‘It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining’ Luke 23:44-45.
Three of the four Gospel writers tell us that on the first Good Friday there was a three hour period of darkness in the early afternoon. Whatever the actual cause, the blackness was a physical representation of the despair felt by Jesus’ disciples, gathered around the cross. The man dying before them in the most barbaric and painful fashion was one they had followed for years; who had promised them that he was the Messiah come to lead the Jewish people to freedom. And yet, here, in a betrayal of all their hopes, he was abandoning them. It was the blackest moment in history.
It seems extraordinary to think that this could be the first Easter in nearly two millennia when Christians have not been able to gather together to celebrate the most important date in the Church’s calendar. The pandemic that has swept the world has enormous health, economic and social consequences for all of us. It has afflicted even the highest in our land. By the time it is over, it is very likely that all of us will know someone who has lost a loved one as a result.
The psychological impact of Covid 19 cannot be underestimated. We are a sophisticated, civilised, technologically aware society, one which has put away the fears and superstitions of the past, and one where we have had confidence in medical science to protect us from the fears that haunted previous generations. And yet what this new pandemic has brought is a tiny, invisible killer, stalking our communities, and one to which we have, as yet, no response. It is, for many, a time of uncertainty, fear and despair.
But the Easter story does not end on Good Friday. Christians celebrate at this time of year not Jesus’ death, but his resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel tells us how on that first Easter morning the two Marys went to visit Jesus’ tomb, and were met by an angel who told them that the one they were looking for was not there, that he had risen. They left the tomb ‘afraid yet filled with joy’.
It was the encounters that the disciples would have in the following weeks with the risen Saviour that would lead this small, broken, demoralised group of followers of an itinerant street preacher, who had just witnessed his execution, to become the seed corn for what today is the most powerful belief system in the world. As the historian Tom Holland points out in his recent book Dominion, Christianity is the foundation of all our fundamental beliefs about the way the world should operate. None of that would have happened without the faith, dedication and inspiration of that small group of early disciples, prepared to make every sacrifice themselves to spread the Good News.
The inspiration of the Easter message for us today is that a time of darkness will be followed by a time of joy. We might look ahead in this time of great worry and uncertainty not knowing when it will end, but end it surely will.
Easter is a time of hope; of buds on the trees; of lambs in the fields; of the earth springing back to life after winter. We may be in despair and darkness now, but the promise is there of better times ahead.
Matthew records the last words of Jesus to his disciples before he ascended to heaven as being: ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’. There are few occasions in our history when that comfort has been as needed as much as it is today.