Happy Easter! I hope you are feeling very excited and privileged because you are the very first people at Grace to get to say, “Alleluia!” In all seriousness, however, I do hope you really are glad you are here. The Easter Vigil liturgy is one of the oldest and, I think, most beautiful, liturgies in the Christian church. According to our brethren in the Church of England, “From earliest times Christians have gathered through the night of Easter to recall the story of God’s saving work, from creation through to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, the Easter Liturgy is not merely a presentation of God’s work. It is meant to be a real experience of new life for the worshipper…
The Easter Vigil marks the end of the emptiness of Holy Saturday, and leads into the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The singing of the Exsultet, the ancient hymn of triumph and rejoicing, links this night of our Christian redemption to the Passover night of Israel’s redemption out of Egypt. Christian baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ… It is fittingly a time when those who are already Christians may repeat with renewed commitment the promises of their own baptism, and strengthen their sense of incorporation into the royal and priestly ministry of the whole people of God.
The Easter Vigil celebration is actually older than our Easter Day Feast. It was initially part of what was once called “The Great Week” of Easter, which celebrates both Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of having separate liturgies for the three holy days preceding Easter – what we call “the Triduum” -the ancient Christians instead celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ in one long drawn-out festival. It was the peace, freedom, and togetherness of Woodstock without the electric guitars, illegal substances, and sideburns.
“During the fifth century, in the North African town of Hippo, where Augustine…was bishop, Christians fasted on Holy Saturday and then in the evening brought oil lamps to the basilica for the vigil of the Lord’s resurrection…The long night was one of waiting, watching, prayer, and anticipation. It began in darkness and concluded in the first light of Easter” and tonight’s liturgy attempts to capture that transition – from darkness to light, from death into life, and from waiting to fulfillment.
The scriptures assigned for the vigil follow the idea of progression – the belief that faith is not as a single entity or event – something you either have or you don’t- but is rather a journey. We live in an individualistic culture, and, as a result, we are prone to think everything is, to coin a phrase, “All about us” as individuals - but that is not how the people who lived in ancient times thought. They viewed everything in terms of how it influenced the communities they lived in - how it demonstrated the state of their collective soul – and our scriptures reflect this understanding. Psalm 114 is all about the power of God throughout all time and space. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a reminder that they walk in Christ not as individuals, but as a community. Our gospel hints at what the Christians will say as they begin to share their faith. We too, then, need to remember that ours is not the first – or the thousandth – Easter. We stand behind generations of people who have put their faith in God, and who have seen God’s mighty acts in their own lives.
This is important for our own faith – because the kind of “ritual remembering” that we have done this evening is not just an opportunity to share song and stories, but also a good cure for self-absorption. Lest we should be tempted to let our minds wander to our own sins and salvation, the very structure of the Easter Vigil stops us cold, reminding us why we are here. By demonstrating the progression of God’s people “in moving from darkness to light and tracing the history of God’s activity [throughout time… we recognize] the scope of life lived in Christ. The vigil [gives us the] opportunity – [just as it gave our Christian ancestors in Rome and Hippo…] - to reflect on what God has done [in] bringing us to this point [in time] and where, by grace, we will go from here.” AMEN. Alleluia.
George W. Stroup, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 346.
James D. Freeman, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 350.