Easter Vigil 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 19, 2014 (Easter Vigil)

Isn’t this just the best? I love this service. It has it all. Fire, water, light, darkness, bread, wine — all the great symbols of our faith. And even some lesser known ones like champagne and jelly beans (later anyway).

unnamedOne of the reasons I so love this liturgy, is that it captures something of the complexity of our relationship with God: there’s fumbling around in the darkness, the genuine possibility that one of us might actually get burned, there’s the power of sacred story and the genuine possibility that one of us might fall asleep, and just when we think we’re out of the water you get drenched by your priests. This is all a wonderful metaphor for our relationship with Jesus. It can be messy and uncomfortable but in the end it spells salvation.

In many ways the Easter Vigil is a “rite of passage.” Not in the conventional sense — though I do think every Christian should experience it. It’s not a rite of passage that keeps us in good social graces with our neighbors; a mere formality, a custom we attend to because tradition so dictates. It’s not a coming of age ritual.

But the Easter Vigil is a rite of passage because it takes us on a journey. The Vigil is a passage from darkness into light. A passage from sin into righteousness. A passage from death into life. A passage from Lent into Easter.

And it’s not always an easy passage. It is fraught with stumbling blocks and obstacles, barriers and snares. Through it we encounter the fallen-ness of humanity in the Garden of Eden and we recognize our own sinfulness. Through it we encounter the stormy waters of the Red Sea and we recognize our own doubts. Through it we encounter Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones and we meet our own fears.

And on this night of passage we come face-to-face with the greatest of all barriers: the Cross of Christ. Throughout Lent the cross looms over us. It is larger than life because it takes away the very life of our Lord. But this is the night we finally see its totality: not merely as a means of death but the very instrument of our salvation. This is the night that, as the community of faith throughout the world, we gain passage through the darkness of fear to the illumination of truth.

But let’s face it, the Vigil is not for everybody. It’s not the best attended service of the year — you can’t exactly show off your new Easter dress in the dark and it’s hard to find a place open for Easter brunch on a Saturday night. Many people have never been to an Easter Vigil and the thought of either not going on Easter Sunday or going to church twice within twelve hours is a bewildering concept. And it takes special people to spend more than an hour in church.

Barbara Harris, the retired suffragan bishop of this diocese and the first female bishop inunnamed the Anglican Communion was fond of saying that as Christians “we are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” I can see that. But if Christians are an Easter people, those of us gathered here tonight are a special subset of this. We are Vigil people (not Village People – that’s something else). And as Vigil people, we gather around the flame, we gather around God’s Word, we gather around the Baptismal font, we gather around the altar, we gather around our risen Lord.

If Easter Day is all about resurrection and joy and chocolate bunnies and big hats, the Easter Vigil is literally and spiritually about the passage, the journey from the cross to the empty tomb. And like staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop and usher in the New Year, we have have stayed up past sundown to watch the Alleluias drop and witness the precise moment when Lent turn to Easter and crucifixion turns to resurrection.

As with any passage, we come to the end of the journey transformed. We are at a different place from where we first embarked. We are indelibly changed. Every journey has its defining moments. Critical times when we decide whether to forge ahead or turn back. It is those moments of introspection that define our lives as Christian people. And when we realize that we could not have endured, except by the grace of God. And when we realize that we could not have kept going, except with God’s help, we have completed the journey. We cannot make this passage without Jesus Christ. He is our guide as well as our savior and redeemer.

And that’s the triumph of Easter – we’re not the ones responsible for this rite of passage. We cast our hopes and fears and sins upon Jesus Christ and he carries us through to the other side. Jesus is the vehicle by which we pass over to the bright light of divine mercy and truth. We’re just along for the ride. Barriers that we couldn’t possibly breach by ourselves are breached for us. And we pass through these barriers, not alone, but with Christ and with one another. And on this night of passage, as this rite of passage nears its destination, our response can only be ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Amen.’

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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Easter Vigil 2006

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 15, 2006. 
 (Easter Vigil, Year B).

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question is asked in Jewish homes at the Seder dinner on Passover. It is traditionally asked by the youngest member of the family, or at least the youngest one who can read it out of the Haggadah. It’s a leading question, of course. A question that can only be answered in the telling of the story of the faith. And on Passover, that story is the seminal event of the Jewish faith: the story of the Exodus out of Egypt. 

