Some of you may know the old hymn, “Tell me the old, old story”, a great favourite of Sunday Schools of yesteryear! One of the great challenges about Easter for preachers, and perhaps all Christians, is that it is always the same old story. It’s the same story each year about Jesus, the cross and the empty tomb. We know all the characters – Peter, Pilate, Mary, etc. – and all the places, and we have seen the scenes reproduced in countless paintings, books and films. It is, I would argue, an endlessly fascinating story with countless nuances and tiny details to explore, but the plot remains unchanged. As a younger generation might observe, ‘Same old, same old’!
I must confess that, even after only five years in ministry, I sometimes struggle to come up with new ways of relating this “old, old story”. I was on retreat a few months ago with a group of fellow Methodist ministers and over lunch we tried to come up with new ideas for Easter assemblies at schools – usually the hardest congregation to please! We all encountered the same challenge each year to make it fresh and alive for the children. This year, I tried an idea from Scripture Union using real eggs covered in chocolate and others that had had all their contents blown out. It plays on the idea that that which we thought was full was actually empty (the blown-out egg / the tomb), and that which we thought was lifeless was actually full of life (the chocolate-covered egg / Jesus).
Of course, countless others have tried similar ideas over the millennia, bringing fresh life to the events of Holy Week through Passion plays, oratorios, rock operas and countless other ideas. But all of them are essentially just retelling the same story. Same old, same old! If we went on to Amazon or to a library, we could find so many other, new and exciting stories – why don’t we tell one of those for a change?
Yet, perhaps the endless repetition is the whole point. Perhaps we need to hear the same old story again and again because it is the story of all our lives, the story of our common humanity. It is the story of all stories. This truth has been brought back to me with renewed clarity in the last week or so.
For me as a minister, what makes this period of the year so tiring is not just the church services that we lead (although there are plenty of those!). It is the visiting that I try to do in the days leading up to Easter. Visiting the sick, the housebound, those in care homes and those in need. These are the folks I try to visit throughout the year but I see them in the most concentrated fashion in this period, and every day this week I have been in a nursing home or the local hospital it seems. Much of this visiting is very pleasant: sharing home communion with faithful folks or catching up with people I have now been visiting for five years. I usually manage to extract a cup of tea at each venue and, if I’m very lucky, a biscuit!
It can also be extremely draining work, though, as anyone knows who has cared for elderly relatives or coped with a loved one facing illness. In many cases, it is only too apparent that this is “it”; that you can’t wish them ‘get well soon’ as you leave. The future, medically or perhaps mentally, is bleak. A miraculous cure is extremely unlikely and the best many can hope for is a warm bed and caring nursing staff. I often find the situation of those facing what Ronald Reagan called “the journey that will lead me to the sunset of my life,” as they struggle with dementia, the most poignant. I hope and pray that many of them achieve a form of happiness but know only too well that they shall never be the people that once they were.
One particularly difficult visit that I pay is to a man suffering from advanced dementia. Unlike some of the others I see, he really does not know who anyone is at all and just sits mumbling an endless stream of meaningless repetitions, silently rocking in the same chair. It is a terrible state for someone who used to be so active and such a pillar of the local church. In a busy week, like Holy Week, it is always tempting not to visit as it is only too obvious that he neither knows who I am or that I have been. Medical science can do nothing for him and all I can do is sit and pray for him, not even with him.
And as I pray, I realise that this is why we repeat the same old Easter story each year. Because, when all the trappings of life with which we surround and protect ourselves are torn away, it is the only story that matters. It is the only story that gives any hope to that man’s life; it is the only story that I can turn to when faced with a woman dying of cancer; it is the only story that means anything ultimately to all of us as we face the greatest mystery of our existence – life itself.
As I try my best to help and support people, try personally to face all the daily struggles of our common humanity, to respond to the terrible images on our daily news, it is the Easter story that alone gives meaning and hope. The false stories upon which so much of our world seems to be based – stories of endless progress, of happy ever after endings, of the power of wealth – all prove worthless eventually. They may work when all is going well, but when we face our own Gethsemanes and our inevitable Calvary, they have nothing to say to us.
Only the Easter story makes sense of a world that too often seems senseless. The story of a faithful, loving creator, who shared our life and walked our road. The story of torture and terror overcome. The story of hope triumphant, even in the face of death itself.
That is why we need to repeat the story again and again, because it is the story of all our lives. The only one ultimately that we need as we face all the joys and sorrows of life. The only one that holds the real truth our existence. The truth about which St Paul wrote about so eloquently: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38). That is our hope, brothers and sisters; that is our story.