In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Unlike Christmas, which is celebrated in the winter on the basis of long tradition rather than biblical testimony, we have a very clear idea of when the events we commemorate through Holy Week and Easter actually happened. All four gospel accounts tie in the dates of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection with the Jewish feast of Passover. As I am sure many of you know, the Church has got into all sorts of arguments over the date of Easter over the years, and that’s partly to do with the relationship with the Jewish Passover. Be that as it may, Easter, like Passover, is very definitely a springtime festival.
When Mary Magdalene stands in perplexity and distress at the empty tomb in the garden, it is a spring garden. It will be no surprise to you to hear that the Jerusalem climate is rather different from ours. They only really have two seasons: winter, and summer. And yet there is a spring in Jerusalem, a short season of perhaps three weeks, which usually arrives late in March and lasts into April – in other words, precisely around the time when Easter is usually celebrated. I’ve never been to Jerusalem myself, but I am told that their spring is a magical time of unpredictable weather, and an abundance of almond blossoms and blood-red poppies.
Mary Magdalene has an important place in the tradition of the Church. Just as Mary the Mother of Our Lord is sometimes called the first missionary, because she carried the Christ-child in her womb when she went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, so Mary Magdalene becomes the first missionary of the Risen Christ, taking the news of her encounter with Jesus to those He calls His brothers. For this reason, Mary Magdalene is sometimes called the Apostle to the Apostles.
Spring of course is a time of new life and a time of growth. We can imagine that Jerusalem garden bursting into life, just as we see nature bursting into life all around us here, and in the gospel reading and perhaps more especially in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have a wonderful sense of the early church bursting into life and growth. Those frightened disciples, hiding away out of fear, would in a few decades spread the gospel across the Mediterranean world and beyond, transcending boundaries of Jew and Gentile, Greek and Latin, European, African, Asian. It is an extraordinary story. And the Old Testament reading from the Prophecy of Jeremiah also has an implicit message of growth: speaking of a return of the Jewish people from exile in Babylon, God promises through Jeremiah that the people will plant vineyards, and the planters will enjoy the fruit.
It may not seem to be an obvious time to talk about growth in the life of the Church. The current narrative is very much one of managed decline. And it is certainly true that Sunday attendances have tended in a downwards direction across the Church of England for very many years. That said, there are churches that do manage, one way or another, to buck that trend, and to maintain good levels of attendance, and even to grow.
And looking at our own position in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can rejoice in a Resurrection of sorts. In both parishes in this Benefice, the pattern of services is exactly what it was before the pandemic. That is by no means true everywhere. And although Sunday attendances are not where we would like them to be, there is a healthy stream of baptism enquiries coming in, plenty of weddings especially at Remenham, and much of what we did socially before the pandemic has come back. And more than that, at St Mary’s we have deepened our connection with Rupert House School, the Junior Choir has grown, and both parishes are supporting the new Henley Churches Debt Centre, which was started on the initiative of people from our benefice.
This Eastertide I encourage you to reflect on the possibilities of new life and growth. As we rejoice in the new life and growth of the spring, we rejoice too in the triumph of love and life over hate and death in the Resurrection of Our Lord. We rejoice in the hope we have in the Resurrection, and in the joy He shares with us. We rejoice as we hear today and on the coming Sundays the stories of the spread of the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. And we rejoice at the signs of new life and new growth in the life of the Church. We pray that we may be filled with the same urgent joy that motivated Mary Magdalene and the Apostles, and that we may be filled with the same Holy Spirit, to help us to carry the joy of the gospel to all those around us. And we pray that the life of this church may once more blossom and flourish like the almond trees in the Jerusalem spring, where Mary Magdalene encountered the Risen Lord, who died and was raised and lives and reigns with +the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever One God, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Photograph of the Negev in springtime by Nikola Herweg.