For us, this night is also different from all other nights. Not just because your priests get to play with fire. Not just because you get to come to church quite literally “with bells on.” This night is different from all other nights because this is our night of “passover.” The night Jesus Christ passes over from death to life. The night that we, as a church, pass over from Lent to Easter. The night we pass over from darkness to light; from sin to righteousness; from crucifixion to resurrection. The night that, as we hear in the dulcet tones of the exsultet, “Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”

But this passover is not a mere retelling of the story. It’s not just a recounting of past events. We remember the events of that first Easter Day, we read Matthew’s account of what transpired, but it doesn’t end there. Because each year as we gather in vigil, Christ passes over anew. As we gather to tell the stories of our faith from the very beginning of creation, through the rising waters of the flood, the liberating waters of the Red Sea, the sacramental waters of Baptism straight through to the empty tomb, Christ passes over 

anew. And we are all along for the passover journey. We are not passive observers, but active participants with Christ along the way. For we worship a living God. A God who transcends all time and space. A God made manifest though the Word, through the bread and wine of the eucharist, and through the reflection of God’s love in each one of us. A God through whom we live and move and have our being.

I love this service. It’s the heart of who we are and what we do as Christians. And it’s got all the great symbols of our faith: fire, water, light, darkness, bread, wine. And even some lesser known ones like champagne and jelly beans (later anyway). But the Vigil is not for everybody. It’s not the best attended service of the year. Many people have never been to an Easter Vigil and the thought of either not going on Easter Sunday or going to church twice within twelve hours is a bewildering concept. And it takes special people to spend more than an hour in church. Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion was fond of saying that as Christians “we are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” I can see that. But if Christians are an Easter people, we are a special subset of this. We are Vigil people (not Village People – that’s something else). And as Vigil people, we gather around the flame, we gather around God’s Word, we gather around the Baptismal font, we gather around the altar. This is what Christ calls us to do: to gather around him. To gather around the risen Christ to hear the story of faith and then share the resurrection with one another and with others. 

If Easter Day is all about resurrection and joy and chocolate bunnies and big hats, the Easter Vigil is literally about the pass over. And it’s an important piece of the story; a critical piece of the journey from the cross to the empty tomb. For those of us who are here this evening, this is Easter! The tomb is empty, Christ has been raised, the passover from death to life is complete. I think I’ll sleep in tomorrow (well, maybe not).

This night is different from all other nights. “For this is the Passover of the Lamb, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his sacraments, we share in his victory over death.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

Easter Vigil 2010

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 3, 2010 (Easter Vigil)

The Easter Vigil is a “rite of passage.” Not in the conventional sense. It’s not a mere formality, a custom we attend to because tradition so dictates. It’s not a rite of passage that keeps us in good social graces with our neighbors. It’s not a coming of age ritual. The Easter Vigil is a rite of passage because it takes us on a journey. The Vigil is a passage from darkness into light. A passage from sin into righteousness. A passage from Lent into Easter. A passage from death into life. And so, it is literally and spiritually a rite of passage

And it’s not an easy passage. It is fraught with stumbling blocks and obstacles, barriers and snares. Through it we encounter the fallen-ness of humanity in the Garden of Eden and we recognize our own sinfulness. Through it we encounter a great flood and we encounter our own feelings of helplessness. Through it we encounter the stormy waters of the Red Sea and we recognize our own doubts. Through it we encounter Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones and we encounter our own fears.

The Exsultet, that ancient hymn of praise, makes clear that the actions of tonight aren’t merely a memorial of what happened 2,000 years ago but are in fact taking place right now. The refrain “This is the night” effects we are fully a part of this pass-over from death to life. And so this is the night that, along with Christians throughout the world, we gain passage through the darkness of fear to the illumination of truth. This is the night we finally see the cross in its totality: not merely a means of death but the instrument of our salvation. 

This is the night the walls and barriers come tumbling down. Barriers that keep us from the love of God, barriers that keep us from fully loving one another. This is the night the scales drop from our eyes. And we pass over from the old way of sin and death to new life in Christ. The sting of death is taken away, the grave is conquered and we thank God for leading us out of the slavery of sinfulness and into the freedom of forgiveness. Out of the wilderness of fear and into the Promised Land of love.

One of the reasons I so love this Vigil service is that we experience the whole scope of the Christian life. It’s not all about the brutality and guilt of the Passion; but it’s also not exclusively about the unbounded joy of Easter Day. The Christian experience is a life-long passage. There are periods of darkness and despair and doubt. But there are also periods of exhilaration and triumph and joy. And this night captures something of the complexity of our relationship with our risen Lord: there’s fumbling around in the darkness, the genuine possibility that one of us might actually get burned, there’s the power of sacred story and the genuine possibility that one of us might fall asleep, and just when we think we’re out of the water we get drenched with it. This is all a wonderful metaphor for our relationship with Jesus. It can be messy and uncomfortable but in the end it spells salvation. When we keep vigil with Christ and one another, we open ourselves to the possibilities and surprises of the fullness of relationship with God.

