Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 11, 2009
This service, the Great Vigil of Easter, is probably my favorite liturgy of the entire church year. In fact, our former bishop, Hays Rockwell, used to call me “one of those vigil zealots” … and I’ll wear that mantle proudly. I love liturgy that engages all the senses, that drips and explodes with sights and sounds that truly embody the height and depth of the God we praise and the life we embrace.
Most of all in this service I love the transition from deep darkness into an explosion of light. I love that we link this not just with the end of Christ’s descent among the dead and bursting forth on Easter Morning but with baptism, which is how we participate in the same thing. Dying to an old life and rising to a new.
Now the vigil service I’ve always wanted to go to is the one my friend Angela told me about from her time living in Russia. Angela went to a Russian Orthodox vigil that was held just before dawn on the Volga River. The river was still frozen, but they had cut a huge hole in the ice a little bit off the bank and stuck a ladder down through to the water. And when it came time for the baptisms, just as the sky was beginning to lighten, the candidates descended into the icy waters, and they were fully immersed and baptized and then ascended the ladder, again into their new life in Christ as the sun began to break over the horizon.
So, Bill, Andrew, Jonathan, just so you know … you got off easy tonight.
But even here in this amazing and in its own way ancient space. The play of light and darkness we have just participated in. Beginning in total darkness and then the bursting forth of the light of Christ, light never burning so bright as when it is in deep darkness. And that fire, it felt like it was going to bore through your eyes if you started at it too long. And then it spread among us and we sat, like some ancient tribe, hearing the stories of generations past and listening to heavenly sounds that were the echoes of the angels that have trod before and the distant sounds of the Easter angels approaching from beyond the horizon.
And then we joined with those to be baptized in promising amazing things. Most profoundly put in a formula of six questions that have been answered by those coming to Christ for more than 1600 years. Three renunciations and three adhesions.
In the ancient Church they would start out by facing West, and they’d say the renunciations.
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? – and actually, when they said “Satan,” they’d spit … I think altar guilds made them quit doing that. But they’d say I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.
But then the really amazing thing happens, and we did it here tonight, and that’s the adhesions. In the ancient church they would physically turn around from west to east, literally turning to a new life and the questions would come. And listen to these questions that the baptized have answered for more than a millennia and a half.
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do. I do. I do.
It is the dying to an old life and the rising to a new. So the Easter event isn’t just about Jesus, but about us as well. We are bound up with him in his death and we are committing with each other and to Christ to live into the new life of his rising. Committing with Christ and each other from this point forward to have it not be same old, same old. To live newer and richer and deeper. And the lights come on and we sing Alleluia. And day breaks and the bells ring. And Christ is risen and so are we.
Traditionally, this service is done just before dawn, so the glorias coincide with the breaking of the day. So when people leave a new day really has dawned. And that’s wonderful and rich because we feel the hope of the new day, everything does seem bright and new, like the new-fallen snow before the comings and goings of city life turn it gray and dingy.
But tonight, that’s where we part company from tradition. For various reasons, like many, we don’t do this service in the pre-dawn hours but the night before. And that means that though the lights are on and trumpets blaring now, in a little while we will leave this place not to the brightness of the new day, but once again to the darkness of the night.
But maybe that’s even more appropriate. Maybe that is the richest observance of all. Because when the trumpets sounded and the glorias and alleluias burst forth, it was glorious and made our hearts soar, but our troubles didn’t magically disappear. Our pains and fears didn’t melt away. We will leave this service this evening and go back to lives that are essentially the same as when we left them.
But there’s a gift there. The gift of an opportunity for the worship not to end but to continue. Precisely because we’re not leaving this place into the brilliance of the new morn, but into the darkness of night, we have the chance to be what we began this night by celebrating, what we became in baptism, what we are called to take out into the world. The light of Christ. The light of Christ that shines in the darkness.
Remember that first fire as night was falling and as we were gathering. Remember how brilliant it was cast against the darkness. How much more light it seemed to cast than the candles in this well-lit room. That is us. The Light of Christ. The Body of Christ. And if we can bit by bit, holding each others hands and gazing into each other’s eyes for strength, try to live that new life of wondrous love. If we can join hands and head back home into that world where our children are struggling in school and out. Where we have parents who are aging and far away. Where we have jobs where every week the pressure seems to get greater and the paycheck seems to cover less of what it takes to get by. Or maybe we’ve lost our jobs altogether and don’t know where that next paycheck is going to come from. Or maybe we’ve got classes that feel like they’re going to consume us and a job someday is only a hope and a prayer. Back home where we share the silence of sitting in bed together and letting the TV talk at us instead of talking with each other because it’s too hard or we’re too tired or we just don’t know where to start. Or maybe it’s a world where we know all too well the morning show on the radio or Jon Stewart and Jay Leno at night because they are the only voices that bring companionship to an empty home.
Back home to a world that feels an awful lot like Good Friday, but with the dream and hope of being Easter people.
If we can join hands with that light of Christ burning in our hearts and in our eyes, with the voice of Christ ringing through tongue and pen and head back into the world and our worlds, even though our lives and problems might be the same, maybe we’ll be different.
Christ is risen. We have been bound to him in his death and risen with him to new life. And what makes that worth celebrating isn’t that the darkness has magically gone away, but that as we head back out into it, Christ’s light goes with us and shines through us. Not dispelling the darkness, but providing a beacon of hope of safe passage through it for us and all who see us.