A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, Connecticut for the Great Vigil of Easter, March 26, 2016 ( Roman 6:3-11 and Matthew 28:1-10)
Why is this night different than all other nights? That is the ultimate question to be asked by the youngest male as Jewish families gather on the night of Passover. For them, it is a series of nights to remember how their ancestors, the Israelites, were liberated from slavery. It is a spring festival, with the words “to pass,” “to spring over,” or “to spare” translated from the word pesach. Throughout history, and even today, this is a commemorative occasion, reminding the children of Israel of their deliverance out of Egypt.
For us Christians, tonight is also a night different than all nights. It, too, is a night of remembrance. We might have begun our liturgy asking, “Why is this night different above all other nights?” And the answer we could receive is very similar. It is about an all-night storytelling session about who we are and where we came from. It is about death, as well as life. But this time it is our re-membering, our re-constructing in our hearts and minds the great deliverance we have received from Jesus Christ – the Messiah who has brought all his people from the doom of death on account of sin, and from the bondage of sin itself – something much worse than Egyptian bondage.
It is a night of Alpha and Omega. Beginning and end. From darkness to light.
I invite you to imagine with me, a remembrance I have of an Easter Vigil service held about thirty-five years ago. John and I arrived at Emmanuel Church in Killingworth – one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Connecticut, built in 1800. A small clapboard building, it didn’t have electricity until 1970, with indoor plumbing installed in 1987. The sun had just set as we parked in the dirt lot and gathered with a large group of people milling outside. It was dark, and we were in an unfamiliar place. We were there to make baptismal promises on behalf of our soon-to-be goddaughter, Jennifer.
In the darkness, a bonfire was kindled, and we gathered around this new fire to begin our vigil and prayer. We were preparing ourselves for the long night ahead, listening to hearing God’s word of salvation history, celebrating the Sacraments, and sharing in Christ’s victory over death. Just as tonight, we began our journey with the lighting of the Pascal Candle, tracing the marks of the Alpha and Omega. As we chanted “The Light of Christ” and “Thanks be to God,” as we steadily streamed into the totally darkened sanctuary, where the only light we had were the candles we held.
And out of the darkness came the Word of God. Candles were lit in the windows and at the lectern. Otherwise, the only thing you could see were people’s faces, lit by the candles they held. We sat and listened. We stood and sang. As we listened to each of the nine readings – yes, all of them were read in their entirety – we heard the story of God’s people and how they turned their lives around and back toward God. These are readings of earth, air, water, and fire; God’s relationship is bound up with us in creation and the continual renewal of the earth.
The first four readings emphasized the memories associated with God’s past actions – the creation of the world; the flood and God’s promises never to destroy the earth again; Abraham’s trust in God so much to be willing to sacrifice his son Isaac; and how Israel was delivered at the Red Sea from Pharaoh’s army under the leadership of Moses. There is a dramatic shift after these readings from “remember what God has done” to “hear what God is going to do” – the future promises of God – in the next set of readings. Only as we recall the past actions of God can we have confidence in God’s promises for the future. So our promises come from Isaiah, in which it is declared that salvation is freely offered to all, and we hear of the gift of Wisdom from either Baruch or Proverbs. We hear the words from the prophets declaring we are to receive a new heart and a new spirit, that what was once dead and dry will come to new life, filled with the breath of the Spirit. And lastly, we are all invited home, all being made new and gathered by God to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.
All of this in darkness, except for the flickering of candles, wax dripping, making its marks on the paper circles to protect our hands. At that point, all of us who were sponsors or parents gathered with the candidates around the font at the front of the church. If I recall, there were about twenty individuals – infants, children, and adults ready to be baptized. It took a long time.
In the early Church, this was a time when catechumens (those adults who had spent many months, if not years, being prepared to accept Christ as their Savior), were to be baptized in the presence of the sponsors and teachers. Candidates would walk down some steps into a large pool. As candidates were lowered into the water, totally from head to toe, they would remember the words about dying with Christ in baptism so that they could be raised with Christ in his resurrection. They were given white robes to wear after their immersion and anointing with oil and then were led out the other end of the pool to meet the congregation that was assembled in another room to share in the Holy Eucharist for the first time.
Just like in the early Church, in Killington that night it had a powerful effect. Through the centuries around the world, this a night in which we are asked questions about which way we are facing in our life and whom we are following. We will soon be invited to turn away from sin, darkness, and evil, and turn towards Christ. He is the one we are invited to follow.
That is what we do when we renew our baptismal promises. The Gospel is then proclaimed. In Killingworth the candles on the altar were then lit and we proceeded to share in the bread and body, blood and wine of Christ. Then – 2,000 years ago and 35 years ago – and just now, we have made our pilgrimage home to Christ.
Through our baptism we have shared in the death of Christ; our “old self” or former way of living dies. And each time we partake of the symbols instituted by Jesus, we again participate and share in his death. For the Christian, the meaning of Passover is that it is a reminder of the commitment made to God at baptism. It was close to midnight when the service ended in Killingworth. By then all the lights had been turned on and we could see the transformation of the sanctuary – filled with flowers.
The good news about Jesus has reached us through the darkness that night – as it does tonight. Our relationship, going back to creation, has been renewed and reborn. In Jesus, God has become one with us so that we can become one with God. And for that we should not live in fear, in life or in death – but in hope and possibility.
The Gospel of Matthew suggests that creation itself was the first to know that the Lord had risen. The earth erupts in astonishment as the angel descends from above to deliver the heavenly message. The angel’s calm assurance contrasts with the chaos of the earthquake and the terror of the guards. Perhaps this assurance can come to us this evening following another week of terrorism, fear, and death that permeates the times in which we currently live. Many would like us to live in fear. But the power of lightning and with clothing as white as snow, we know have a new light, one that shows God’s compassion and power, made manifest it in the paschal mysteries of life-in and out of-death.
Tonight is a night different from any other night. For we know that Christ is risen from the dead, and we are alive to God in Christ Jesus. Nothing can separate us from that reality. Not fear, terrorism, or the unknown. For all is known and saved in Christ. And for that we can shout, “Alleluia! He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”