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The Sound of Easter

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Apr 21

Reading – John 20: 1-19

So I’m pretty sure I know why many of you have come today, and it’s not for this sermon! Be honest! How many of you would say the thing you love most about church on Easter is the music? Come on, now. That opening hymn and choir anthem! Those trumpet sounds! Hearing Peter pull out all the stops! And a chance to belt out the Hallelujah Chorus in four parts, even if like me you have no idea which part you are singing! I’m right there with you, truly, but today I’d like to begin by turning our attention to something we don’t often hear much about on Easter. Silence. Before all the exuberant sounds of Easter joy, Easter morning begins in silence.

Let’s listen again to the first line of John’s Easter story:

“Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”

Maybe it’s because our Lenten theme these last forty days has been “Listening for God” and because I know many of us often “hear God” most in moments of quiet contemplation, but I find myself struck by what I imagine to be the profound silence of Mary’s pre-dawn, grief-stricken walk. It’s the silence that follows her witness of Jesus’ last words on the cross, after he breathed his last. It’s that great silence of Holy Saturday that holds the hallowed tension between death and whatever comes next. Theologian Martin Smith writes that Holy Saturday is the day when “the church holds a finger to its lips.” Some of you may be thinking that doesn’t sound too bad, wishing that the church did just that more often, if only to hush up its centuries of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and denial. Maybe then God’s justice, beauty, and decidedly unredacted truth could stand a chance of speaking to our souls and world. Well, even if you aren’t there, I know some of you are already feeling a bit wistful for those quieter, more contemplative days of Lent. If our passage is any indication, some good news for us all is that Easter invites us to listen first for silence and to come to the tomb carrying with us the full weight of human grief and trauma and disappointment.

Surely it was still heavy on Mary’s heart. Surely it’s heavy on the hearts of Parisians and Sri Lankans, and each of us as we began to hear the news of the church bombings that happened this very morning. ‘God of [these] weary years! God of our silent tears,’ indeed! And yet, today, we also come to listen for something that speaks from and through the silence of every tomb. Today we come to hear a new sound that God makes at Easter. It’s the sound of glad surprise that breaks that pre-dawn quiet of Mary’s walk, and ours.

Many of us were stunned to silence earlier this week by seeing those tragic photos and footage of the Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames. I was reminded of my first and only visit there in the summer of ‘99. The majestic architecture and that trio of resplendent rose windows were breathtaking to be sure. What struck me most, though, was the profound, cavernous silence I encountered upon entering the cathedral. It may have been the first time I ever really heard silence. Little did I know then that Notre Dame was literally the birthplace of polyphonic music, that is, music that combines multiple melodic parts.

Shortly after the cathedral was built, the great music intellectuals of the time would flock to the University of Paris and to Notre Dame in particular for its unique acoustics. One such musical mind who we only know as “Anonymous IV” kept a meticulous record of the sonic innovations that happened in the cathedral’s relatively new nave and transepts. That Hallelujah Chorus in four parts? We can in part thank good ol’ Anonymous IV and Notre Dame for that! France and the world may have lost for a time one of humanity’s most sacred and awe-inspiring of spaces, a vast “symphony of stone” as Victor Hugo once called it, but we also lost one of the world’s great acoustic treasures. The church’s massive stone and 13,000 oak timbered frame provided the proverbial sounding boards that would usher the single vocal lines of medieval Gregorian chants into the multi-voice elaboration of musical and choral harmony!

I had never thought about what a major role architecture has played in shaping and evolving different forms of music until I listened to a fascinating TED Talk a few weeks ago by David Byrne, lead singer of the 80’s new-wave rock band, the Talking Heads. Throughout the talk, Byrne pairs a series of audio clips and images, showing for example, how African hand drumming developed in open air spaces where the drums can sound out freely with no walls to hem them in. He showed, as we’ve just discussed, a gothic cathedral paired with Gregorian chant, sharing that the vaulted ceilings flattered and improved the sound! The music became perfectly suited for the space. Fast forward to jazz bands playing in river boats and nightclubs, then to hard rock bands like Queen, U2 or Radiohead whose huge amplifiers came to blast their ballads to the rafters of massive sports venues. They don’t call it arena rock for nothing! By the way, if you’ve never experienced a stadium show, I highly recommend the Oscar-winning movie Bohemian Rhapsody for a fantastic case in point. There’s one scene towards the end where Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury puts in an utterly epic vocal performance of “We Are the Champions” in front of 72,000 screaming fans at a 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. I tell ya. I cried like a baby when I saw and heard it! Byrne further suggests that this pattern of sound mapping onto its surrounding space can even be seen in nature, for example in the wide array of bird calls that carry across various landscapes, perfectly fitting the fields, forests or mountains over which the birds sing!

And, bear with me, these are just the sounds that we can hear. One of the miracles of God’s creation, one of the mysteries of sound and silence, is the whole range of sounds that humans can’t perceive— sounds that are, to us, like silence. We’ve all heard of ultrasound, used for everything from medical procedures to Sonicare toothbrushes. But did you know that there’s also infrasound, frequencies which are too deep for humans to hear though we can sometimes feel them in our bodies? Animals like elephants, rhinos, and baleen whales, earthquakes and volcanoes and the deep sea all create infrasound that has been recorded hundreds if not thousands of miles away! And here’s a glad surprise given where we are right now: It so happens that pipe organs carry some of the deepest sounds that some, but not all, of us can hear. Peter, can you give us a few notes, starting with the lowest of the low? Can you hear that? If not, can you feel it? Now add in some octaves which may help. And to think that our Frobenius organ was crafted just for this space. Can you imagine trying to squeeze that sound, or for that matter a live Bon Jovi concert, into your living room? It would blow us away.

