Readings online here.
The Easter Vigil really is my favorite service of the year. We go through the drama of waiting in near-total darkness, waiting for more light to dawn, and then finding ourselves suddenly flooded with light, ringing bells, festive hymns, shouts of triumph. The whole message seems pretty obvious: what we’ve long been waiting for is finally here. “Christ is risen,” we shout. It’s one big party from now on.
Except it’s not, not this year. We can’t even gather for this celebration. People are dying. Others are losing their livelihoods with no idea how they will make ends meet. But maybe that’s something we should be more aware of in any year, not just this one.
After all, part of the usual celebration is going forth in the name of Christ. And when we do this after the Vigil, we notice that it’s still night outside. All the light, all the happy noisemaking, doesn’t even make a dent in the night that’s all around us. At least that’s how it looks.
And in other years, when you get home and take stock of things you don’t see much that’s changed. Armies and terrorists aren’t ever likely to announce that they’ve suddenly decided to forgive each other. Politicians aren’t ever likely to announce that they’re going to stop worrying about reelection and focus on doing what’s best for everybody. (Well, yes, they might announce that—but you’re not likely to believe them.) Churches aren’t likely to practice what they preach any better than usual. People dear to you aren’t likely to be any easier to love. And you’re not likely to find yourself much easier to love either. Now true enough, every once in a while, something wonderful and utterly unexpected really does happen. But not often enough, and you start to wonder, can any of that make even a dent in the night that’s all around?
So really, why, for nearly 2000 years, do we get together at night-time and act as if it’s daylight from now on? Have we taken total leave of our senses? Maybe after all this time we should stop pretending and get real.
But getting real is precisely why we do this. Getting real is what this party’s all about. We’re not pretending that all our problems are solved. We’re not pretending that it’s not still night outside, or that there aren’t plenty of shadows inside. No, instead we’re proclaiming that we’re not afraid of the dark anymore. There’s a light that enlightens everyone that’s shown even in our darkness, and now we know that it can’t be quenched.
Jesus’ first followers really hoped he’d put an end to their problems. They were counting on him to go to Jerusalem, kick out that occupying army, and start a reign of justice and peace, with them at the center of things. That’s not what happened. The army killed him instead. When he began to appear afterwards, it didn’t topple any governments. It didn’t suddenly change the minds Pilate or any other skeptics, and it certainly didn’t protect any of his followers from suffering the same kind of rejections he suffered. But it did give them the courage to move out into uncharted territory, a world still shrouded in night, to spread through a whole empire with a message they knew would sound more than a little silly.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, those apostles to the apostles, saw the risen Jesus on their way to tell the some puzzling news to a bunch of men who weren’t in the mood to listen to women. Those men finally believed enough to follow Jesus to Galilee—the land of outsiders—where they saw him only long enough to be sent beyond even those borders. They went out with strange practices—a bath and a meal that brought both death and new life; and they preached just as strange a message—a God who lets people do their worst and keeps coming back for more. Their movement grew beyond their ability to control it, but they never won any popularity contests. They never got that revolution they had wanted, and they never got to settle down and live happily ever after. What they got instead was an unquenchable light that let them face any darkness, any uncertainty, any fear with full honesty.
That’s what we’re celebrating tonight, even this year—a new light, a newly kindled flame that stays with us even when we walk out the door into the night. It’s what keeps us from giving up just when it looks like nothing will ever change. It’s what moves us into uncharted territory as we find new ways to be faithful in a world that’s changing catastrophically once again. It’s what lets you see yourself and the person you find most annoying, with all your shortcomings, as reflections of God’s joy and love.
It’s all about getting real, and learning not to be afraid of the dark anymore.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!