Church, chocolate and flowers..

‘There will always be a small minority of people who attempt to use our Holy Traditions for personal gain. The greetings card industry. The supermarket chains. Even more sinister are those people who claim to revive ancient traditions, involving our children in pagan practices in the guise of amusement. Too many of us see these as harmless, and view them with tolerance. Why else should our community have allowed a so-called Chocolate festival to take place outside our church on the very morning of Easter Sunday? …We urge you to boycott this so-called Festival and all similar events for the sake of your innocent children. Church, not Chocolate, is the TRUE MESSAGE of Easter!’

Some of you may recognise this tract from Joanne Harris’ novel ‘Chocolat’ – also a film starring the lovely Juliette Binoche and the delicious Johnny Depp. Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, arrive in a small French town, almost from nowhere. In the main square, close to the church and during Lent, they set up a chocolate shop – selling everything from hot chocolate to the most delicious cakes and sweets. The priest disapproves. On the day the shop opens, he preaches a virulent sermon on the topic of abstinence. As he prepares for the events of Holy Week and Easter Sunday – he sees that Vianne is advertising a chocolate festival and he is furious. The priest does all he can to turn the people against Vianne and her shop, but slowly they come to her, to sip hot chocolate with her, to taste her delicious cakes and to savour the delicious chocolates. And again and again, – is it because of the chocolate or because of her? – their lives are transformed and they are reborn. The problems they have hoarded for years unwind before her and she finds the way back to life for these troubled people. She is, in her way, more priest to them than the church priest has ever been.

The tourist trade would love to have the date of Easter fixed – to make the summer season as long as possible. It would be much more convenient for them if we could have Easter the same weekend very year – and not rely on the strange system for setting the date that nobody except church historians and bureaucrats really understands. And some Christians might say, ‘Why don’t we let the world celebrate Easter when it likes? – so they can have their Bank Holidays and their chocolate eggs and bunnies when it suits them. And then we can have our Christian celebration at a different time – the right time. Then it could be a more properly solemn occasion with no distractions. We could separate the Christian truths from the pagan legend and the tasteless excess. It would be – if you like – Church not Chocolate.

But … the celebration of Easter demands a party.. and I think experience shows, that the church is not very good at throwing parties – or at expressing the kind of exuberant and overwhelming joy that resurrection faith really demands. We sometimes need the secular world, the natural world, the basic human love of life – to show us how to party. And sometimes, in response to the great and marvellous message of the Gospel, that’s actually, truly, the only thing you can really do! Today is a day for carnival, for reading the Bible as though you’ve never heard this marvellous story before, for singing like no-one’s listening, for running up to the top of a hill and shouting at the top of your voice ‘Christ is risen!’. It’s a day for noticing how the flowers are blooming – that life is opening up. It’s a day for decorating even the graves of our loved ones with flowers, because Christ has trodden down death. The real miracle of Easter can’t be explained by learned clergy in black gowns. It can’t really be sung in foursquare metre in solemn procession. It is best celebrated in shouting and dancing, and best tasted in the delicious sweetness of the best chocolate that this world offers.

In the medieval church most religious festivals produced great carnivals on the streets – and everyone was there: actors in gaudy costumes, grotesques and harlots, tumblers and clowns, children doing folk dances – and the clergy too carrying the Host. The people celebrated life together. If Easter means anything, if Christ is truly risen, if death has at last been defeated, then this is something we should celebrate not only in the secret solemnity of church, but with every moment and with every part of our lives.

Sometimes some of us give up (or attempt to give up) chocolate for Lent. That makes the delicious joy of Easter egg chocolate even sweeter and our celebrations more lovely. And in some churches they give up flowers for Lent too, so that the Easter flowers are all the more glorious. In this church the flowers are indeed amazing, taking days of work to prepare and creativity and skill to come to us in their delightful beauty. Today, I think the sermon is best given in the flowers, because it is the flowers that show us how strong is the beauty and the dignity of life. I was telling some of you on Thursday evening about the amazing Jewish woman whose writing is inspiring me right now. She lived through terrible times when her people were being bitterly persecuted and she died in one of the camps. But all her writing, even from the most bitter days, is absolutely threaded through with her love of flowers. She notices a red flower by the barbed wire and she says it bears witness to the beauty and strength of life. And at the end of her days of freedom in Amsterdam she had gone out of her way to buy flowers. She would buy a large bunch of roses and say, ‘They are just as real as all the misery I witness each day’. Flowers were her refusal to accept and be defeated by suffering, a sign of the beauty and resilience of life. Yesterday I received an Easter card from a Syrian Orthodox bishop – someone I must call His Eminence. It was decorated with flowers. In the Orthodox church flowers are vital, but they must always be fresh and alive, always vivid with the life force that we celebrate today. Living and beautiful flowers preach the Gospel.

You might be thinking – this is all very well. We love flowers and chocolate as much as the next congregation, but we called a theologian to be our minister. When is she going to say something about the resurrection of Jesus? When will she give us the TRUE MESSAGE of Easter?

And I want to say only this. The world we live in is full of pain and terror and suffering. North Korea is apparently ready for a nuclear attack. There is famine in East Africa. The future of our nation lies in the balance. Many us here know personal sorrow and struggle. BUT today we are invited to join in the resistance movement against all that. We are those who belong to Jesus, who though he died, yet he lives. We are those who believe that life is stronger than death. We are those who hold onto joy on even the darkest day. We are those who declare that life can never be soured by hatred, but can always be sweetened by love. The Gospel we celebrate today is not just some churchy message about a special thing that God has done for Christians alone. The Gospel we celebrate today is that God is the Lord of life, of the life of the world, of everyone’s life, of the life that all people are living or could live. The Gospel we celebrate today is for pagans and Christians, for shoppers and saints, for the church and the public square. It can be sung in hymns, but is better seen in the beauty of a flower. It can be chanted in prayers, but it’s best of all danced in the streets. It’s church and it’s chocolate. It’s the gift and promise of life – the life that is stronger than death, because it’s God’s gift and God’s miracle for all the world. So let’s cut short the sermonising and enjoy the festival!