And in this sense, not only is this Vigil service a rite of passage, our entire lives as Christians are rites of passages. Passages from the temporal to the eternal. Passages from this life to the next. Passages from one liturgical season to another. We are a journeying people; our bags are always packed. We are always in transition. But the joy of the journey is that Christ is with us at every step of the way. Through the darkness of the shadow of death, the light of Christ burns ever more intensely. Through pain and grief we are never forsaken. He is our hope and salvation. 

As with any passage, we come to the end of the journey transformed. We are at a different place from where we first embarked. We are indelibly changed. Every journey has its defining moments. Critical times when we decide whether to forge ahead or turn back. It is these moments of introspection that define our lives as Christian people. And when we realize that we could not have endured, except by the grace of God; and when we realize that we could not have kept going, except with God’s help, then and only then have we completed the journey. We cannot make this passage without Jesus Christ. He is our guide and leader as well as our savior and redeemer.

And that’s the triumph of Easter – we’re not the ones responsible for this rite of passage. We cast our hopes and fears and sins upon Jesus Christ and he carries us through to the other side. Jesus is the vehicle by which we pass over from darkness to the bright light of divine mercy and truth. We’re just along for the ride. Barriers that we couldn’t possibly breach by ourselves are breached for us. And we pass through these barriers, not alone, but with Christ and with one another. And on this night of passage, as this rite of passage nears its destination, our response can only be ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Amen.’

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010

Easter Vigil 2003

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 19, 2003. 
Based on Mathew 28:1-10  (Easter Vigil, Year B).

Fear and joy. They don’t usually go together. Fear and trembling maybe. Comfort and joy perhaps. But fear and joy don’t usually end up in the same phrase. They aren’t natural partners. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. Fear and joy are seemingly opposites. And yet that’s exactly what John tells us the women experienced at the entrance to the empty tomb. Fear and joy. This combination doesn’t seem to make much sense.

But then on the surface of things, the whole Christian faith doesn’t seem to make much sense either. Light and dark, death and resurrection, sin and forgiveness. Like fear and joy, they just don’t seem to go together. If something is so full of joy, how could you be fearful? If something frightens you, how could also make you joyful? Time and again, the Christian Gospel tosses out our preconceived notions about what should or should not go together. If the cross itself can be both an instrument of death and the source of our salvation, why can’t fear and joy go together?

Tonight, with countless others throughout the world and throughout the great span of all time, we have kept vigil. And when we keep vigil, we watch. We are vigilant in our prayers and in our anticipation. We keep vigil because we are people of hope. And as Christians our entire lives are, in a very real sense, vigils. We wait, we watch, we anticipate relationship and reunion with the risen Christ. We keep this lifelong vigil fearfully at times, joyfully at others. But in fear and joy we do keep it. 

There is fear in the unknown. The women at the tomb, and the disciples themselves, were entering into a new relationship with Jesus, an unknown relationship based firmly upon the mystery of the resurrection. And Jesus himself recognizes and anticipates this fear. His first words to the two Marys are “Do not be afraid.” Yet despite their fear, Jesus is also the very source of their great and utter joy. He is risen. The relationship they had had with Jesus is forever changed. But the magnificent possibilities and wonder of this new relationship are most joyful.

Vigil also involves journey. And tonight we have experienced a great journey. We have traveled through darkness to light, from creation to redemption, from grave to resurrection, from death to life. We have moved a great distance, together, as companions on the way with Jesus as our guide. We have moved from the wilderness of darkness into the promised land of light. Literally, figuratively, and joyfully. 

We have walked with Jesus, with the women at the tomb, with Christians throughout the ages, and with one another. The exsultet, the ancient hymn that began our liturgy, sings time and again about “this holy night.” Christ is raised from the dead on this very night. We’re not merely remembering something that took place 2000 years ago. We are actually passing with Christ through death to life. How, exactly, I’m not sure. But our participation here on this holy night with one another in the presence of Christ contributes to the mystery that is Christ’s death and resurrection. We are active participants, not passive observers. And thanks be to God for drawing us into this most holy mystery on this most holy night.

Fear and joy do go together. We’ll find out after the service if champagne and jelly beans actually go together as well. (We’re either starting a tradition tonight or we’re in the market for a new one). As with death and resurrection, God takes over our limited human perspective and replaces it with the divine one, a view from above that always keeps us guessing but never ceases to amaze. May God grant us the eyes to see and the ears to hear this most joyful news: He is risen.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003