Easter Vigil, 2017
What a glorious night! It’s my favorite liturgy of the entire Church year; the “holy sleepover” of Easter Vigil. We start with a campfire, the Paschal Flame — which I’m told in the past has been lit from a flint by a bonafide boy scout! — and we gather around the warmth of these flames to sing songs and to hear some of our favorite stories; stories about our identity, about where we’ve come from and where we might be going. We even embody these stories, in ways that can be silly and profound, messy and reverent, as we attempt to live out our salvation history and imagine our future. And we wait together for something to be born.
This year, I’m glad we chose to do our waiting downstairs, in the Parish Hall, the ante chamber, not in the Great Church. It accentuates for me that sense of anticipation, of knowing that something wonderful will be happening upstairs, but not quite yet. It reminds me of when my daughter, Ari, was born at the birth center in Juneau, Alaska. It was a long night. And as I labored, my family — her teenage brother and sister, and my husband, Patrick — waited together. They talked and baked a cake, until the morning hours. And that waiting made everything sweeter.
These days we hardly ever have to wait for anything. Purchases can be accomplished with the swipe of a finger; computers help us to research information in seconds. To wait seems counter-cultural, and requires of us the kind of perseverance which I believe may be lost in our society. We may speak of our goals, our visions and dreams; but if we cannot accomplish them immediately, we often lose interest or passion, or worse, believe somehow that they were not worthy or meant to be. What if the waiting is part of the way that God works in us?
In Judaism, there is a practice called “sitting Shiva” when a loved one dies; the family spends time together, in mourning, for a period of days after the burial. Not hours, but days. I think of the disciples, broken hearted after the death of their Lord, their teacher, their friend. What great hopes they had for their movement, for the way that the world would be changed! And how those hopes were crushed and broken upon the cross. After Jesus was buried hurriedly in a borrowed tomb, I imagine them sitting together, weeping, in shock perhaps, and not knowing what to do except to wait. Scripture tells us that it was the Sabbath, the day of rest, so there was nothing else they could do. And then, and then . . .
The women went, Mary and Mary, to the tomb. Perhaps they simply wanted to attend to the Jesus’ body, since he had been buried with such haste. Myself, I like to think that they remembered Jesus’ promise to rise in three days’ time. Whatever the case, what a holy surprise awaited them! The birth of something wholly new and life giving, something terrifying and powerful and joyful!
My favorite moment of Vigil is when we process, chanting the Litany of Saints, to the Sanctuary, and knock on the door, asking for Jesus. I remember the great Easter Doors at St. John the Divine in New York City, that let in a shaft of light into the tomb-shaped sanctuary on that morning; I also remember an altar guild member who once replied to my knocking by asking “what do you want?!”. In words from the oldest known liturgical drama, we ask the “angels” inside — we seek Jesus! And he is not there . . . he’s out and about, he has risen, he is ALIVE in the world. Jesus cannot be contained. Surprise! Oh, happy birth! Oh joyful news that was ever so worth the wait, and is made all the more victorious by our perseverance. You can skip that moment; you can even skip the waiting. But the news is so much richer when we’ve waited together.
For in the waiting, there is the kindling of hope, precious as the Paschal flame; in the stories, there is the seed of faith, ready to burst forth with the bright Easter beam into something beautiful and green and growing and nourishing.
My friends of St. James, we have come through a full year of Seasons together. We have shared many moments: some mournful, some full of passion and even conflict, and many shining with laughter and joy. Those of us here have chosen to remain, even though it was not always easy, even though we labored. And my prayer, my fervent Eastertide prayer in the midst of this Holy Night, is that we will continue to persevere; that we will choose to follow where Christ leads us, even when, especially when, it is not easy.
May we evermore live in the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, may our lives shine with a renewal of his Spirit in body and mind. May we choose to wait, and then . . and then . . . to Live! AMEN.