Believe it or not, this all brings me back to that first Easter Morning. For I believe that God’s deep, eternal word of love carries, as if infrasonically, through the quiet of our Lenten journey, through the stark silences of our every Good Friday and Holy Saturday moment. It’s with people in Paris and Sri Lanka now. It was with Mary on that pre-dawn walk. And it emerges from the tomb on Easter, at first in the single voice of the risen Christ!

Did you notice how Mary doesn’t recognize him until she hears his voice? Though he’s standing right in front of her, she mistakes him for a gardener! The angel first asks: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Though the question meets her right where she is, she doesn’t even answer. It’s not until she hears his gentle voice in her soul speaking her name. “Mary,” he says. And she hears for the first time that sweet Easter sound of assurance! She knows that her redeemer lives and is present to her! She knows that violence, terror and death have not had the last word! In other gospel accounts of Jesus’ ‘post-resurrection appearances,’ the Risen Christ shares other ‘first words’ that we all need to hear, ones that can break the silence of our grief, break the chains of our violence, and break our ongoing cycles of scapegoating and victimization. “Peace be with you,” Christ says! “Don’t be afraid!” Or my favorite, “Come and have breakfast!” Given that brutal torture and crucifixion he endured, to rise with such grace on his lips, surely these are the sounds of divine love and grace and reconciliation!

What’s more, this sound of Easter models a Christian practice, the spiritual practice of saying yes and saying no. It’s God’s resounding “no” to retribution and violence, to prisons and death sentences! It God’s repeating “yes” to new life, to non-violent love, to restorative justice and second chances! It’s God’s yes to joy in our hearts, God’s yes to freedom in our souls!

Have we heard these sounds in our lives? I imagine it as the sound of the first belly laugh after a loved one has died. I imagine it as the sound of chains breaking. It’s the sound of people who have been silenced finding their voice. It’s the brave sound of “me too” and black lives matter and native lives matter continuing its fierce emergence that demands dignity, truth and justice. It’s the sound of recent calls for personal and local reparations that are arising here in our community and joining with a larger public conversation. It’s the sound of God’s ‘truth crushed to earth’ rising. It’s the sound of Alleluia!

I wonder...what is that sound of Easter you most need to hear today? Remember the Risen Christ meets us where we are, whether we recognize him or not. The angels are asking us even now…why are you weeping? And he is saying your name with a heart-melting tenderness as if he understands everything about you and will stand under you, come what may. He’s saying to us all: ‘Its ok. My peace is right here. God’s love and mine are yours and we’re not going anywhere because nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from God’s abiding love!’ I even imagine him quoting Psalm 46 to our planet as it braces for the further impact of climate change: ‘though the earth should tremble, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; god is your refuge and strength!’

One more tidbit before I close— this from Curtis Almquist, a monk at the Society of John the Evangelist right over here on Memorial Drive: “During the season of Lent,” he wrote for one Easter, “it is our practice to fast from saying one particular word. On this morning we break the silent fast. The word we begin saying again is ‘Hallelujah.’ ….The word ‘Hallelujah,’ [as it] appears so often in the Psalms…is not a flippant, fluffy word. In the Hebrew, ‘Hallelujah’ is [instead] a willful, joyful expression of praise for God, a bold, grounded, informed, obeisant acknowledgment of who God is and what God does, in God’s way on God’s time... The word ‘Hallelujah’ does not appear in any of the four gospels [or elsewhere in the] New Testament except in one chapter of the Revelation to John. In Revelation, ‘Hallelujah’ is a chant of the choirs of heaven, and the word is sung there in a striking contrast to the situation on earth, where evil has become especially tangible. ‘Hallelujah’ is sung at this great banquet in the heavens...In saying ‘Hallelujah’ we join with the choirs of heaven.”

In other words, we ourselves are the sounding boards! Do you get it? We, the broken and flawed people of the church become the space for which this Easter sound is perfectly made! Together, we build the church and grow an increasingly diverse beloved community of voices that hold and echo the sound of God’s undying love and peace and justice. Here we add joyful, polyphonic harmony to that singular voice of Christ on Easter morning. Easter is when the heavens open up and let us hear in body and soul the deep and everlasting infrasound of God’s multi-vocal freedom and love! This is why we come to church today! This is why we will soon sing with joyous abandon that great Hallelujah Chorus! If Handel and the “King of Kings” are not your thing, then go home and crank up your speakers to hear it in the stadium bursting sounds of Queen, or better still that Queen of Soul, Aretha! Let her sing God’s Amazing Grace right to your soul! Then tomorrow and throughout this Easter Season…share it! Continue to belt it out! Go tell it on the mountain like it’s Christmas in April! Go and sound out your best version of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” right through those glass ceilings and over the rooftops of this world! This is the day, what our tradition calls the eighth day of creation and the Octave of Creation. From quiet contemplation to bold proclamation, this is the day we too sound out our gospel of joy: Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Amen!

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