Praying for Sri Lanka 

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Today is Easter Sunday, other names are also used to describe this eighth day of the Easter Feast– Low Sunday, after the ancient Sarum rite used in medieval England where Low came from Laudes, the Latin for praises. In the Eastern Church, the day is referred to as Thomas Sunday, in reference to the conversion of Thomas from doubter to believer and who would be the first to proclaim the dual nature of Christ as God and Man, saying:

My Lord and my God [John 20:19-31]

Finally, in the Catholic Church, this day is sometimes referred to as Quasimodo Sunday; so named not because of Victor Hugo’s character who supposedly resided in Notre Dame Cathedral, but from the Latin version of the opening words of 1 Peter 2:2:

As if in the manner of new born babes.

Our worship last Sunday, Easter Day, started in darkness at the 6am service as a solitary candle, the Paschal Candle, was lit and then shared its light throughout the Cathedral as people with deep yearning held their candles forward to receive a portion of that light – a symbol of the Light of Christ. And when the coming of the light was complete, accompanied by a trumpet fanfare, with one voice we proclaimed together – Christ is Risen! At a purely physical level, I always get goose bumps at that moment of acclamation; but that is nothing compared to spiritual effect of the whole service. The victory of Christ over death on our behalf, affirmed by the Resurrection and recalled by word and symbol, reassures me every year; and I know you all feel the same.

I took a photo before the 6am service last Sunday – it was of the windows above the body of the Cathedral with their faint pre-dawn suggestions of light against the darkness that still enfolded the Cathedral. I did not know at the time that the photo, with its suggestion of darkness contending against the light, was to have an awful resonance as events unfolded later that day in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka meaning the Venerable Island, the land of Serendip from which we get that joyous sense of serendipity.

But there was to be no joyous sense of serendipity that day, veneration had been supplanted by desecration. Besides the tragedy of those killed in various hotels, there had been the attack on Christians who had come together to proclaim Nagitte himi Kristhus in Sinhala or Christu uyirthelukirar in Tamil. We have since seen images of the aftermath of those dreadful attacks but it was a photograph taken just before them that has stood out with greatest force; it was of children in a Sunday School at the Zion Evangelical Church in Batticaloa, on the east coast of the country. The children had been asked in all innocence by their Sunday school teacher if they would be prepared to die for Christ; the photograph showed all the children eagerly having put up their hands in agreement. The photo showed a room full of children dressed in their Sunday best, their faces filled with joy and childish enthusiasm – it spoke of the unalloyed exuberance that only children can show because we adults have inevitably taken on the clothes of responsibility, of maturity, of being ever so sensible. Within minutes of that photograph being taken, half of those children would be dead.

Because of those dreadful events, on Wednesday this past week, we had a prayer and candle lighting vigil in this very space. For an hour and a half over three hundred people came, lit candles, prayed and went on their way. A number of our own Cathedral congregation were joined by many Australian Sri Lankans, some of whom had direct connections with victims of the bombings. There were others too who came to share this profound period when this broken world’s time met God’s eternity through prayer and candle-lighting; they included Houssam Abiad, deputy Lord Mayor and devout Muslim.

Along with the Dean and others, I spent the whole time at the vigil and was very deeply touched by the outpouring of faith of those who came. I spent most of the hour and a half in prayerful silence waiting upon the Lord, as Quakers would say. For at times of such tragedy how else can we ever come before God? Anything we might say drowns in the awfulness of the events and so we yield in silence, listening for divine wisdom.  

During my time in prayer there were periods when I opened my eyes to see the lighted candles which were growing in number until they came to equal the number believed killed in Sri Lanka. What I am about to say may sound fanciful to you, but as I looked at the mass of candles they seemed to speak to me. Wednesday evening the weather had become cooler and there was a constant breeze wafting in to the Cathedral through the open doors with the result that the candles flickered. But they each flickered in their own individual ways, one would bend this way while that next to it would bend another; it was as if each was indeed a representation of a precious life. It brought to mind that special gift of the breath of life that God breathed into humanity at Creation. One particular tray of candles seemed to stand out from the others, for there the particularly active flickering array of the candles was almost joyous and each was so intensely individual. As I say, it may seem fanciful imagining, but as I looked at that particular tray of candles I felt as if I was seeing the spirit of those children in Batticaloa. Their vibrancy comforted me for here, through the promise of Christ, those candles represented the hope of eternal life for those children who had died last Easter day – the spirit of their joyous innocence seemed to have survived the slaughter.

Besides the candles being lit by those attending the vigil, there was also the Paschal Candle that remained lit throughout the service. At the times I looked at the mass of candles flickering before me, I would sometimes look up at the Paschal Candle which for the most part burned serenely without a flicker. Clearly the breeze blowing in through the Cathedral doors was not affecting it since it stood so much higher than the others; but to me the symbol of a largely steady light of the Paschal Candle spoke of the constancy of the love of Christ and his Father. I say largely unmoving, yet there was one fleeting moment when it had flickered; at that moment the vulnerability of Christ the man before the Cross appeared to be speaking and the words I seemed to hear from this anguished human Christ of the Paschal Candle were:

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. [Luke 23:24]

Candles are not only beautiful, they play a significant part in our liturgical symbolism. When the Dean spoke welcoming people to the vigil, he recited the well-known quote:

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

This beautiful saying is of uncertain provenance but current research has found its earliest citation in a 1907 sermon (“The Invincible Strategy”) by William L Watkinson, a protestant missionary to China.

