Great Vigil of Easter
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
The Great Vigil of Easter—Year A: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Matthew 28:1-10
The Reverend Canon Tyler Doherty, Canon Precentor
One of the great temptations of our contemporary culture is that we can tailor the kind of information we receive to hear only what we want to hear—our Facebook pages chime with “likes” from people who think exactly like us, the news we get confirms our opinions, and the image we put forward to the world (our “online presence” as the jargon has it) is carefully groomed. As a result, many of us live in a kind of self-fabricated echo-chamber where outside voices (those people who dare to think and live differently from us) are almost non-existent.
The life of Christian discipleship—knowing ourselves to be loved by a generous God whose deepest desire is for us join, whole-heartedly and self-forgetfully, in the dance of love that is the Indwelling Trinity—runs the risk of falling into exactly the same trap. We blithely think of ourselves as “Easter people” (which usually simply means we like lilies and brass bands) and conveniently skip over the what the rest of the Holy Week triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil—teaches us. If we isolate our liturgy this evening from what has gone before, the result is something similar to those echo-chambers we read about—we end up with a flimsy, happy-clappy kind of Christian faith that is little more than God-tinged entertainment, the liturgical equivalent of the little rush of excitement we get after seeing a good movie, or listening to a favorite song.
If our Christian faith is to make a difference in our lives, and the lives we are called to go out and serve, it must encompass the entirety of our lives—happiness and heartbreak, moments of fulfillment and moments of desolation. We don’t need to hide behind the deadening sentimentalities of uplifting guff and twaddle. The triduum shows us we can look life squarely in the face without flinching and find there in the midst of all its suffering the reality of freedom, hope, and love.
Our liturgy this night, is a part of the triduum which includes Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Each liturgy has an important role to play and teaches us something about the life of discipleship. The foot-washing and table fellowship of Maundy Thursday reminds us of our servant identity as a sent people who participate in God’s missional work in the world. Good Friday teaches us the hard truth of suffering—it reveals for us what the life of self-offering love looks like in a rivalrous world concerned with protecting its own power and position. And the Easter Vigil reminds us that, “This is the night,” that the Paschal candle, Christ, the Morning Star which knows no setting, rises in our hearts trampling down death.
The earliest Christians never separated Christ’s death from his resurrection liturgically. Seen as a single liturgical act and not just as three disjointed services, the meaning of the triduum, the paschal mystery, and our lives as disciples becomes clearer. The arc of the triduum teaches us that we are people fed and nourished on the body and blood of Christ and called to serve those pushed to the margins. It teaches that this service to those on the boundaries and inhabiting the borderlands will lead to suffering, social upheaval, even death. And it teaches that in the midst of that suffering, in the midst of the fiery heat of the furnace—there is a fourth figure “unbound and walking” as it says in the Book of Daniel: the Angel of the Lord. God is with us. Christ is with us. Ultimately, the liturgies of Holy Week teach us that all aspects of our life—promotions and heart palpitations, diplomas and bad diagnoses, new love and heart-rending sorrow—are held like Julian of Norwich’s precious hazelnut in the tender, loving palm of God whom Julian affectionately calls “The Keeper.”
More and more, I’ve become convinced that the liturgy itself, when we pay actually attention and give ourselves to it wholeheartedly, teaches us almost everything we need to know about following our Lord tripping and stumbling down the path of ever-widening, other-centered love. I’ll give a couple of examples from our liturgy this evening. After kindling the New Fire (the symbol of the light of Christ bursting into the world to dispel the darkness of sin, ignorance, violence, and hatred), Deacon Libby processes the Paschal Candle through the midst of the congregation singing—“The Light of Christ.” Think about that for moment. The Light of Christ, God with us and God for us, moves through us and between us. Like the parting of the Red Sea through which God led the people of Egypt out of slavery and into freedom, the Paschal Candle enacts for us a present, even palpable, reality. Smack dab in the middle of our daily lives—with their curious mixture of hum-drum ordinariness, piercing pain, and fleeting joys—the Light of Christ is there illuminating and holding them all in its steady, unquenchable flame. God in Christ walks in our midst singing God’s beautiful song of welcome: calling us, beckoning us, luring us and wooing us to the freedom of life in Him—“so that we too might walk in newness of life” as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans. This is the night.
