Easter in Brussels

Since by man came death, by a man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ, shall all be made alive.  (1 Cor. 15:21-22)

Picture Judas in daVinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper.  He is seated to Jesus’ right, on the left-hand side of the painting from the viewer’s perspective.  He is in a group of three, like all the other apostles in the painting, with Peter and John.  He is clutching the little bag that we understand holds the thirty pieces of silver that he has been paid to betray Jesus.  In the painting, the Master has just announced that “one of you will betray me.” DaVinci shows us four groupings of the apostles reacting, questioning, accusing, defending, and generally trying to figure out what is going on.  I’m not sure they ever did.  Judas, however, thought he had things figured out.  No one knows what his motives were for betraying Jesus.  You have to wonder, why didn’t anyone ask Judas what was in the bag?  “Hey, Judas, what’cha got in that bag?”  Might they have caught him silver-handed, as it were?  Would things have turned out differently then?  I think Judas should have been on a watch-list of some sort.  He should not have been allowed to fly, for sure.  I imagine that Judas could have been the type of guy who was stockpiling ammonium nitrate and ball bearings in his shed.  And perhaps he was disappointed to discover that Jesus had no need for these.

When I hear St. Paul’s concise summary of Christian theology – since by man came death, by a man came also the resurrection of the dead – I think not only of Adam (as was Paul’s intention), I also think of Judas.  And I start to think of lists of lots of other men by whom has come death (yes, my view is somewhat sexist here, but I think it holds up).  And because the image is fresh in my mind, I’m thinking of a security photo taken at the Brussels airport of two men pushing their luggage, each wearing only one glove, and a man in a hat.

When I heard the news on Tuesday of the bombings in Brussels, the news-caster reported that authorities had this security photo, and that they were looking for a man in a hat.  And this sounded absurd to me.  A man in a hat?  They did not seem to have narrowed it down very much.  Thankfully, they had more information to go on, but, of course, it was already too late.

Until now, when I thought of Belgium, I thought of chocolate.  This week I happened to check the website of Godiva (the Belgian chocolate maker, founded in Brussels in 1926) to see if there was any mention of the attacks.  What I found was a “limited time offer” to “buy one, get one 50% off” on “select chocolate bunnies.”  This was tempting, I admit.

It took a bit of poking around on the Internet, but I also found that the Godiva chocolates we buy here in America are mostly made in a factory in Reading, PA, not in Brussels.  And I tried to think of some way to include the story of Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of Coventry in order to satisfy her perverse husband’s demand that in return he would reduce the taxes of the people of the city – but that story proves to be difficult to work into an Easter sermon.

Since by man came death… we are looking for a man in a hat.  In recent months I have read in-depth articles about Anders Breivik, the mass-shooter who murdered children in Norway; about Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; and about a host of American teenage boys and young men who have marched into schools with guns and opened fire.  And now, the man in the hat, who it would appear was apprehended yesterday.  These stories span decades, of course, and they are only representative of the kind of world we leave in; they are hardly exhaustive.  By man comes death. 

I suppose there is a fairly direct line from the man in the hat all the way back to Judas, and then way back to Cain (the first murderer), and then to Adam, who at least knew he was doing something wrong, which is more than can be said about the man in the hat.  By man comes death: truer words never spoken.

I peeked at the Godiva website because I was wondering what Easter would feel like in Brussels this week, when death at the hands of violent men is so present to the people of that city.  In Europe, as in so much of the world, and in our own country too, Easter is not what it used to be.  Oh, it’s fine for chocolate bunnies, I suppose.  But the actual Easter part of Easter is not what it used to be.  This is the second part of St. Paul’s Christian Theology for Dummies, in One Short Sentence: “by a man came also the resurrection of the dead…. [and] in Christ shall all be made alive.”

For reasons that I only barely understand, we are living in an age when, although it is painfully clear that by man comes death, it is not so obvious to people that a resurrection would be a good idea; that some antidote to all this death, all this violence, all these bombs, all these guns, all this murder, all these wars, all this bloodshed might be a good idea.  It’s not just a question of whether or not people know the Christian story; it’s a matter of whether or not we even know why that story might be important or helpful.

Since by man came death, by a man came also the resurrection of the dead.

If you showed The Last Supper to someone who did not know the story it depicts, I am not so sure that they could easily identify the betrayer at the table.  If I didn’t know better, I might guess that it was Matthew, the person in the painting whose face is looking decidedly away from Jesus.  I’m not sure I would guess that the betrayer is Judas: the one clutching the bag.  I might suspect that he’s got chocolate bunnies in there, waiting to share them with his friends. 

