Monday, April 21, 2014

The Vigil Sermon: "How wonderful, how holy, how blessed, how ... strange"

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Aleluya, Cristo ha resucitado!

"He is not here: he has been raised." We have arrived at last at the joy of Easter. It's been a long Holy Week, and a long Vigil service tonight, but now here we are, the lights are on, the bells are rung, the Alleluia is back, and Christ is risen. Don't forget, by the way, to tweet your joy, or post it on Facebook for your non-church-going friends.

This is a very strange night. We began in darkness, with the new fire and the ancient hymn, the Exsultet, ringing out in the shadows. Did you catch the patterns of three that repeated over and over? The three commands to Rejoice - heavenly hosts, all the round earth, Mother Church; the three attributes of God - invisible, almighty, and eternal; the night of three commemorations: Exodus, restoration of the faithful, and Christ's victory over the grave; the threefold description: how wonderful, how holy, how blessed is this night. And we might add, how strange. But no stranger than the means and people that God employs to redeem the world: floods, bones, outcasts, slaves, and - us. God's ways are strange indeed.

How strange is this night, this liturgy. You might think, from the way we carry on tonight, that the resurrection is happening now, tonight, that this isn't simply a commemoration of something that happened 2000 years ago, but is a new experience, not just a remembering but a re-membering, a reconstruction of the event, a re-experience of what the very first Christians experienced on that very first Easter.

New studies of the brain using functional MRI's have revealed that, once we have witnessed an event of great emotional significance, when we see a re-enactment of that event, the neurons in our brain fire up in exactly the same patterns as they did during the original event. It's the same principle as PTSD. Athletes watching a NCAA playoff, musicians in the audience at a concert, those who have been inside a similar event, actually re-experience the event as they watch, as it replays in their brains. As an orchestral musician I know that feeling; when I listen to a piece I know and love, I play along in my head. I don't just hear the music; I experience it again from the inside.

When the body of Christ re-members the Easter event, we who are members of that body experience it again from the inside. It really is Easter for us; Christ was in the tomb an hour ago but he is now risen. Our liturgy leads us from chaos to creation, from darkness to light, from dry bones to new life, from the grave to eternal life, from the corpse to the risen and mystical presence of our Lord. It is a strange night indeed, as we enter deeply into the power of life's triumph over death, love's triumph over fear, God's strange victory of weakness over brute strength. We might apply the metaphor of birth: the church's dark womb brings us forth into light and life. We are reborn as children of God, children of resurrection. The church, like an inverted Ark, shelters us from all that is to be feared: the dark, the tomb, the enemy that crouches outside the door. Being born again, born of the Spirit: this is a powerful and strange metaphor. How strange is this night; how strange is our God.

As we rejoice with those who have just been reborn through the sacrament of baptism, let me give you a glimpse of what new Christians might have experienced in the early days of the Easter Vigil, back in the 4th century.*

It's been a long journey since you first expressed a desire to become a Christian. After three years of study, prayer, and practice, at last you are declared ready to be baptized. You have never been allowed to stay in the church after the reading of the Word of God; you have only the haziest notion of what happens at the Eucharist, because nobody talks about it. Lent has been a time of intensive prayer and self-deprivation, with several exorcism sessions during the six weeks. On Holy Saturday you are hungry, exhausted, you've been fasting for days, not even bathing during Holy Week, and you are told to gather with your fellow candidates in the wee hours before dawn at the baptistry, an octagonal building separate from the church proper where the congregation has been sitting all night, keeping Vigil, hearing one after another the stories of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The bishop enters in his splendid robes. He orders the baptismal candidates to strip: everything, both clothing and jewelry comes off, as you let go of all that ties you to the old life; deacons and deaconesses shield the modesty of one sex from the other. The deacons and deaconesses rub you down with olive oil. Feeling vulnerable and apprehensive, you are examined by the Bishop: do you believe ...? Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Recite the Lord's Prayer. Now renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil. When your turn comes, you are led down into the baptismal pool; the water is heated for the occasion. You are plunged down under the water three times, with barely time to catch your breath in between. Then you are assisted up and out of the pool, and one of the deacons pours a whole jug of expensively perfumed olive oil over your head, enveloping you in the fragrance and sensation of the oil.

Stepping carefully on the slippery tile, another deacon drapes a loose white garment over your head, as the next candidate is immersed. When all have been baptized, anointed, and clothed in the shining robe of the believer, the whole group, led by the deacons and deaconesses singing an Easter hymn, marches outside into the dawn's early light and then into the church where the lights blaze forth and everyone takes up the hymn. You are thoroughly congratulated by your fellow Christians, all of whom want to touch you and thereby receive some of that blessed oil for themselves. All exchange the kiss of peace. And at last the culmination of the whole process: the mystery of the Eucharist is revealed to you: you receive your first Communion: the bread, the wine, and, for those just baptized, the milk and honey mixture that denotes your arrival in the promised land of eternal life.

Now, THAT is a Great Vigil.

The first funeral I ever officiated was on Tuesday of Holy Week. It was a brilliant, breezy spring morning in New England, with daffodils waving madly in the wind, carpeting the little cemetery. I was called to bury a homeless man who had died of AIDS, surrounded by his friends from the transitional housing program that was helping them to make new lives, after losing just about everything. As we grieved Cliff's death and celebrated his life we also celebrated the new life that was just beginning for so many of his friends, a new life of being clean and sober, a new intentionality, on that spring morning when all the world around us felt new. Death and birth, the old and the new, one springing forth from the other, as Christ springs forth from the grave. As we join in the unending chorus of praise that Christians have sung throughout the ages, we see that death is not the ending, but the beginning. The Paschal candle that burns tonight, at the baptismal liturgy of new birth, will also burn at our funerals. Baptism is a dying and a birth all at once.

In the Easter Gospel, the guards who are assigned to the tomb are overcome by fear when the angel appears to roll back the stone. But the message to the women and to the disciples is "Do not be afraid". We have already died with Christ; we are raised with Christ. There is nothing left to fear. The resurrection means that everything is different. God has transformed our greatest fear into our greatest joy. As we entered into the darkness of the tomb in Holy Week, so now we have emerged into the light; as St. Paul puts it, "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."

How strange, how wonderful, how holy, how blessed is this night, for darkness has been vanquished and we are reconciled to God.

Aleluya, Cristo a resucitado!

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, April 19 2014
Penelope Bridges

* The description of a 4th-century baptism draws heavily on Aidan Cavanaugh's article "A Rite of Passage" in Gabe Huck, "The Three Days: parish prayer in the Paschal Triduum" (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1978).

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