The Easter Vigil 2018
Collect: O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings: [Vigil Readings], Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Well, here we are. It’s been quite a journey over the last few days, not least for Brock, who was just baptized! We’re at the end of the Triduum, and you might expect a sermon that wraps up what I’ve said so far, and what we’ve all experienced; something which synthesizes the theme we’ve been exploring, that Holy Week is a “moment that does not pass away,” along with the events of Jesus’ last days.
And you’d be forgiven for thinking that, forgiven but ultimately disappointed: I have no last words for you tonight, only an assertion. The event we celebrate tonight, Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is an event which does away with last words altogether. Christ is risen from the dead, and there can be no more foregone conclusions. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no sin so foul that has not been forgiven. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no prison left standing that can keep us forever. Christ is risen from the dead, and to borrow the Recovery phrase, every today is the first day of the rest of our lives; every conversation is an opportunity to begin again, every person is a chance to learn and love afresh.
In school they tell kids to make a good beginning of their lives: “Study hard so you can get a good job and live a happy, fulfilled life.” In college they say the same thing: “This is the beginning, you are laying the foundation for what will come later.” When couples get married, they are sagely told, “This is just the beginning!” And when they have children they say the same thing, “This is only the beginning.” As human beings we love stories, and stories have beginnings and middles and ends. A dragon invades the kingdom. The noble hero goes out to slay it, and when the deed is done everyone lives happily ever after. With so many beginnings in our own stories, we might be forgiven for getting frustrated at times that we rarely get to the middle let alone to the end, while the happily-ever-after seems perpetually out of reach.
Tonight’s Easter Vigil, though, reveals that there is something deeply Christian about so many beginnings. When we reach the end of Jesus’ story, we find out, with an explosive surprise, that it was really just the beginning. The tomb was not the end; rather the resurrection was the beginning, and now Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, whose life continues in his Church both on earth and in heaven.
For that matter, the Vigil readings suggest the same thing: Israel’s captivity in Egypt was not the sad end of the story after all, but only the beginning, as they made their Exodus through the Red Sea to the Promised Land. The exile in Babylon so many centuries later was not the end either, only the beginning of the life of the people of God spread abroad throughout the whole earth. Or in baptism: we find our earthly lives, comparatively well ordered and planned, opening onto eternity, our own persons now the doorstep of heaven, inexhaustible in capacity for surprise, wonder, and love.
So many beginnings! What does that mean for our Christian life, then? Surely not that we just keep going in circles, starting over time after time. When do we get to the middle, and when can we enjoy the end?
The short answer is, those will come in time; the most we can do at the moment is make a good beginning. The most we can do tonight is to make a good celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and of Brock’s baptism into his mystical Body. You’ll notice there is no Peace exchanged at the Liturgy tonight, and that’s to allow, for tonight only, our Eucharistic celebration to be the peace we both offer and receive; I invite you all to continue the celebration in Lion’s Hall afterwards at the reception which Betsy and Sterling have so graciously provided. The middle of the story will come in time, and the end too. But tonight we celebrate.
One of the stories that has moved me the most as a priest and a pastor, was one a man told me years ago. He had been married to his wife for some sixty years, and he was still very much in love with her. I said something like, “You must know her very well by now then!” He laughed and said, “Yes, I suppose I do. But you know, every day I still learn something new about her. You spend that long with someone and you think you’ve got them all figured out. But sometimes she comes up with something so completely out of left field that I wonder, who on earth is this person I’ve married? Over all these years I’ve had to realize again and again that I don’t have her all figured out. There’s more to her than I will ever know, and it’s just part of the fun to keep learning.”
This is the kind of beginning we continually make as Christians. The middle, and even the end, come and go; but it is the beginning that remains, as every day we continue to plumb the unknowable depths of God’s creative, redeeming love, and the echoing deeps of human persons made in that image.
Tonight, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, we begin afresh the great rejoicing which Easter initiates. Let it be for us another beginning, but more than a repetition. Let it be for us that new beginning which will carry us through all our middles and all our ends, the new beginning that pushes right through death itself into the far undiscovered country on the other side of the tomb.
At the altar tonight, as we come to make our communions, may we catch a glimpse of the same joy which sustains all who have gone before us, and all who will follow after. United with them in the Paschal Mystery, let us render eternal praise and glad thanksgiving to the God of heaven: whose Son has harrowed hell, and made the earth new.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.