Great Vigil of Easter
Folks who have seen a Vigil before, I hope that you can hear something new and experience the liturgy in a way that you haven’t before. For you who are watching online who have never been part of the Great Easter Vigil before, I trust you will find something to commend to others who have not yet shared in our Easter joy. The Easter Vigil is first among the greatest hits of the Episcopal Church liturgies that are renowned for their depth and breadth. But we must take care that we do not make the liturgy an idol because no liturgy nor any faith tradition can contain Almighty God. What our liturgy does, certainly tonight, is reveal the beauty, mystery, majesty, and power of God’s redeeming work in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Exsultet – the exaltation of God in Christ – is the Vigil liturgy in miniature. Jim, thank you for chanting the Exsultet so beautifully which you have done, I think, each Vigil since my arrival here at St. James; this is my 8th. The Exsultet is one of those amazing moments in the life of the church that, through the strength of its honest beauty, reveals as much as human words can, the saving love of God that became complete in the Resurrection of Jesus. We fly tonight on the arc of a Christian story that is Christ’s transforming journey from Cross to death; death to tomb; tomb and death to darkness; darkness and death to life and light eternal.
“This is the night”, cries the Exsultet, “when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt ...
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to holiness and grace …
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away …
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and humanity is reconciled to God.”
“Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor … May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it always burning …”
Christ has broken out of the prison tomb of death and has brought us, complete and total prisoners to a thousand kinds of death…He has brought us with Him. Christ, in Resurrection, has shattered the prison of death and with Him we pass from death to life. What a crazy, nearly unbelievable transformation from darkness to light.
Yet again, tonight’s blessing and joy is not contained in the liturgy but in Matthew’s story of a group of women and an empty tomb. The Mary’s and other women, who have cared for Jesus in life, stayed with Him during the horrible hours at Calvary, watching where he was buried, have come to His tomb. They are wracked with grief, sorrow, and mourning the likes of which probably only a few of us can begin to imagine. They had not simply lost a friend, teacher, or loved one but He who they believed was Messiah. So, they come to cover His body with spices, ointment and their own tears, attending to their Lord even in death, all the healing gone from his lifeless body.
But their sorrow is transformed into something else; their loss is suddenly made different as they encounter the angels where they expect Jesus’ body to be. The voice of the angelic one reverberates in the empty tomb and throughout all the hearing world: “He is not here! He is risen! And he goes out ahead of you ...” The Risen Christ, already, is transforming their darkness to something else. Could it be, they wonder? What is happening? And they flee the tomb, with fear and great joy, Matthew tells us. A strange combination of emotions, yes?! They wonder what this angelic revelation could mean for their lives and then they run into Jesus, risen, alive, and transformed. Their grief is now completely remade into joy and their only response, as for any of us when we truly encounter the risen Lord, is to fall down and worship. To encounter Jesus, who is risen, is journey from darkness, sadness, and confusion to unimaginable joy.
This night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered – restored to grace.
This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious.
He is Risen!! Christ’s arc is complete. Yes, we will repeat this liturgy again and again, as we come to the Eucharist again and again. Our life is a loop of light, joy, and darkness and death. Christ’s Resurrection does not mean we are free from challenge, from pain, from sin. But our trust in the Redeeming life of God in the Resurrected Christ means we are saved, we are love, we are held, and we are free. He is risen. This is the night. Thanks be to God.