Here is a second example. When we have baptisms at the Easter Vigil one of the old traditions of the Church is that the Paschal Candle is set into the baptismal font three times with the phrase “Sanctify this water we pray you...” repeated three times on successively higher pitches. I remember the first time I acolyted at this service. I was a skittish torch and doing my best to keep up with all the liturgical movements at an admittedly rather fussy Anglo-Catholic parish (Christ might be risen, but you better get the procession right!). When the priest immersed the base of the Paschal Candle into the font for a third time, he went a little too deep, and the heavy base of the candle made a distinct thunk against the bottom of the font setting the whole thing rocking on its base. And that’s when it struck me. That’s what God has done in Christ. God has hit bottom. God has plumbed the depths. There is no place the light of Christ has not reached. There is no aspect of our lives that is not held in the tender love and mercy of God. The light of God in Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, has pierced to the depth of our alienation and estrangement from God and driven away all darkness.
The Easter Vigil comes hot on the heels of Holy Saturday—the day when Jesus is said to have descended to the dead. Some of you might bristle at this line in the Creed—maybe that’s one of the spots where our lips stop moving—but I think it’s impossible to understand Easter, and the empty tomb, without understanding Holy Saturday. On Holy Saturday, or what the Eastern Orthodox call the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus descends to the dead. He goes to that farthest point, that deepest, most painful alienation from God and fills it with his love. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian fathers of the 4th century, has a beautiful phrase, “The unassumed is the unredeemed.” His point is that by assuming all aspects of our identity, there is no part that has dominion over us, there is no part of our selves or our lives of which we need to be afraid, from which we need to hide. Christ, in his victory, has assumed it. Christ, in his victory, has redeemed it. He has literally, “been there and done that.” In the process, he has opened the door to eternal life in the very midst of our messy lives—timelessness in the midst of time. Christ has descended to the farthest point from God so that he might be all in all. There is nowhere God doesn’t reach. As is says in a phrase in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy—“you left nothing undone until you had brought us to heaven.” This is the night.
Our liturgy this evening also shows us that Christ’s victory over death is no private transaction between the individual soul and God. Did you ever wonder why in the midst of the longest liturgy of the entire year, do we take time to baptize or renew or baptismal covenant? Isn’t that a little inconvenient and impractical? We have places to go and people see after all! It’s because the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus show us the out-pouring shape of our lives. Salvation is not a private possession. Baptism is not a badge of honor granting access to a privileged group of insiders who can clap each other on the back. We die in Christ, so that we might rise in Him and live undefended from that boundless source of love, energy, and abundance. We are the ones who have been washed clean so that we might go and wash the feet of those others society would rather forget—the last, the least, the lost, and left behind. Baptism reminds us that as we are fed and nourished on the body and blood of Christ, so are we to go out into the world as bread and wine to feed, oil to heal and bind up wounds, water to scrub away the grim of shame, injustice, poverty, and discrimination. We are the washed and washing ones. The fed and feeding ones. But where do we go?
Bishop Michael Curry is very fond of our passage from this evening’s Gospel, because it highlights the missional nature of the Church—we go out of ourselves journeying away from self-preoccupation and smug self-satisfaction towards those whom society has rendered invisible, voiceless, and less than human. “The Church,” as Archbishop William Temple reminds us, “is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” That’s why the Angel tells the two Marys when they come looking for Jesus, “"Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." Jesus is always going ahead us. To see him we, too, have to be a people on the move, journeying away from self to meet the other. Like the Paschal Candle moving through our midst, it’s our joyful task to keep our eyes firmly fixed on that marvelous and holy flame—the flame of mercy and loving kindness—and follow it wherever it leads. That light, always ahead of us and beckoning us onward, shows what love looks like in the world, and the shape our lives are to take. In that light we see light playing in a thousand places. See that light. follow it wherever it leads. Be that light. Our world depends on it.