The Great Vigil of Easter 2021
Romans 6:3-11 Psalm 114 Mark 16:1-8
Several years ago, when I was serving a small church in Waynesboro, we decided to do an Easter Vigil service. They had not done one in years, so we had to create the bulletin. I worked on it. The secretary worked on it. The organist worked on it. We wrote and proofed for weeks to get it right. We were so proud of our efforts. After the service, one of the folks came up and asked me, “Who is Virgil?’ We did a good job of proofing the inside, but not the cover. The Easter Virgil was history.
The Easter Vigil draws on all of our senses and invites us to fully enter into the paschal drama. We began in darkness. A fire, the new fire is lighted, and we, the worshipping community have the opportunity to experience the sound of crackling wood, the smell of smoke and ash, the warmth of the fire cutting into the cold dark night.
This night we experience the dance of darkness and light. The communal paschal candle casts light on each of the worshippers taking from it. We have heard God’s continuing story of God’s people, made present for this gathered community.
The sacrament of baptism is often a part of the Vigil. This practice began in the early church, when catechumens prepared throughout Lent for baptism at the Easter Vigil. The baptismal affirmation of dying and rising with Christ is powerfully embodied when we reaffirm our baptismal vows.
We are joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection in the waters of baptism. We can hear Jesus’ voice most clearly in the words of the Baptismal Covenant. The living water is seen in the act of baptism. In a few moments, we will reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant. Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God (BCP 858).
It was in the waters of the River Jordan that Jesus began the very public beginning of his earthly ministry. It is in the waters of baptism that we are fully initiated by water and the Holy Spirit in this bond that God establishes for us. While we may break our bond with God, God will never break God’s covenant with us. Baptism is a time for us to revisit our baptismal vows, something that should be done often. We speak in one voice with all the baptized as we affirm who God is for us and what that means in living our lives in the community of faith.
This service has traditionally been a service of readings with little or no homily. Don’t get your hopes up, because our Bishop encourages us to use these special services as opportunities to teach about our liturgy and tradition. The selections of readings span the Old Testament and represent the grand overall drama that foreshadows events in the Christian story. The reading from Romans links the believer’s baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ, highlighting some of the ethical implications of our co-participation in Christ’s dying and rising. The Gospel reading is Mark’s recounting of the familiar story of the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning.
Jesus has told the disciples of his coming suffering, death and resurrection. He gives his disciples a more detailed account of what is to come. Peter and the other disciples hear all three of Jesus’ predictions, yet by the time the women tell them about the empty tomb, they have apparently forgotten. They don’t believe the women’s testimony that Jesus has risen from the dead.
The women don’t remember Jesus’ predictions at first, either. Perhaps the shock has numbed their senses, for they too need to be reminded by the figure in a dazzling robe they find in place of Jesus’ body. “He has been raised; he is not here,” the angels say. Then they remembered his words.
Perhaps when Jesus tried earlier to tell them what was going to happen, the prospect of his suffering and death was too horrible for them to grasp. The thought of his resurrection was too impossible. Perhaps the disciples were too concerned with the crowd’s opinions, or too preoccupied with who among them would be the greatest. They needed to be reminded.
So do we. Yet, we might protest, how could we possibly forget? The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus happened centuries ago. Those events have been studied and preached and sung over and over again. The good news is old news. Of course, we remember. We know it like we know today’s date. The Apostles’ Creed tells us, “our Lord….was crucified, died and was buried…he descended to the dead…on the third day he rose again.”
But do we know and remember the death and resurrection of Jesus so profoundly that those events shape the way we live our lives each day? I confess, sometimes I need reminding. When I have been wronged by someone that breaks the bond between us, I need to be reminded that Jesus was wronged too. Even his wrongful death was not the end of the story. Instead, he rose victorious with new life and with healing in his wings. When I have wronged someone, and I am dismayed by my insensitivity and lack of care, when I wish I could take something back, but find it is too late, instead of berating myself, I need to be reminded that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means forgiveness for all of my failings. By the power of his Spirit, I receive grace upon grace to make amends and start over. We all experience grace upon grace….grace upon grace.
When I look at the world around us in dismay and sometimes in disgust, when self-centeredness and brutality seem to rule the day, I need to be reminded that this is the world created and loved by God – and that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to reconcile this world to himself.
So however, we might celebrate Easter this year – whether we’re joyful or afraid – whether we are facing new uncertainty or the challenge of staying in one place – I hope we can remember and proclaim that old, new message once more.Amid the challenges of daily living, it remains our joyful proclamation: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Amen.