On April 20th, I had a wonderful time preaching and presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter at Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona, NJ. Here is the homily from that service.
Prior to moving to New Jersey, to become Rector of St. Stephen’s, Millburn, I was bi-vocational. I was a hospice and hospital chaplain, in addition to being a parish priest. As a hospice chaplain, I officiated at more funerals than I can count. Often, these would be for people with little experience of Christian liturgy. I would tell them (sometimes the families, sometimes the person if they were involved in the planning) that the burial office is an Easter occasion.
I would remind them that, before the grace and glory of Easter, there was much suffering and heartache. Before there was the empty tomb, there was the journey to the cross. Before there was the Resurrection, there was crucifixion. I think about that when I think about what it is we are doing here tonight.
The Great Vigil of Easter is such a profound, beautifully crafted expression of the journey from darkness into light, from grief into joy. It is an awe-inspiring reminder that God, being God, responded to the darker sides of our humanity in truly remarkable ways: first the inbreaking into the world of the incarnate God in the infant Jesus, and then the conquering of death through the resurrection on the third day.
It reminds us that true joy can only be fully experienced, that we can only begin to embody the meaning, if we spend time in the dark. The forty days of Lent just past, the days between Palm Sunday and now, are important. They are necessary to our understanding of this day.
This day, Holy Saturday until it became Easter, is just as crucial to our lives as any of these other days we find it easier to celebrate. We don’t always seem to know what to do with the agony of the crucifixion and the darkness of the tomb. Doing more than hearing the story of Holy Week as historical event is hard, it is heartbreaking. Taking our place in the story,drawing the connections between our brothers and sisters in 1st century Palestine and our own lives, we are made uncomfortable, just as we are with sitting with the silence, with the absence of the living, breathing Jesus.
The time between Good Friday and Easter is hard, it is heartbreaking, it draws us to places we’d rather not go. It is why, I think, we tend to want to rush through or compress the observance of Holy Week. Moving quickly from Palm Sunday and the Passion to Easter is easier. It eases our burden by capturing the highlights. We do get the highlights but we miss so much, so much that is essential to our relationship with God.
It is no accident or coincidence that our liturgy this evening began outside in the darkening night with only the elemental power of flame to get us going. It is, somewhat paradoxically, both a symbol and the reality of our place in God’s story of creation.
We are because God is and deemed it so. God created the light and deemed it “good.”God became incarnate as the Light of the World to save us from ourselves and still we failed to fully embrace that love, that grace. We know this is our promise, this unconditional, unimaginable, undefinable, indescribable love, and yet, to quote Rabbi Heschel, the promise “is within our reach but beyond our grasp.”
A bit later we will share the first Eucharist of Easter. Having journeyed together through the darkness that preceded the light of God’s creation, on through the story of our all-too-human attempts to understand the presence and the promise of God, through the darkest of days of the end of Jesus’ earthly life to the empty tomb, we come to the place of Light. We come to Easter.
Along with Mary Magdalene and the others so surprised to find something other than what they expected after those most horrific of days, we are invited to share in the fellowship of the Risen Christ through the holy mystery of the Eucharist.
We will taste Resurrection. It is the holy food and drink that will nourish our souls. It is a reminder that we are Easter people, called to embody the fullness of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It will comfort, strengthen, and sustain us as we continue this journey through the darkness and messiness of life, to the place we were created and intended to be, to the eternal Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!