Sermon: Great Vigil of Easter
Vigil of Easter
7 April 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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Towards the end of last week's episode of Mad Men, which all the cool people are watching, one of the main characters, beleaguered and exhausted by the dramatic changes within the advertizing agency and in his own and his friends' personal lives and relationships, to say nothing of the vast social and cultural changes surging across 1960's America, which threaten to swamp his settled understanding of the world and his privileged place in it, looks at one of his partners and asks, "When is everything gonna get back to normal?"
Good old normal. Sometimes we crave a little bit of excitement, a change of pace, but mostly as an interlude within "normal." So, for instance, after the holidays, after all the travel and visiting and friends and relatives, we often pronounce ourselves ready and glad for things to get "back to normal." We like these anchors in time.
Two things, it is said, are certain: death and taxes. The days go by, and so we attend to the day's work: "the sun also rises," says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, and it also sets[i] ... you can count on it. That may sound bleak in one sense, but perhaps reassuring in another. "Normal" may lack elation, but there is nonetheless comfort in routine. It may be a little bit pitiful, sure, but it's not surprising that so many of us, like T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, choose to live small, to measure out our lives in coffee spoons.[ii] That way, at least we know what to expect.
We know what to expect. Tonight, with those holy women whom we have read about in the gospel, we have together walked into a darkened graveyard, and we have approached a tomb. And approaching a tomb, a tomb in which just the other day we have placed the doornail-dead body of a tortured and executed man –a great man, to be sure, but any man would do – we know what to expect.
They did, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. They were on their way to complete the burial with the traditional anointings interrupted by the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening. They knew what to expect: a corpse, a lifeless lump who had been their friend, their teacher, but so much more: the living embodiment of all their hopes for a restored and renewed people of God, hopes which, like the body they expected to find, were dead, dead, dead.
And dead people stay dead. That's normal.
But what do these women find as they reach the tomb? It ain't normal. As Dorothy said to Toto, "we're not in Kansas anymore."
Behold there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it ... I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified; he is not here; he is risen.
In a moment, we will – we must! – get to jubilation, to our grateful "Alleluias." But that, I don't think, should be our first reaction to the empty tomb; if it is, I'm not sure we haven't missed something of the reality, of the truth, of the Resurrection.
Jubilation was not, after all, the first reaction of those who were there for the angel's announcement. The guards, manly men that they were, schooled in violence and bloodshed, trembled and became like dead men. St. Matthew doesn't describe the physical reaction of the women, but we may deduce its character from the angel's first words to them: Do not be afraid.
Now, to be sure, cemeteries in the dark are creepy. And an earthquake and an angel whose appearance is like lightening would be enough to discompose anyone. But there's clearly more to it than that. Even after the angel has explained to them that Jesus is alive, St. Matthew tells us that they went on their way with great joy and ... fear. And even after Jesus meets them along the way, and they believe – because seeing and touching and conversing is believing – and after they fall at his feet and worship him ... even then, the Risen Lord must again say to them, Do not be afraid.
These first witnesses to the Resurrection were afraid, and they were right to be. The theologian James Alison put it this way:
"The stone put aside and the absence of the corpse were not in the first instance a motive for rejoicing, but for terror. Terror because what had happened was quite outside anything that could be expected. . . Terror because now there was no security, no rules, nothing normal could be trusted in."
"Whatever Christian hope is," Alison concluded, "it begins in terror and utter disorientation in the face of the collapse of all that is familiar and well known."[iii]
The Resurrection of Jesus is "the collapse of all that is familiar and well known." Well, Professor Alison is a scholar-theologian. I'm just a simple curate, and I'll put it this way: Easter means that Jesus is alive and normal is dead. Nothing, not even death, is certain, and in fact death is defeated, has met its match in Love Himself.
The tomb is empty – empty as in vacant; empty as in powerless. Death – life's great certainty; the most normal, expected, routine, trustworthy thing going, in fact a sure thing, has come untrue in Christ.
And now anything can happen, and love is the winning bet. That stone that lay across the tomb is pushed aside, and so the great rock of despair is blown to bits by the great Yes of the Living God who has given himself to us and for us in Jesus Christ.
Which takes us from fear to joy.
The other day a cousin of mine wrote on the Facebook that he found explaining the Resurrection to his four-year-old daughter exceedingly difficult because now, he said, "she expects to see our beloved but deceased dog Sydney at any moment."
Well, I think it may be that little cousin Claire has a better grasp of the meaning and reality of Easter than many of us often do. She gets it. She may lack a little nuance, but only a little. She has understood the main point: a sure, certain, and joyful hope for you and me and this whole world and everything in it.
Well, Jesus told us that to find his Kingdom we must become like little children, when every day is new and fresh and full of adventure and possibility, full of hope. Like little children.[iv] In fact, he said, you must be born again.[v] Born again, just like our new sister, Sandra, tonight, buried with Christ in baptism, and raised with him to newness of life – a life in which is anything is possible, because Love's victory is sure – in fact, it has already happened, and it is happening, within us, and among us, because...
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[i] Ecclesiastes 1.5
[ii] "For I have known them all already, known them all: / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons..."
[iii] James Alison, Raising Abel. Cited in "Easter Season and Mysterium Tremendum", Matt Emerson, 20 May 2011. http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/05/easter-season-and-mysterium-tremendum
[iv] Mt 18.3, &c.
[v] Jn 3.3