Year B, Easter Vigil April 4, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
We’ve made another pilgrimage together through the trials and tribulations of Holy Week. We’ve made right through today, Holy Saturday, our collective dark night of the soul, darkest as it usually is right before dawn. But we have made it to those flames lit at 8:12 PM, the end of civil twilight today, to this the vigil of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Easter has arrived. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
This whole cycle, the church year as a whole, and particularly the drama of Holy Week, it sure mimics life, doesn’t it? Ups and downs. Sorrows and joys. We laughed a little and cried a little. For those who need to be lifted up; up you go. Those who need to be brought down a notch; come this way please, your place is back here in the cheap seats with us.
The liturgical theatrics of this week dramatize a full, organic life, and the story we just heard, the conclusion to St. Mark’s gospel, it is a microcosm of the whole in those eight little versus. You see, tonight, as we rekindle the light of Christ, as we retell the histories and recall the memories of God leading our ancestors to salvation, we are led to exactly the same place that Mary Magdalene, James’ mother Mary and Salome were led to: an empty tomb. That is what this Vigil is about, that empty tomb.
Such terrible things had happened. Their friend and rabbi was betrayed, tortured, executed in as horrendous a manner as the Empire could come up with. The friends, the disciples, they were scattered. Even Peter His rock had denied Him. It couldn’t get worse.
To be clear, they should have been prepared for this. Jesus had said that they would take Him; that He would die. He had told them that He had faith in God, and that God would not forsake Him and that the death of a righteous one, a lamb among wolves, that His death would destroy death, would change things, would change everything! He said that, He promised that none of this was in vain, but He said a lot of things. And after the horrors of that week, He couldn’t have meant it would be that bad, right? Who could hold all His stories, His promises after all of that? All was lost. That is what it must have looked like to the remnant that remained, bleak as a New England November. So what to do? Well, those women, those faithful women who remained, what did they do? They did what needed to be done.
They gathered those spices as soon as the sun set, then at first light set out to do the grim and dirty work of preparing a body for its final rest. Dead two days in that climate? And a body whose integrity was already violated by the scourge and the cross, it would have been going off fast. Those spices would be wrapped in the linens around the body to mask the stench of death. Remember, they fully expected His broken body to be there, a resurrection was the last thing on their minds… But it wasn’t there; He wasn’t there. A young man, dressed in white, he was there. An angel? I don’t know. But he told them, “He has been raised; he is not here…” And what could they do? They were seized by “terror and amazement” and they fled and said nothing.
From the zenith of the Jesus movement in their entrance into Jerusalem, to the crushing defeat and scattering at the foot of the cross, to this, a Risen Lord, not seen but proclaimed by an angel, all in the course of a week? Fleeing in terror and amazement seems a pretty reasonable response.
We have the model of Christ the suffering servant, turning the other cheek, healing and loving God and neighbor to the end. We have the model of perfect obedience of the Blessed Virgin Mary, His mother, “Be it unto me according to your word.” And we as Christians have another model of right and moral conduct in this world, another road map to the Commonwealth of God: Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Salome.
So many of us cringe at the cross. It offends our sensibilities. The thought of a blood soaked corpus on the cross curdles our insides, as does so much of the suffering of the world. We avert our eyes from the disfigured. We avoid the sick like the plague. Failure, poverty, destitution and depravation, grief and brokenness and addiction and loss… Life is hard. Even for us, living in this little bubble of advanced civilization where we don’t need to worry about all sorts of things that humans everywhere and forever have had to worry about, we too suffer. Decay and death; loss and grief; violence and want; loneliness and stress and God forsakenness. No matter how much sugar we coat it, no matter how highly polished our middle class veneers of perfection and stability are, we all encounter as one writer beautifully puts it, “…the full weight of life’s intermittent but inevitable horrors.”
Life, life fully lived is raw. It is unfiltered. Naked. It has a smell. (It sounds like an ad for organic kombucha). But that’s fitting, I suppose, as life lived in accordance with the will of God is organic; the cycle of sprout to compost, cradle to grave over and over and over again. That is what those women teach us. That is what God in Christ is teaching us as they set about to complete the unpleasant and necessary work that they intended to do at the tomb.
Jesus Christ was arrested, bound and hauled away in the middle of the night. They did not avert their eyes. He was tried, tortured by his own people and then by the Empire. They did not avert their eyes. Jesus Christ hung on the cross unto death; again, they did not avert their eyes. And they gathered the spices, they mustered their courage so they could again, not avert their eyes as they crawled through the dark towards God, expecting, prepared to find corpse starting to rot in a tomb, and what did they find? Not what they were expecting. The tomb was empty. They could not fathom the gravity of the situation, the miracle that had happened, the shift in the nature of the world (that would take another couple of decades for people to begin to apprehend what had happened, another century or two for things to really start to make sense). So, they fled, what else could they do, the tomb was empty, but never, not once over this whole movement from Palm Sunday to this very moment, never once did they avert their eyes.
“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.” That is how the Exsultet puts it. And one of the most desperately important ways we affect that reconciliation, that we make it happen, that we bring the commonwealth of God into being is by following the lead of those women and not averting our eyes from the true nature of things.
We all vacillate between facing the world with eyes wide open taking it all in and closing them tight, denying what is actually going on around us. In some moments we look out from the watchtower with enthusiasm and energy and in others bury our heads as deeply as the sand will allow; just as we sometimes carry that cross right behind Christ while other times are hewing one out of a tree for Him.
We need to follow those three women to Jesus Christ through the stark reality of the empty tomb. We need to see the world for what it actually is. We need to do what needs doing. We need to see through the gloom and clouds directly overhead to the brilliant sun that is always, always shining upon us. This is the Way, the Truth and the Life offered by Jesus Christ. He offers the blessed assurance that we can in fact handle the truth, and if that is not salvation, I don’t know what is. Jesus Christ promises and teaches us to the end with that empty tomb that we don’t have to avert our eyes. We can take it, we can take it all in, we can see the world, our selves and our lives and the lives of those we share them with, we can see the whole thing, we must see the whole thing. And when we can’t take it, when the devastation and loss it too much, when we descend from sickness unto death, when we approach a tomb expecting to find a friend’s dead body, ravaged by empire and death, that is exactly when Jesus Christ arises just as He rose from that grave. The light of the Morning Star shines continuously, driving out all darkness. Suffering and death are still there, but their power over us, our fear of them, is vanquished. Suffering and death still exist, unpleasantly but organically, but in this light, in the light of our Savior Jesus Christ, we just might do less evil in our panic to drive those inevitable horrors away. This is the fruit of the empty tomb. This is what we get when we do not avert our eyes. It might not be what we are looking for, but it is precisely what God offers in our Risen Lord.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Happy Easter. AMEN.