Sermon for Easter Vigil, April 11th, 2020 YR A
Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as “Resurrection,” is an incredibly rich and complex piece of music that captures the full realm of human passion and emotion in its five movements. For many listeners, in an almost mystical way, it engenders a profound sense of hopefulness. Leonard Bernstein suggested that the reason for the initial rejection of Mahler’s music might be that it “simply hit too close to home, touched too deeply on people’s concerns and their fears about life and death. It simply was too true—telling something too dreadful to hear.
Although completed in 1895, Mahler sensed the imminent upheavals that were about to shatter the rationality and optimism that had driven Western civilization prior to the First World War. He was on a spiritual quest that reflects an ambivalence to joy and pain, faith and doubt, transcendence and perdition—an ambivalence that we know all too well in our own time. Some scholars think that Mahler had a prescient insight that enabled him to compose a source of hope even while facing the end of everything that his age valued, even while both culture and governments were on the brink of collapse.
After composing the first three movements, Mahler added one of the most beautiful and inspiring songs he ever wrote: Urlicht, best translated as “Primal Light.” The appearance, for the first time in the Symphony, of the human voice, very soft and in a low register, is quite staggering. The contralto gives voice to the naïve and introspective words of simple faith. Amazingly, we hear an echo of Jesus’ words that we read this past Maundy Thursday from John’s Gospel. At the Last Supper, just before washing his disciples’ feet, we are told that Jesus knew that he had come from God and was going to God.” These are the very words which Mahler uses to introduce the vast finale which depicts the full terror and glory of judgment and resurrection.
In 1894, Mahler attended the memorial service for the noted conductor, Hans von Bülow, both a supporter and critic of the young composer. He writes of his sense of shock: “The choir, in the organ-loft, sang the ‘Resurrection’ chorale. It was like a flash of lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind.” This chorale became Mahler’s great testament to resurrection. The choir sings a cappella and pianissimo: “Rise again, yes, you shall rise again.” In perilous times, as Western Europe moved to the breaking point of world war, in the face of a society on the verge of collapse, Mahler embraces words of faith and hope:
Believe this: You were not born in vain!
You have not lived and suffered in vain!
. . . Fear no longer! Prepare yourself to live!
Perhaps it is only when we find ourselves at the breaking point, when we are in crisis, when we are confronted with our mortality, that we are most likely to experience a personal sense of hope. I can tell you, both from personal experience and from many years of pastoral ministry, that we can best know hope when all of the indicators lead to despair. I’m not talking about wishful thinking here. I’m talking about that hope that springs up deep within us when we are stripped of our normal defenses and confronted with our worst fears.
“Do not be afraid!” were the most important words spoken on that first Easter morning. “Do not be afraid!” is what the angel said to the two women who came to the tomb of Jesus, only to find it empty. Not knowing what to make of this, they left the tomb as the angel had instructed them and set out for Galilee to tell the disciples. When Jesus met the frightened women along the way, he too said to them, “Do not be afraid!”
What is it that gives us hope? Nearly two millennia after the fact, what is it that allows us to have faith in the resurrection? What is it that sets aside our fears? The great theologian and bishop of the fourth century, John Chrsystom, once said in an Easter homily: “We know that Christ is risen because we see him rise from the tomb of the font. Christians throughout the world have seen Jesus rise on this night—in all those who are baptized into new life in Christ.
On this night we have rehearsed the story of our redemption from the initial moment of creation until God raised Jesus from the dead and the whole creation was made new. Let these great stories of salvation remind us of the hope that we share through our baptism. But let us remember that we too are united to Jesus in his dying and rising through the font, through the renewal of our own baptismal covenant. From this moment on, let us proclaim that “Christ is risen!” not simply in words, but by allowing the world to see that Jesus lives in you.