Year A, The Great Vigil of Easter April 15, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels…”
Halleluiah! Christ is risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Halleluiah! Happy Easter everyone!
Did you feel it? The pressure of Lent mounting these past weeks? We passed through the gates of the Triduum at our Maundy Thursday Agape Feast, gathering all bright and shiny and happy, great energy, and it came down a little as the Mass proceeded. Then we went upstairs and it came down even more. It got quieter. In the intimacy of the foot washing, both given and received, it got even quieter and started moving inward. Then as the altar guild stripped the altar to the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it became very still and moved inward even more and we were left with the silence and the dim candle light from the Altar of Repose.
Did you feel it? Good Friday… Did you feel that? Grief. Someone told me that they felt despair leaving that service, despair for humanity, the things we do and the things we leave undone. I had real, unsolicited, unworked up tears as the choir sang the psalm. Tears for the brokenness of me, of all of us, of the whole world.
I wrote in the Tune Up last week that I have been very, very busy this Lent. Getting ready for sabbatical, tying off a lot of loose ends, I’ve been distracted, and it hasn’t gotten in like it has in the past. The mystical, the real religious emotional Lenten immersion experience eluded me this year. No tears welled up during any of the seven or eight Stations of the Cross we prayed. That is fine. Not every religious experience gets us to the mountain top. Most aren’t. But the movement of the liturgy, the movement of the Three Days… that is turning me around. Last night, the cross here on the chancel, the candles we lit as we venerated the cross last night. We venerated the cross! That is some old school ancient religious practice we did last night. I wasn’t feeling it, but as the psalm was chanted, then when lights came down and all of you streamed forward to venerate the cross of Christ, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” It all welled up. The emptiness of Good Friday, the tragedy of Christ’s torturous death, the grief of the world I could feel in my breaking heart right there and right then. Did you feel it?
And now, here we are, the Great Vigil of Easter. What do you feel? Right here and right now, what do you feel?
There are so many ways to tell the story of Jesus Christ’s passion and precious death, His resurrection and rising in glory. Ed gave a most stunning sermon on Friday. It was theology, Christology to be precise, and it was fabulous. Deep, precise thought is an important way to tell this story; one that perhaps a philosopher might offer.
I trend towards moral theology in my telling of it. What do we learn from the old stories about the world right now, and how are we to be? What are we to do? Like Karl Barth teaches, preach with the Gospels in one hand the newspaper in the other. Not the only way, but an important way.
The Godly Play folks teach our children the stories themselves. Not a lot of commentary, but the narrative, they offer that in a particular way that works its way into young hearts and minds. And there are many other ways. Bach’s Mass in b Minor tells it well. So do Rubens’ “Elevation of the Cross” and Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross” or one of the various Passion Plays, or even Godspell. All ways to tell the story. To teach us about our salvation.
Another way that we tell that story, that we come to understand what it is that Jesus did, and why and why it matters to us and how are we to be and what are we to do is found in what we are doing right now. Not listening to a sermon, but following the riverine path of the liturgy. From the pensive, dim winter of Advent, like a plane we break through the clouds into the brilliant sun of Christmas and the Epiphany. But then we descend back into the clouds for Lent, right down through the crust of the earth to Holy Saturday before this night happens. “How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.”
The movement of the liturgy, the feelings, the emotions, the physical experience of dark and light, of kneeling in silence and music that stirs our souls deeply, of sleep being disrupted, of just being here in church so much with so many other people sharing such an intimate and set aside experience… do you feel it? Because those feelings, the experienced feelings in and through the liturgy are very real and true experiences of the Risen Lord. When we go all the way through Holy Week from Palm Sunday to this very moment, we have the chance to experience in a very real way the story, the reality of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Halleluiah! Christ is risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Halleluiah!
What do you feel? How has this week taught you? What has it revealed to you? How has it changed you?
