I used to minister at a church where, after a midweek Mass it was the custom to give a little iced cake to any member of the congregation whose birthday had been celebrated in the previous seven days.
Perhaps it was a bit silly, but we would all sing “happy birthday” as the cake was carried over for the single candle to be blown out. Because, despite your age it was always one candle!
And so, I wasn’t surprised when on a particular Wednesday close to my birthday, a cake started to move towards me whilst everybody began singing “happy birthday.” I blew the single candle out with a gusty puff, but to my surprise, it came alight again! I thought nothing of it, and just blew again. It went out, and then, it came alight once more! I must have repeated this, three or four times before I realised that people were laughing.
What they’d done, of course, was to put one of those trick candles onto the cake. You just can’t blow them out, and I think you probably have to snuff them out with your fingers or something. Anyway, they all thought it was hugely funny.
And all of this came into my mind as I sat in church later in the year after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. The Blessed Sacrament had been transferred to the place of repose and many people were sitting quietly, watching with Jesus. Perhaps struggling to stay awake in the same way that the first disciples did when they watched with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
After some time, a colleague of mine went to the altar, and one by one, he put most of the candles out. I was sitting right at the back of the darkened church, and its effect was very powerful. As the flames went out it was a strong reminder of what had happened in that garden at Gethsemane 2000 years ago. A reminder that the light of Jesus was going to die. He was going to be taken away from the garden and put to death. Like the candles, his life was going to be snuffed out.
He’d just given his friends a way of knowing how much he loved them; he’d just washed their feet. He was their leader and their master, but he loved them so much that he was prepared to do the most menial of tasks for them. And he was prepared to throw his life away in love for them.
We left the church in silence and went home, where I sat and turned these things over in my mind. I can remember thinking that the candles which had been extinguished; those candles which reminded me of the life of Jesus, would, like my cake candle, burst back into life again, and what a surprise that must have been to those who were the first witnesses.
This thought seemed to be at one with the truth that love is the strongest thing in the world.
Love is stronger than death, and anyone who’s lost a loved one certainly knows that. You don’t stop loving someone just because they’ve died. The love lives on, and the Christian belief is that it’s a part of God’s plan to re-unite us with all those whom we continue to love, and from whom for a while, we’re separated.
If you listen to the theologians, they’ll tell you lots of things about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But if we’re honest, much of what they have to tell us is sometimes very hard to get our heads around. And so, I want to share with you, one or two thoughts which have helped me, and which I hope are easier to understand, because of our own experience.
First of all, if you love someone deeply then you’re going to suffer. Death will always separate you eventually, and the more you love, the more hurt you’ll feel. But true love is always prepared to suffer. You won’t welcome it, but you’ll accept it. Is there a parent here today who wouldn’t suffer anything for the good of their children?
So, when we look at the cross, we can see the great love of God displayed in the suffering and dyeing Jesus.
God loves us, each one of us, so much, that in Jesus, he’s prepared to suffer and die for us. You too, may find this to be a helpful way of looking at the death of Jesus as a measure of God’s love for us.
And we can believe that this love of God passed right through death and came back through the crucified and risen Jesus to show himself to those who loved him. Those first friends of Jesus were neither simpletons nor liars. Most of them went to their death for proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.
Like the candles, love doesn’t die, and in the resurrection of Jesus we have a very deep proof of this.
We shan’t know, this side of death, why God had to create the world in the way that he did. We can never really understand the reasons for suffering and death. It’s sometimes hard to believe that God loves us in the face of all of the suffering that we see in our world.
But because Jesus passed right through death, we can see that death and suffering don’t have the last word. Jesus comes to us in many ways today, and because of the resurrection, he can live in us, with a presence which will change us, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly, into the kind of human being which God intends us to be.
What happened to Jesus in our time, will happen to us at the end of time, and we shall have a resurrection body like his. God’s love has conquered death; we are redeemed, and for us eternal life has already started. The shape of that life in the world to come isn’t for us to know. It’s enough to know that whatever the God who has demonstrated his love through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has prepared for us, will be for our very best.
And we can be very sure that all those whom we love will be with us in God’s new world redeemed and recreated by love.
May God continue to bless you all this Easter time, and may you continue to grow in Christ.