This Is The Night   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, at the Easter Vigil on 31 March 2018.
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Luke 24:1-12*

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

This is the night. This is the night.

When we speak in technical theological terms about the Eucharist—the meal of thanksgiving that we share every Sunday and on feast days—we sometimes use the word anamnesis. In ancient Greek language it means remembrance, or reminiscence—Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember all of God’s saving deeds throughout history—the most important of which is Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we are united with the human family who has experienced and celebrated those deeds through all of the generations. All the saints of the Church, known to us and unknown, are present with us, remembering with us, helping us remember what we know only through their stories. Anamnesis.

But tonight—our Easter Vigil—is the mother of all anamneses. This is the night on which our remembrance both commences and culminates.

Imagine sitting with the male Disciples on the first Holy Saturday. Your Chosen One has just been executed by the state, and you’ve locked yourselves in a room to escape the same fate.

What might you do in that room to keep a grasp on your faltering faith?

You might tell stories of God’s saving deeds in history, how God saved God’s people in ages past. You might pray that—despite the death you’ve just witnessed—God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.

You might tell the great story of the Exodus—how God led your spiritual ancestors out of bondage and split a sea in two to bring them to safety.

You might recall Ezekiel’s Surrealistic vision of a long-dead skeletal nation having its flesh and its breath—its spirit, its life—restored.

You might tell any one of the other several stories listed beginning on page 288 of the Book of Common Prayer—I’m sure at least one or two of the disciples must have been Episcopalians and had a BCP at the ready.

Meanwhile—while the men are in hiding—the female disciples are on their way to the tomb. Perhaps they are confidant that their gender would save them from the capital punishment that might await their male counterparts, or perhaps they are simply more courageous. They bring spices and balms to honor Our Lord by further preserving his body…

Meanwhile, Our Lord has descended to the dead, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it—or as it is sometimes translated, descended into Hell. If that wording shocks you, it’s worth remembering that neither the Jewish tradition nor the first Christians had our concept of Hell as a place of damnation. The Hebrew word Sheol—sometimes translated as Hell or as the grave—didn’t have a connotation of morality or judgment, but simply meant death: eternal sleep and darkness. So perhaps Jesus is merely in darkness and rest—eternal sleep that won’t really be eternal.

But there is also a story in our tradition called The Harrowing Of Hell. If you do an image search on The Harrowing Of Hell, you’ll see an Orthodox Icon of Jesus standing on the broken door of Hell, pulling Adam and Eve out of their graves. Since Christ has overcome death, death no longer has hold on humanity. The word “harrowing” means “extremely disturbing or distressing.” The death and resurrection of God incarnate is something so powerful and earth-shattering that hell itself is disturbed; death itself quakes in fear.

Which brings us back to the tomb, which the female disciples find empty, the heavy stone somehow unsealed and rolled away. Two messengers from God tell them that Jesus is risen. The anamnesis continues: “Remember how he told you…” “They remembered his words…” and they go tell the apostles—becoming apostles—sent forth—themselves.

“But these words seemed an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” As Luke will tell us in the sequel to his Gospel, Peter will come a long way in the next 50 days, but for now, like so many men in his and our own time, he and the other male disciples have trouble accepting the word of women. The text doesn’t tell us this, but I hope he apologized to Mary Magdalene and the other women once he returned from seeing for himself.

This is the night that changes a small group of followers into an international, multi-cultural Jesus Movement. This is the night that tells us that all God’s saving deeds in history have been leading to something. This is the night that testifies that death and hell are not the end.

At the turn of the 5th Century, St. John Chrysostom—Chrysostom is a nickname meaning “Golden-Tongued”—wrote a Paschal homily that is a wonderful statement on Easter. It goes:

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let her, rejoicing, enter into the joy of her Lord.
If anyone has wearied themself in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let her feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let her not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; God gives rest to them that come at the eleventh hour, just as to them who have labored from the first.
God has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one God gives, and to the other God is gracious.
God both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn her transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.
The One that was taken by death has annihilated it!
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept.
To God be glory and might unto ages of ages.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


*You’re right: the appointed Gospel lesson for the Vigil this year is from Mark 16; a clerical error/miscommunication resulted in my using the Luke instead. 

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