This week, the turning of the liturgical wheel taught me a bit about what happened when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see Jesus’ tomb. There was the earthquake, and the angel descended and the guards were so scared that they shook and “became like dead men.” What did the angle say to the women? “Do not be afraid…” then told them to go quickly and tell the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. They went and, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’… Do not be afraid…”
“Do not be afraid,” those words are for us, they are for you right now, in this instant, in the movement to Easter, those words are words of salvation. “Do not be afraid.”
Now there is a translation note here that is interesting and important. The way it is written in Greek, “Do not be afraid” is in the present continual tense, meaning it is an ongoing activity, it is not just about that event. In the Message Bible, it is translated, “You are holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that.” Another way might be “You don’t need to keep on being scared like you have been. I’m right here.” Now that is different than just “Do not be afraid,” and more helpful, because there is in fact a lot to be afraid of in the world.
There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. You have felt it. Maybe you are feeling it right now, or know someone in the depths of suffering and despair. Real fear. Fear of suffering and grief and loss. Of people doing very bad things. Scary things exist. Just aging, those little aches and pains grow, the sharpness of our senses decline, both become the new normal. Maturing, you learn your real limitations, your blindspots and parts of you that you are not so fond of. Growing up you learn that some options are not on the table for you, that life takes a lot of effort, that everyone one you know, have known, will know, yourself included will die, maybe even large swaths of our planet. There is plenty to be afraid of.
And it is spring. It was beautiful today, wasn’t it? Fifties and sunny and green beyond imagine. And some people are happy. And have children, and friends, and make beautiful things and love sometimes and it can be, it is sometimes, oftentimes, pretty good. The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends towards justice… you know that quote. Our universe also bends towards beauty and goodness and elegance and love, always in the end towards that center of gravity, love. It is not the whole story, death and corruption also happen, but that is not the whole story either.
The liturgy teaches this lesson most perfectly tonight in the Great Vigil of Easter. The Exsultet, the great prayer of the church begins: “Rejoice now… Rejoice and sing now… Rejoice and be glad now… pray with me to God the Almighty for the grace to sing the worthy praise of this great light…” There is ecstasy in those words. But these ecstatic words, the most joyous words we have as a Christian people are sung in a solemn tone, only after sundown, by candlelight in an otherwise dark and quite place. And it is sung only in the wake of Good Friday. Do you feel it? That is the liturgy calling to you, pulling you into the experience of the resurrection of Christ our Savior.
We hold on to all of this for dear life. Each other. Our hopes. Our dreams. Our ideas. For dear life. It can feel so perilous for those of us who have so much to lose, or those right on the edge. Jesus Christ in His Passion and glorious resurrection is telling us to not be afraid like that. Do not despair. No, you won’t get over her death. He won’t be the same after that accident. You can’t undo what you did. But as we plead each Saturday night in the office of Compline, “Grant that as we sing your glory at the close of this day, our joy may abound in the morning as we celebrate the Pascal Mystery.” The sun will rise tomorrow. Summer will come. Babies will be made and born. Relationships will deepen. You and others will be cared for. And the overwhelming power of life, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower will nevertheless persist and prevail. And like the liturgy teaches us, that is a song we need to sing, because it is true, and we sing it at night, in the darkness, because the darkness is true, too. Jesus Christs victory over death doesn’t mean we won’t die, but it means that even in death, when it all comes down to it, as St. Julian teaches, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Not always painless. Not always pleasant, but in the fullness of time, well. That is the promise of Jesus Christ.
And I don’t know about you, but if I could know that truth, remember that truth in the harder seasons of my life, to stop being afraid of it all coming down and all being a meaningless heap… for me, that is liberation from so many fears that I have. It surely is a coherent take on what salvation could really mean.
God bless you all for being here this night. Your part in the great turning of the prayer wheel opens the heart of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit for all of us, and the whole world. Halleluiah! Christ is risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Halleluiah! Happy Easter. AMEN.