They were most appropriate words for the Dean to have used because, in the wake of the evil that had befallen Sri Lanka just days before, here we were now in a place of worship and what were we to do? Curse the darkness? Much as our visceral reactions to the news of the dreadful tragedy may have caused us to cry out in raging and cursing, to what should the resurrection of Christ that Easter Day be calling us?

Another quote about candles that seems apt at this moment was written by Anne Frank in her diary:

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.

How should we define the darkness that a candle’s light defines? And how does a candle defy that darkness?

On the same day as the vigil a particularly beautiful photograph of melted candle wax was posted on the Cathedral Facebook page about which a number of people commented; I was particularly struck by that posted by Christine Nelson who wrote that the melted candle wax represented “echoes of prayer”.  

As all those who came on Wednesday lit their candles they were both defying the darkness that seemed so overwhelming to all of us in the light of the events in Sri Lanka; but more importantly each of those who lit candles and prayed were also defining that terrible darkness by saying: “Not me!” and the melted candle wax became a tangible echo of their prayers.

Before reflecting how we might define the darkness by the candle of our own faith, let me first refer to what others have said about the evil that befell Sri Lanka last Sunday. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said:

The will to power leads to the murder of innocents in Sri Lanka, the utterly despicable destruction that, on this holiest of days, seeks to challenge the reality of the risen Christ, to say that darkness will conquer, that our choice is surrender or death.

Pope Francis empathised with the victims “entrust(ing) to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray(ing) for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event”. The Times of Israel reported that Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of what the newspaper referred to as the “Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution” spoke of the “perverted disposition (of the terrorists which) goes against the teachings of all religions”; the imam also prayed that:

God grants patience to the families of the casualties and recovery to the injured.

 In Sri Lanka itself, the Anglican Bishops of Colombo and of Kurunegala , Dhiloraj Canagasabey and Keerthisiri Fernando speaking of the victims said:

The Church of Ceylon unreservedly condemns these cowardly and cruel acts of terrorism and conveys our deep condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives and have been hurt. We wish all those who have been injured full recovery. We pray for them and their families, that God’s comforting presence will continue to be with them through this tragic experience.

And as to those who perpetrated the outrage:

We pray that these persons, whoever they may be, will be awakened to the awfulness of their crime and will be moved to repentance.

We live in a conflicted world that seems to want to shout out its otherness one from another and ignore the eternal constancy of God in his heaven made manifest through his son on earth. Back in the C11, in Muslim Spain the Jewish poet Shmuel HaNagid wrote poetry, considered by some the most beautiful of its kind. One poem he wrote was entitled “The Multiple Troubles of Man”; it’s only short, so let me read it out to you now:

The multiple troubles of man,

my brother, like slander and pain,

Amaze you? Consider the heart which holds them all

in strangeness, and doesn’t break.

The Bishops’ words about the perpetrators spoke from that consideration of ‘the heart which holds them all … and doesn’t break’ – namely the heart of God, the only power through which such evil as was perpetrated last week can be truly overcome; and from which genuine reconciliation might grow.  

In our anger at the tragedy extreme responses on our part may be understandable but would they be what the risen Jesus would expect of us? Quite rightly, we have condemned the acts, but what should come next for us in our response? This is no simple question – it is an existential one for each of us as we consider this raging of evil against heaven.

Our Gospel reading this evening [Matthew 28:1-15] spoke of the encounter at the tomb where Christ had been laid. While others were nowhere to be seen, it would be the two Marys who would come to the tomb that morning. They had come to perform funeral rituals to honour they man they admired so much. They came in grief as we all do when we attend funerals.  But when they arrived at the garden they found not a tomb for it had become an altar to the glory of God and was attended by an angel. He told them that Christ had been raised and said to them that they should go and tell the others. The reading tells us that they left the tomb with ‘fear and great joy’; and on their way they encountered Jesus.

With fear and great joy – both terms are hardly surprising. These two women who had gone to the tomb in the pre-dawn dark, with their hearts weighed down with the darkness of sadness now saw the light of eternity in their very presence. They would certainly have been fearful for all that was happening would have been beyond their ken; but there would also have been great joy for even if they could not understand the mystery of it all – the proof was there – he who was dead was now alive. The dark forces of the world had arrayed themselves against heaven and had been defeated. The light of Christ, before the very eyes of the two Marys, had defined the darkness and not only defied it, but defeated it.

The evil of last Sunday’s events in Sri Lanka, where the world contended against heaven, will not win in God’s timing for his is the ultimate victory. The question remains, will it win in our hearts? Will our faith be a candle of light defying the darkness, defining it as not of Christ, or will our hearts yield to the darkness?

On this Quasimodo Sunday let us seek ‘as in the manner of new born babes (to) crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it we may grow up in salvation’ [1 Peter 2].