I don’t begrudge the Belgians their chocolates – certainly not on this Easter of all Easters, when any solace in Brussels should be taken for what it’s worth.  But I find myself praying for a better Easter in Brussels this morning than can be had when all you have is chocolate bunnies to work with.  Since the reality is so very plain in Brussels this week that death can come by a man in a hat; it does not seem overly pious of me to pray also for the resurrection of the dead; that also in Christ shall all be made alive.  And if I am praying for a better Easter in Brussels, I am only using that city as a place-holder for us all – praying for a better Easter for every single person on the face of the earth.

A better Easter is an Easter that can proclaim more than just the sad fact that by man comes death.  A better Easter means an Easter that knows that by a man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For we are living in a world that desperately needs to know the truth of the resurrection; that needs to be reassured that we will not be mired in all this death; that needs to know that also in Christ shall all be made alive!

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c 1897

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c 1897

Come to think of it, Lady Godiva was neither Belgian, nor a chocolatier.  She was, however, according to legend, a Christian.  Her story was first chronicled (whether it’s true or not) by English Benedictine monks.  You can spin this story a lot of ways, but it always begins with her concern for others – for the poor, especially, who were burdened by heavy taxes levied by her husband.  Why does Lady Godiva care?  Why does she persist in pestering her husband to be better than he is, to be kinder than he is?

Can you just hear the conversation between the two?

Him: “I’ll lower the taxes the day you ride naked through the center of town.”

Her: “Very well, then, fetch me my horse!”

Or, as Tennyson put it in his poem:

...She told him of their tears,
And prayed him, ‘If they pay this tax they starve.’
Whereat he stared, replying half amazed,
‘You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?’ – ‘But I would die,’ said she.

By man comes death.  Adam decides to indulge his desire despite God’s instruction.  Cain decides that he can rid himself of Abel.  Judas can be bought for thirty pieces of silver.  The poor are expendable as the rich pursue their goals.  A man in a hat can ensure that his accomplices do their awful deed and blow themselves up (supposedly in the name of God).  By man comes death.

If you happened to be spending Easter in Brussels this morning, I can locate at least seven Easter egg hunts you can go to, but I strongly suspect that a pall will cover these events today.  Plastic Easter eggs – even if they are filled with the best Belgian chocolate – are no salve in the face of the pain that that city and its citizens have endured this week.

At the very least they could use a woman on a horse – naked or not, I hardly think it matters – riding through the city to let them know that not only does her little finger ache, but she would die for them.  It is unlikely that any such ride, however, has ever taken place in the annals of history.  More’s the pity.

And there are those who suspect that no such thing as the resurrection ever took place, who believe that it is far-fetched, delusional, and self-serving to place our hope in the man by whom has come the resurrection of the dead.  He rode into town on a donkey, not a horse.  He was stripped naked only to be nailed to his Cross to die.  And it might have ended there, since by man comes death.

But by the grace and power of God, by a man came also the resurrection of the dead!  And his Name is Jesus!  No death-dealing plot worth thirty pieces of silver, or any amount for that matter, could dislodge the intention of God in sending his Son to save us from the fear of death.

Perhaps I am naïve to be continually surprised that men believe there is a price that can justify our violence, warfare, and murder.  And I remain mystified to realize how eager we are to be the one who clutches the purse with the coins inside.  Maybe this is a sign in me of a lack of imagination or nerve; I don’t know.  But I know that the only price that has ever bought us freedom was the life of one Man, given freely, for the love of God.  And since by man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!

How I wish that we could all be transported to spend our Easter morning this morning in Brussels, or in Paris, or in Ankara, or in Baghdad, or in the thousand other places where so recently by man has come death with all its bitterness.

How I wish we could enlist Lady Godiva – or anyone willing to ride on (in almost any state of undress) with the message of God’s love. 

How I wish the world were as hungry for this message as it is for chocolate bunnies.  Until it is, I shall have to take my cue from the chocolatiers of Belgium, and refine the message until it is sweet enough to be practically irresistible, as it seems to me to be on this Easter morning, when all of Brussels and all the world knows how true it is that by man comes death.

The story of Lady Godiva asserts that so courteous and grateful were the good people of Coventry that as the naked Lady rode forth they stayed inside, shutters, curtains, and blinds all drawn shut, out of respect for their heroine.  But our task this morning is to call to those shuttered inside to look out, to behold and see in this world of death that by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead…[and] even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Fetch me my horse!  Fetch yours!  And let us cry it till our voices tire: Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Easter Day 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


[i] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Godiva”, 1840

Posted on March 27, 2016 .