A Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Abilene, Texas
Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Great Vigil of Easter + Year C
First Lesson: Romans 6:3-11
Gospel: Luke 24:1-12

“Let none fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free. Christ is risen and the demons have fallen. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice.” ✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

vigilI would be lying if I told you that I had a deep, theological insight into the mysteries of Holy Week and the events surrounding Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. But, the truth, dear friends, is that the liturgies of Holy Week, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter, preach themselves in a very profound way- not only through the words that we speak and the hymns that we sing but also through the experience of walking with Christ from the Upper Room where he said goodbye to his friends to the rock-hewn tomb in which he was placed after his death on the Cross.

The water running over our feet; the Bread and the Wine; the darkness; the silence; the hard wood of the Cross; the crown of thorns; the newly kindled fire; the water of Baptism; the first, “Alleluia!”

All signs that the Holy Spirit is in motion, stirring up in us that which the world cannot give, a hope that can no longer be contained.

The liturgies of Holy Week engage our senses and bid us to enter fully into the mystery of joy and suffering as we participate with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Notice that I use the word, “participate.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but if it is, I ask you the same question that St. Paul asked in his letter to the first Christians in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

Through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death and raised to newness of life, an affirmation of faith that we proclaim boldly, especially on this night as we welcome a new member into the Body of Christ and celebrate the Passover of the Lord.

“This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.”

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”

“This is the night,” according to one author, “that is like day, the dawn of reconciliation, peace, and the forgiveness of sin.”

This is the night, when we are once again reminded that not even the shadow of death can separate us from the love of God and that darkness always gives way to the light.

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, just before Jesus is arrested and put on trial for sedition against Rome, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer and that they will soon grieve and mourn for him. Knowing that his arrest is imminent, Jesus says to them, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

“Now is your time of grief,” Jesus says, “but I will see you again and you will rejoice…”

Rejoice. The first word of the ancient Easter hymn, the Exsultet, proclaimed each year at the Great Vigil of Easter.

Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels…
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth…
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church…

Rejoice. Our great Easter proclamation, that death and sin no longer have dominion over us, that grief and suffering have given way to joy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, about how “sadness and joy,” as Henri Nouwen once wrote, “kiss each other at every moment” and how this informs our understanding of Christian discipleship. Indeed, we are united with Christ through the Sacrament of Baptism, but we are formed as disciples through our continual participation in his death and resurrection. I’m convinced that when we to die to self, when we are willing to let go of the things in our lives that need to die, we grow more and more into the full stature Christ. It is only when we are willing to endure the pain of letting go that we can truly experience the resurrected life that God so desires for each of us.

For many Christians, one of the most poignant and moving traditions of Lent and Holy Week is participating in the Way of the Cross. This year at Heavenly Rest, we observed this ancient custom each Friday in Lent as participants walked with Christ along the path of sorrows as he endured the agony of his Passion.

At each of the fourteen stations, we paused to contemplate not only the sadness and the despair but also the joy and new life that is promised to all who follow in our Lord’s footsteps, an example of how joy and sorrow are so intimately connected in the life of a Christian.

Even now, as we celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection, in the midst of Easter joy, the world continues to revolve around us. People continue to suffer.

Easter joy is not a cure for the brokenness of our world, and it isn’t a goal to reach, as if everything else that we experience during Holy Week is simply an obstacle to overcome.

Rather, the great joy that we experience at Easter is hope. A sign that all is not lost, that the Holy Spirit is not through working in us and through us. Our great joy is the hope that, in the fullness of time, God’s dream of heaven on earth will finally be realized.

But, until that day comes, let us continue to serve God by offering ourselves as instruments of God’s love and mercy to this broken and suffering world, and let us rejoice without ceasing in the saving work of God in Christ. Amen.

Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.

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