Grace Episcopal Church
The Great Vigil of Easter
Genesis 22.1-18 Psalm 16.7-11 Exodus 14.10-15.1 The Song of Moses
Ezekiel 37.1-14 Psalm 30.1, 3, 6, 12 Romans 6.3-11 Luke 24.1-12_
May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart, that
I may rightly and truly proclaim His holy Word. Amen.
“The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. (Gen. 22.7-8)
God Himself will provide the offering. These words pretty much sum up the history of salvation, the history which we relive in our keeping this vigil of the Day of Resurrection. We recognize this in the Collect we pray, which includes the words “Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son ...” God provides. God redeems. God saves. God comes to us while we are yet His enemies, and gives His Son. It is for this reason that we begin our vigil with the words of the Exsultet, in which we sing, “Rejoice, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels ... Rejoice all the round earth ...” And, let us ever remember that the word rejoice is here an imperative, the commandment we too often forget. When we live into our identity as those described by Paul as having “newness of life” then we understand and live in the reality that rejoicing is living, that newness of life is the supreme gift which God Himself provides.
We begin this vigil in darkness. The new flame is kindled, and it is from this new flame that the paschal candle is lighted. The deacon then proceeds into our midst, proclaiming “The light of Christ!,” to which we respond “Thanks be to God!” Thanks be to God, indeed. We give thanks that God has come among us; that God counts us worthy to stand before Him, by and through the merits of the atoning sacrifice He has provided—Jesus Christ. We give thanks that in a benighted world God’s light comes among us and leads us into new life.
All of us have experienced darkness in our lives. We may try to paper this over, and speak of it in terms of “poor decisions” (rather than evil), or “dysfunction” (rather than fallenness), but the fact is that absent a Savior darkness is both the norm and the end. When we equate darkness only with poor decisions and with dysfunction, the necessary corollary is that “salvation” and newness of life consist only in what we can accomplish by our own efforts. We delude ourselves that we can approach eternal life in a way similar to what we try in classifying mental health—that if we can agree on the level of “stress” (that is, darkness) then we can focus on the level of “function” and how this can be improved. But salvation is not a self-help project, and newness of life is not an improvement in functional level. Salvation involves radical transformation in which darkness is removed, and the stain of darkness lifted from us, not by what we do but by what God does. Newness of life is not better coping, it is a radically different existence in which we are not estranged from God, but are one with Him, alive in the Spirit.
The contrasts are dramatic, and that is why the celebration of the vigil is so fitting. All good liturgy involves all of the senses. With our eyes we experience darkness and light; we experience colors and movement. With our ears we experience the spoken word, music, bells, the murmurs of those around us. We smell the incense. We touch each other in greeting, and feel the pressure of pew or kneeler. We taste in taking Communion. But above all, we experience that sixth sense. What sense is this? Think about those times in your life when you have experienced the presence of another. It might be when you stop and realize that someone is looking at you. It might be when you notice that someone is not in the house, and walk from room to room looking for them. And in newness of life it very much is when we enter into God’s presence and recognize that we stand before Him.
But how do we do this? Perhaps here is where the darkness with which we begin this service gives us a hint. We can turn to the light because we find ourselves in darkness. I can never so much notice light as when I sit in the dark, but if I ever convince myself that darkness is the norm—that there is no light—I will not seek the light. When I can trust that in any darkness I will find God there with me, then my heart can turn to Him. When I can trust that, as Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering …;” when I can trust that as Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me …;” then my heart can turn to seek God, to seek light, to know that God’s light conquers all darkness.
But, again, how do we do this? We do this in dying to sin. We just heard a message from Romans. We have heard this message now in a church filled with light, having concluded the Great Vigil of Easter with the most joyous proclamation, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!,” the return of light, the ringing of bells in token of Christ’s victory, and the singing of the Gloria. We have heard the message of new life in Christ proclaimed in the midst of the literal transition from darkness to light, in the midst of a life journey which Paul elaborates.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
The great paradox of new life is that to be truly alive in Christ we must first die to self, die to sin, by participating in Jesus’ death, knowing that in the darkness of this death “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering …” Salvation is not accomplished through our efforts, but in our surrender to God, in the turning of our hearts to Him. When we sit in darkness we trust in the light. When we sit in darkness we trust that God will provide. When we sit in darkness we trust Our Lord who tells us “Today you will be with me …”
Glory to God in the highest, indeed! The light not only triumphs over the darkness but triumphs by invading the darkness, by declaring victory in which we are given new life. “Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout Salvation ... Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor … Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let you holy courts in radiant light resound with the praises of your people.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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