Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Great Vigil of Easter

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Our Lenten fast is over and we celebrate with the whole Church this night the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord. I would quote from the Exultet, the ancient hymn of praise for the Paschal Candle and the New Light of Christ, but I do so below.....

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon

The Great Vigil of Easter 2008

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

In the Name of our Risen Lord. Alleluia!

I have a confession to make. I’m really shy, and I get anxious in new situations. I can clearly remember the first day of school after moving, and the first day of junior high, and especially high school. I was worried and nervous and unsure of myself of what was going to happen. I was really afraid of what people would think of me and what they might say. More than school, though, I can clearly recall the first day of work at each new job I’ve taken. There was so much to learn, so many forms to fill out. What if I did something wrong? What if they found out I really wasn’t as qualified as they thought? What if my boss or my co-workers hated me? All my anxieties piled up and I often had a headache by noon. Often, it wasn’t until weeks or months later that things started to make sense and started to come together in a coherent way.

I can distinctly remember one particular day, when I was driving in to work. I was a computer analyst working for the Department of Defense on a human resources computer system. Our software handled the payroll, personnel, and accounting for large parts of the Department. The business rules were very complicated, and I was unfamiliar with the technology. There was a great deal to come up to speed on, and even though there was a training program on the mainframe technology we used, my level of anxiety still was pretty high for what seemed like a long time. So one day I was driving into work and it suddenly clicked. I could suddenly see how the major pieces worked and how things fit together and what everything did. It was almost stunning how it happened so suddenly. One moment, I was in the dark, and in another moment, I was in the light. At least, that’s what it felt like. Maybe you’ve had moments like that in your work or in a group you belong to or in your education. It’s amazing how all of a sudden it all begins to make sense.

Those two ideas, remembering and light, are what we’re doing this evening. We started out Vigil in darkness, and we lit the New Fire of Easter. Now for most of human history, it was dangerous to let a fire or flame totally die out. Sometimes you couldn’t get it lit again. Flint and steel aren’t the easiest way to make a spark, and you have to have very flammable items around to catch that spark. So when our forebears in faith put out their lights – all of them – on Good Friday, they weren’t just making a symbolic gesture. There were really participating in the darkness that came over the land at the Crucifixion. So the lighting of the New Fire was truly a joyous occasion. That’s why we solemnly escorted our own new Easter light to the honored place it has now. We, too, are participating in the fact that Jesus, who rose from the dead, conquered not only death but darkness. That’s why we sing, with countless Christians of ages past, the festive, “The Light of Christ! Thanks be to God,” for the new light we have. Even though our own lights are available to use at the touch of a button, in our hearts we can remember how terrible and scary darkness really is.

We then took time to listen to our own sacred history, while we waited for the Easter proclamation. In ages past, the Church did a lot of vigils. The purpose of a vigil is to keep watch and to wait for something else that is about to happen. It’s a moment of transition from one state to honor. Squires who were about to become knights kept vigil with their swords all night in the church. Christians kept vigils on the eves of the major festivals of the year, like Pentecost, Christmas, and of course Easter. They could last all night. There would be long cycles of readings, Psalms, and prayers. No one was in a rush, because they couldn’t get there any more quickly. People would come and go as they needed to, but most settled in for the duration. People would get a little sleepy, they might doze off, but for the most part, they stayed all night, keeping watch and waiting. They wanted to make sure they were there for the beginning of the Easter celebration. It’s kind of like camping out to get tickets for a concert you really really want to see.

But not only that. The point of the vigil was to not only gather in anticipation, to look forward, but also to look back, to remember. We did that tonight. We recalled the poetic account of the creation of the whole universe by God’s hands. With Noah and his family, we watched the destructive power of water to ravage the earth. We were then witnesses to the Covenant of the Rainbow that God made, the covenant that would be extended into today with the action of our risen Lord. We, with the Israelites, escaped from the bondage of slavery into freedom, again at God’s mighty hand. We followed the Pillar of Fire through the waters of the Red Sea. Isaiah invited his hearers and us to the unending banquet of the Lord, the very same banquet of which we will partake in just a few minutes. And we exulted with Zephaniah at the glorious promises of restoration and wholeness that God made. We remembered where we have come from while waiting for the fullness of the New Light of Christ to come.

After that we took time to remember, still by the light of the Paschal Candle, the Pillar of Fire and Cloud, that we are children of God, adopted sons and daughters. As St. Paul reminded us, we are dead to sin and alive to God in the Resurrection of Jesus. We recalled in words our own personal covenants with God in Jesus, and then recalled in action our baptisms, as we were sprinkled with the water that can both ravage a world and can also cleanse us from sin.

And finally, it was time! The fortieth day of Lent was over! Sunset was upon us, which in both ancient Jewish and Christian tradition meant it was already the Third Day. And so, there was nothing left to do but proclaim the Easter Acclamation – Christ is Risen! Alleluia! And we continued our festive alleluia right through the Gospel, the Good News that announced that not even death could keep Jesus from God’s love. That means, too, that not even death can separate you and me from God’s love in Christ either.

This is the night, when God brought out our forebears in faith, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land!

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, my sisters and brothers, when it all comes together. This is the night which is the source of everything we do as Christians. All other Sundays, all of our feasts, all of our fasts, are merely stripped down versions of this night. And so, echoing with the triumphant voices of Christians for ages and ages, we proclaim again the ancient cry:

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!


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