By the Rev. David Brinton
The night just past is the night which made us Christians, the night of our deliverance, and the dawn which we now greet is the dawn of our eternal hope.
It is not perhaps immediately obvious why the readings associated with this Easter Vigil are considered Easter readings. The stories we have inherited from the ancient Hebrews are prominent in the liturgies of these paschal days, and they are full of primitive mythic imagery, often arbitrarily violent, even grotesquely so.
The raw nakedness and sheer physicality of newly-made humanity represented by Adam and Eve in the first chapter of the bible may or may not charm us, but undoubtedly its proclamation at the vigil in the 21st c reminds us of the clash between science and faith and begs the question whether such a story can be said to explain the origins of the universe we live in.
What about the appalling violence of the drowning of all living things, except for those aboard Noah’s ark containing the designated few? We didn’t read that this morning, but it is appointed to be read at the Vigil lots of places do so. Or the subsequent drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea during the exodus of the Hebrews, and Miriam’s primitive victory dance over the corpses? We’re instructed by the rubrics never to leave that one out which suggests that it is foundational to Christian self-understanding
There was some relief in the prophet Zephaniah’s proclamation that God will remove disaster from his people and bring them home.
The illumination of this chapel, the singing of the Gloria, and the ringing of the bells reassured us, but as the liturgy took us a few moments ago into the new testament, the readings still didn’t immediately comfort us with images of Easter joy and eternal life, did they?
St Paul told us that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and that we were buried. “Don’t you know that when you went to the font you died?” he asks. How often I have been greeted with raised eyebrows and looks of distaste when I have tried to explain the meaning of that to parents of newborns as we prepare for their baptism.
St Matthew tells us that the soldiers sent by Pilate and the priests to prevent the body of Jesus from being stolen were so terrified by the earthquake and the appearance of the angel that they “shook and became like dead men.” St Matthew is quite clear about what has happened between Saturday and Sunday. He alone among the evangelists describes how nature itself seems to convulse at what is unfolding. His narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus began with an earthquake on Golgotha on Friday afternoon, as Our Lord breathed his last. He says that rocks split apart, dead men walked, and, in the temple, the veil of the holy of holies was torn in two as if God were rending his garments for grief.
Originally this Great Vigil of Easter lasted all night and the Easter alleluias were only sung as the sun appeared in the east, dispelling the darkness.
The Church in those days was called upon to greet Easter with a sleepless night. We experienced a taste of that earlier this morning as we gathered in what was left of the dark. On Thursday night I spent an hour in the Lady Chapel at the Altar of Repose. As I was making my way back to my room just after 10, I encountered the infirmary night nurse coming from the direction of the guest house. She looked at me in alarm at first and then consternation: “you’ll be able to get back in, but not out, because I’ve locked the door”.
Of course, I thought, the door between the guest house and the convent has to be locked at night, even on Maundy Thursday night. The uneasiness, the sleeplessness, the ambiguity, even the terror, of the night, especially perhaps for women: this is the environment in which Easter is born. The night will reveal what it knows of God, and of us, but only after we have entered it, will Easter come.
St Matthew tells us that after the long, restless night in which God did his silent work of killing death, both the soldiers and the women were afraid. But there was a difference: the soldiers’ fear, we are told, made them “like dead men” unable to move. The women’s fear was accompanied by “great joy” – not one or the other, but both together. Fear and Joy. But their joy was greater than their fear and it sent them running to tell the world.
What happened in that tomb during that night so long ago? No one knows, of course, but this Great Vigil of Easter proclaims that it was the night of the re-creation of all that has fallen apart, the night when the shedding of blood lost its power to enthrall us, the night of crossing through the sea of doubt, and of slavery to every false god,the night when the tomb could not be secured and no human death-wish could overcome the desire of God for life in all its fullness.
Many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were baptized last night all over the world. Their lives as they went to the font, like our lives, those of us who have already gone there, are lives threatened and confused by every kind of death-dealing violence and idolatry. These darknesses of our 21st century may take on different forms from the ones known to our biblical forebears, but they are no less capable of killing us, body and soul.
As we emerge this morning from the fearful but fruitful darkness of the Paschal Night, the Church proclaims to all those baptized in that darkness, and reminds all her members, that Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave, ending the power of violence and falsehood to defeat us in any kind of final way.
And so, now, emerging from the night which made us Christians, the night of our deliverance, the night in which joy became stronger than fear, we greet the dawn of our eternal hope. To echo the words of the Exultet, which Sister sang in the garden just as the first light was arriving, “may the Morning Star which never sets find the flame of faith still burning in us”, not only this Easter morning but all the mornings that remain to us, until our heavenly Father gathers each one of us into his eternal dawn.