, the figure who appears in Eastertide is no one other than Jesus Himself, not a ghost or an emanation or a dream, but truly, absolutely, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Then the wonderful word ‘bursting’. This carries both the sense of overwhelming force, and of an irreversible outcome. The past is put behind as a conquered foe, utterly overcome by the power of the Stronger Man who wins the day.
The next two words we might be tempted to overlook as merely connecting the thought, but we mustn’t: ‘from’ signifies the crucial fact that in the first place, Christ was actually there; that is to say, His death was not a sham or a magic trick. He was really in the dust of death, just as any man who has died. And ‘the’—we might take it to mean simply the particular tomb in which He was buried, rather than just ‘a’ tomb; but in context it has more weight than that: ‘the’ signifies The Tomb, the capital ‘T’ tomb, which is to say, not just a place of burial, but death itself, the whole realm of death’s dominion.
‘Spicéd’ refers to the ritual preparation of the body for burial, as St. John tells us, “then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.” This recalls the whole tradition of Jewish religious practice according to the law given to Moses, so that ‘spicéd’ signifies on the one hand the final fulfillment of the Old Covenant, and in crossing beyond that point, the foundation of something entirely new and better. As the author of Hebrews told us on Good Friday, “He takes away the first [covenant], that He may establish the second.” The Law and its claim over us has been dealt with, so that forever afterwards our lives belong to the new and better claim of the mercies of God. It is heaven, and not the grave, that awaits us as our final resting place.
‘Tomb’ is the place of burial, but it is also more than that: tomb is the ultimate form of ‘entombment’, of being captured and defined by mortal limits. It is our life defined by finite and earthly realities. To break the tomb means to open for us a ‘new and living way’, ‘not made with hands’—not an earthly fabrication, subject to decay and loss and change, but rather an operation of divine labour, our life perfect in its freedom from fear and tragedy, which John saw in a vision, and Paul called, “Jerusalem which is above, and free, and the mother of us all.” All this, and more, is what is meant by, ‘His bursting from the spiced tomb’, and so too, by what we mean when we say ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ on this holiest of holy days.
Therefore, says St. Paul, “if ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above.” Settle for nothing less than the reality of your Redemption, which Christ has won with the price of His life. Look up, ‘lift up your hearts’, “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things; for you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
And so what should this mean, for us, here and now? Just this: that we should turn ourselves, not just to find how love has saved us, but rather, being saved, to find out how to love.