[Friday, March 25] Today is Good Friday. Tomorrow is referred to as Holy Saturday and on Sunday Christians celebrate Easter—the most important feast in the Christian calendar. As I was contemplating what Easter sermon I was going to preach my thoughts somehow turned to a document from the early Christian church: The Mystagogical Catacheses of Saint Cyrill (the bishop of Jerusalem towards the end of the fourth century AD). The reason that I am rather well acquainted with this writing of this important church father is the fact that, in the 1970’s, I had to study the Greek text of this document as part of my studies for a degree at the University of London.
In this text Cyrill provides us with am extensive, but fascinating, picture of what happened in the church in Jerusalem during the night preceding Easter Sunday. It was considered the most suitable moment to baptize those who had been instructed in the Christian teachings. The baptism was by immersion; it was preceded and followed by a whole range of different rites—most of which gradually disappeared in the passing of time. When the night had ended the newly-baptized were allowed to participate for the very first time in the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper. A remarkable aspect was also that the newly baptized were now given the privilege of praying ‘the Lord’s Prayer’. They had now become true children of God’s family and thus they were now entitled to address God, together with others, as ‘our Father’. Baptism was, however, the central event in this ‘holy’ night. As Christ had risen from death on Easter morning, likewise the newly-baptized now had symbolically risen with Christ from the grave, so that they could begin in new life with their risen Lord.
Reading and studying this lengthy Greek text posed, at the time, quite a challenge for me. Somehow its memory re-emerges when Easter time has come. For a moment I considered to use this document as the basis for my Easter sermon, but then I did not immediately see how I would do this. And so, I started to delve in the sermon collection of my forty-plus years of preaching, and hunted for a sermon that I might choose and adapt for this week. When I go back to sermons I have preached in the past, I sometimes encounter some that I would not want to use again. There are some sermons that make me wonder: How did I ever dare to present something like this to the people? But occasionally it also happens that I am happily surprised and conclude (perhaps with a sense of misplaced satisfaction): This was quite a good sermon! That was the sense I had when I found the Easter sermon that I preached once before, namely in 2009 in the church in Zeeland. I knew straight away: This is the sermon I will use again this Saturday morning.
This then is the sermon I will take along when I drive tomorrow morning to Utrecht. There is one aspect that I will emphasize even stronger than I did in 2009. After his resurrection Jesus Christ appeared a number of times to his disciples and to a number of other people. At one occasion he was seen by a few hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6). It struck me then, and now again, that the Lord was only seen by people who already knew him. That included the 500, who are referred to as ‘brethren’. Could this perhaps explain why today so few people are able to discern an other Reality behind the eggs and the Easter bunny? Could it be that today also Christ only appears to those who already know him, and have followed him for some time, while remaining unseen by those who do not believe in him? That will be the Easter message that I take with me to Utrecht tomorrow. Thank God that Christ is willing to appear to us and to be a living presence in our lives. The sermon will be shorter and simpler than the multi-hour ceremonial in Cyrill’s days in Jerusalem, but I hope that nonetheless tomorrow the message will also ‘land’ in Utrecht.