Thoughts on the Great Vigil of Easter

On April 3, some of the faithful of All Saints gathered to celebrate once again the Great Vigil of Easter. I wound up preaching on that occasion; here, therefore, are some of my reflections extracted from that sermon and its broader context.

For me, the Great Vigil of Easter is the central overwhelming service of the church year. It anchors the rest of the year. It represents a high-level “strategic” overview of what the Germans call Heilsgeschichte — Salvation History. It’s the “wide-angle” view of our lives as Christians — our individual lives, our lives in the community of the church, and the whole history of our life as the people of God on earth.

The liturgy of the Vigil stands at the culmination of the sacrum triduum. It’s the hinge, so to speak, of the church year, just as what it’s pointing to is the hinge — the pivotal event — of all of human history. It is, therefore, the first feast of the Resurrection of the year; but it is also the Great High Feast of Absolutely Everything. In a remarkable sequence of nine Old Testament lessons, it expresses the whole picture in an encapsulated form — the creation, the fall (implicitly), the flood, God’s covenant with Abraham, promising that it would one day extend to all nations; the Exodus, the inner transformation of the faithful, and the calling together of the scattered people of God. The epistle lesson tells us some of what it means; the lesson from the Gospel of Luke confronts us once again with the bare story of the Resurrection itself — something from which we can take many meanings and thoughts, but which we can never wholly encompass. Its shadow falls across everything that ever has been and ever will be.

Confronting the Resurrection this way, in context, calls upon us to burrow deep into who and what we are, to draw upon that central story and to know that we ourselves are not mere outsiders looking in. Yes, it’s about the particular events of a day about two thousand years ago; but it’s also about discovering anew the truth that we have always known: that God cannot be defeated or eclipsed by death or the devil or any of the petty trivialities of our lives. It assures us, as no other service of the year does, that the events in and around Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not just important to us as symbols or metaphors, but as the central reality of our lives. We are part of that story. We are implicit in its outcome. It is the story of all stories, and more than a story: it is our identity — it is the fact that makes us what we are.

This is not just about some abstract or vague “spiritual” meaning that one can take away from the story in a safe container. It doesn’t work that way. God is not the great “I Mean”: He is the great “I Am.” It’s not a mere platitude or pretty saying: it’s actually kind of scary. Because of those events, we live now, and we are obliged to live, as children of, heirs to, and participants in the Resurrection. To do that from one day to the next is hard work, and sometimes very confusing; but it’s both our primary task and our highest privilege. We are not equal to it on our own, but by the grace of God, it has become ours.

The Lord is Risen. Alleluia.

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