Tonight is my favourite service of the year – the Easter Vigil. I love this service because it has all the elements that I love. It starts outside and in the dark with the lighting of the Paschal candle before processing into the church, the Exultant is sung, baptism vows are renewed and the first Eucharist is celebrated. Tonight I have been invited to preach.
St Thomas – Easter Vigil
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen
I took the time this week to read and re-read the four gospel accounts of the first Easter Day. There are of course many similarities and many differences given the differing perspectives each of the writers had on this one event. I don’t think these differences diminish one over another but gives a richness, a fullness to the whole story.
I tend to like the mention of the women bringing perfume and spices in Mark and Luke. My younger sister on hearing one of these accounts at Sunday School, asked our Mum if she would please put perfume and spices on my sister’s body when she died. This was quite profound for a five-year-old: when she died, not if she died.
With all their differences there are things common to them accounts. One of these is that each gospel tells of something completely unexpected. Despite his teaching, Jesus’ followers had no expectation that he would rise from the dead. The resurrection came as a wonderful surprise!
My hope is that we have not lost the surprise of the resurrection. Yes we have the benefit of hindsight and we know how the story ends but this came mean that we lose the expectation, the surprise.
When was the last time you were genuinely surprised by something that blew away your expectations? Can we, for a few minutes, place ourselves in the story tonight? Try to forget that we know the ending?
There are three common elements in the four gospel accounts: the empty tomb, the announcement of the resurrection to the women, and the meeting of the disciples with the risen Jesus.
The empty tomb is found as the first day of the week was dawning, very early, while it is still dark; darkness signifies confusion and lack of understanding. Matthew does not make mention of the perfume and spices; the women would not have been able to see very much in the darkness and the guards wouldn’t have let them anyway.
For Matthew, the only reason the Marys were there was to see the tomb. They were there. They had seen the condition of Jesus’ body as they were at the cross until the end. I’m not sure if they wanted to see the body again, that would have been a horrible sight. Yet they were still willing to go, just to be there. How ready are we to go to in darkness and confusion, when things don’t make sense? When the job that is at hand is pretty horrible?
I don’t want to dampen the festive mood too much but neither do I want to gloss over the events of that first Easter morning. The sun rose that day as it has every day since but that isn’t to say that it was all Easter bonnets and bunnies.
I remember watching Cardinal Luis Tagle, he is the Archbishop of Manilla and the president of Caritas (the largest charity in the world) be interviewed; he is a very smiley and jovial man. He was asked about this and he commented, ‘as a people, it is true that for me and many Filipinos that we smile and laugh a lot because we cry a lot. People who have suffered know who to smile.’
In a few verses, the Marys leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. They went to the tomb to do one thing that they had expected and planned to do yet came away totally differently. They had to cry a lot before the joy came.
We will get to the joy but not quite yet!
I think that I have always pictured that first Easter morning as a fairly calm affair. The sun rose, the tomb was empty. I want it to be a calm affair – help my nerves Lord. No earthquakes and be-dazzled angels looking like lighting. I do like this angel though as he rolled back to stone and gets to the point. He also has two very important messages for the Marys.
The first one is: ‘Do not be afraid, I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
What are you afraid of?
What is it the keeps you awake in the middle of the night?
I am afraid of being forgotten, left behind or left out. I was on a ride along shift with Thames Valley Police emergency response Team 5 last night. I had been working on one of the computers when I realised the crew that had been assigned to look after me weren’t in the report room anymore. My first thought was, they forgot me.
Just as I am thinking this thought, another officer came to tell me that the crew had gone down to the wash bay and I was to meet them there in 5 minutes. Still convinced that I was to be left behind, I grabbed my hi-vis and went outside to the cars. The crew were washing the car and had decided to hoover it as well as they had ‘their vicar’ riding with them. Not only had I not been forgotten, special attention was being paid to make sure that I was not forgotten!
We get so convinced sometimes that we know! And so often we don’t. In the Romans reading, Paul talks of having the old self crucified with him so that sin might be destroyed; and we can be free. I think that I still have some of the old self still be crucified.
The angel knew exactly what the Marys were looking for. He knew their fears, their confusion and doubt. They get addressed! By showing up at the tomb, despite their feelings and their fears, the Marys have these very things addressed.
There is a lesson in this for those of us who have real fears. Bring them in the dark to God so he can reveal his light. He knows. You aren’t hiding anything from him. For some of us, we need to face up to our fears, get up close to them and see them for what they are. Sometimes they are nothing but by getting a closer look we can see that for ourselves.
Here’s the other thing, you don’t just have to take his word for it. The angel invites the Marys to ‘Come, see the place where he lay.’ The stone was rolled away, they could see for themselves that Jesus was not there. In my relatively trivial example of the police last night, I was not only told but was shown that I was not forgotten or about to be left behind.
Come and see that the Lord is good.
The Marys come to see and then they had to go with the message for the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee and will meet them there. Obedient to the instructions with fear and great joy they go.
Suddenly Jesus met them.
Suddenly! No expectation from the Marys, Jesus is there in front of them. Taking hold of his feet, without shame or reservation. Jesus wasn’t a ghost or an illusion – the resurrection body was real. Jesus knows the fear that his sudden appearing would have provoked. He welcomes them, the Mary’s knew who it was and worshipped him.
All four gospel accounts start in both literal and metaphorical darkness, in confusion, fear and no expectations of the resurrection. Each account ends with the proclamation that the Risen Jesus is indeed light and life.
We mirror this in the first Easter Eucharist we are about to celebrate tonight. We began in darkness, in fear. The fears that we have are known to God if no one else. We are invited in the Eucharist to exchange our fears, our slavery to that fear with light and life. We are invited to come, see the place where he lay; eat and drink in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us, and then go and tell so we too might walk in the newness of life.