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).
One 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 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, 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