The Easter Vigil

We love Easter! We love the opportunity to get dressed up, to come to a packed church and sing the Easter hymns, full of joy and celebration at the end of a long, dreary, and penitential Lent. We want to shout Alleluia and rejoice with all of our hearts and souls. We want to hear again the familiar story of the resurrection and the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. We want all that—but Mark doesn’t give it to us.

Instead of stories about the Risen Christ’s appearance to disciples, to Mary and Peter, Mark gives us only an empty tomb and those disturbing last words. Tonight’s gospel reading seems to leave us in the same uncertainty, with the same questions that we had on Good Friday. What is the meaning of the cross? Who is this Jesus Christ? What happened? What does it all mean? For Mark’s answers to those questions, we need to look not here, in the story of the resurrection, but go back to Good Friday and the cross.

In a way, however, our whole service to this point has been answering these questions, and answering them in ways consistent with Mark’s understanding of Jesus. The drama of the Great Vigil of Easter, like the lighting of the paschal candle from the new fire and the slow steady, brightening of the church symbolizes a central paradox of our faith.

Deacon Lee begin our service with the simple chanted phrase “The Light of Christ.” The paschal candle which we lit for the first time tonight, will burn at every service throughout the great fifty days of Easter, and in the coming year at every baptism and funeral. It will serve constantly as a reminder of our resurrection faith. It serves that way tonight.

But the flickering light of the candle is a powerful symbol that our resurrection faith, no matter how powerful, is still a fragile thing. It cannot, of itself, transform the darkness of this night into the bright light of day. That, I think, is part of the reason for Mark’s writing his gospel in the way he did. It’s not that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection; it’s that he thought the resurrection was not meant to make our faith, our Christian lives, easier. Quite the contrary.

Everything in his story is geared toward making it harder for us. He begins with an empty tomb. As I always ask people when we are talking about the resurrection, what is the obvious explanation for an empty tomb. If you were to read a story in tomorrow’s Greenville news about a grave down in Woodlawn Cemetery that was empty, no one would think a resurrection had occurred. No, everyone would suspect, we would all assume, that the body had been stolen. And we’ve had enough macabre stories in the Greenville News in the last few years to make that utterly believable.

So there’s an empty tomb, and a young man who tells a group of women that the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen from the dead. And they don’t tell anyone; they are full of fear. It’s a story that is meant to make us think nothing happened.

And here we are, a little band of people gathered together to celebrate in the midst of darkness the miracle of the resurrection. All around us in Greenville, is a perfectly ordinary Saturday night. Most people, even  most of St. James’ parishioners are going about their regular routine for a Saturday, perhaps dinner and a movie, perhaps a party, perhaps a quiet night at home. They are oblivious to what’s going on here. Most of them probably have no idea. Almost every time I tell someone about the Great Vigil, even cradle Episcopalians, or long time members of St. James, the overwhelming majority will say they’ve never heard of it. They have no idea what we are doing here tonight. Most of them have no idea we are even here.

That’s one of the things I love about the vigil. In spite of the fact that our church, most churches will be full tomorrow, in spite of the fact that most people in Greenville county label themselves Christian, for one night a year, this night, in many ways we are like the early Christians.

Certainly our worship tonight is very like the worship of the early Christians. Our liturgy tonight goes back to the first centuries of our faith. We are here to celebrate the resurrection of Christ in a way and in a world that wants to do things very differently.

Like the flickering of the paschal candle in a dark night, like the wavering voice of our deacon chanting, “The Light of Christ” our faith in the resurrection is a fragile thing. We look for evidence of the Risen Christ but everywhere we look, the certain proof of Christ’s rising eludes us. Christians look to the miraculous—the shroud of Turin, or the endless quest for the burial place of Jesus. Instead, we are left with faint traces. A story in Mark about an empty tomb, with no companion story of an appearance of the Risen Christ to his disciples.

We look for certainty, but instead we find emptiness, the emptiness of the tomb. And we also hear the words of the young man. He is not here. He is risen and he is going before you to Galilee, you will see him there. The journey that the disciples began those months ago; the journey that seemed to culminate in Jerusalem, will continue on into the future. On that journey, Jesus’ disciples will encounter him, the Risen Christ.

Mark knows that Jesus was risen from the dead. Mark’s first readers were certain of that as well. All of them had encountered the risen Christ on their journeys. We are like those women searching for Jesus at the empty tomb, searching for the certainty of faith in some piece of evidence that will finally drive all of our doubt away. But just as the empty tomb fails to give us certainty, so too do the other stories of the resurrection. Do not look for the Risen Christ in the words of scripture. He is not there, he is risen, he has gone before us. Look for the Risen Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, in the body of Christ here assembled, in the faces of the people we encounter every day.

For Mark, the death on the cross was made meaningful, vindicated by the resurrection. Christ’s love for the world, his obedience to God, culminated in his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. To understand the cross is to understand the paradox of the empty tomb. What seems to everyone else a meaningless death, promises us life. Or as Paul put it, power made perfect in weakness.

It may be that the crowds tomorrow morning, the full churches and fancy clothes, the brass instruments and the Easter hymns, will succeed for a time in driving away doubt and uncertainty. I suspect that one reason so many people come to church on Easter is that they seek reassurance that no matter how bad things may be, no matter how much has changed, Easter with its crowds and joy will put all their fears and uncertainties to rest.

We know better, and Mark knew better. The Christian faith lives on in the midst of paradox, and doubt, and uncertainty. It proclaims its faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  We will leave tonight, going out into the streets of a city going about its ordinary routines on a Saturday night. Nothing will have changed. But yet, as the Paschal Candle burned in the darkness, so too do our hearts burn within us. They burn with the love of Christ that we encounter here, in word and sacrament. They burn with the knowledge and the hope that Christ is Risen. Thanks be to God!

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