Great Vigil of Easter

Christos anesti!
Alethos anesti!

Try it again…

Christos anesti!
Alethos anesti!

“Mortal, can these bones live?” “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Christos anesti!
Alethos anesti!

“Mortal, can these bones live?” “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Christ is Risen,
The Lord is risen indeed.

This second year of Holy Week in a pandemic, and hopefully the last, and here is Easter, but alas without its usual fanfare. Last year we bantered around the awareness that the very first Easter was celebrated in fear and hiding. That scene is best painted in the Markan Gospel, which we just read. Last year’s Mathean Gospel is a little more joyful and a little less fearful. This year, we have grown somewhat used to the virus, and perhaps we are a little less fearful. Of all the liturgies of Holy Week that we have recovered with the “new” 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I think the Great Vigil of Easter had already faced the most difficult, uphill battle toward adoption, made a little more difficult by the pandemic. Maybe the difficulty of the adoption of the GVE is something rooted in the religious versus secular battle, maybe drawing from deep in the recesses of our minds and in our memories. I do believe that Christ is greater, but I do not underestimate the power of the Easter bunny appearing on Easter morn and the memories and family time that conjures up as a pull toward an Easter morning celebration rather than a night Great Vigil of Easter celebration.

And still the Vigil service has its arms around the wholeness of our faith, theologically. When we look at the large arc of what God is up to, it is difficult to grasp. The Great Vigil of Easter brings it home to us, forms a capstone of what God is up to. The liturgy practically preaches itself as we hear the Old Testament scripture recounting works of salvation. We ponder this salvation as we stretch the night into darkness, into the “new day”, from our Judeo-Christian heritage, which starts at sundown. In THIS night, we remember that God is making new things, but God is forever remaking old things too.

In a nutshell, God is ALWAYS offering salvation. There is a reason why we don’t toss out the Old Testament scriptures. And I repeat, God is ALWAYS offering salvation. We particularly see it in a poetic sense in the Dry Bones reading. I find it funny how many people really love this reading. I don’t think it is just the Dem Bones song. I mean we have a bunch of human body parts coming together, having spirit breathed into them, brought to life. It might be pretty moribund if it wasn’t also poetically beautiful. As a physician whose previous specialty was death, I have always been intrigued by the Dry Bones reading from Ezekiel. This is a culture very different than our own. Ezekiel and his congregation from around 600 BC, were clearly very familiar with death. We know they knew what happens to a body after death, because the remaking of the body into a living body is exactly the opposite of what happens in nature when a body breaks down.

It was St. Ambrose of Milan (and contemporary Biblical scholars) who understood Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, which otherwise might be a little disturbing, to mean that Israel would be restored to their homeland, having been displaced in exile to Babylon in 600 BC. It was also understood as a promise to those who felt they were as good as dead in Babylon, that they would be brought home to the Promised Land. AND it was also about the resurrection of us all, which will occur at the End of Days. Jewish teachers had understood the dry bones story in these ways around 100 years before Christ. Thus all of Israel would be restored and the human race would be renewed.

And as we understand the Resurrection of Jesus this was forecast in the reading from Ezekiel— we could say that this bringing to life is understood to be the dead who were raised; these were the People of God, Israel, restored and made whole. This is not resuscitation, which just delays death, but this is resurrection, never to die again. If the bones were resurrected, then they were never to die again, that meant that Death itself was dead. To me, Paul gets at that in the letter to the Romans. We die with Christ, our life in sin is dead; and we are raised with Christ in baptism to a new resurrected life.

What does mean for us to say that Death itself is dead? It reminds me of a hymn in one of our hymnals, perhaps little used in the west, but known and beloved in the churches of the East: “Christ is risen from the dead. Trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life, bestowing life.” WLP 817

To live a resurrected life is to live a life fully. It means we can choose to not lead a life which is as good as dead. When we choose to actively disconnect from behaviors by which we hide from God and our neighbor, when we turn away from behaviors that tie us to the fallen nature of the world, you could use the word “sin,” then and only then to we live. And we are not left to the strength of our own will to make this turn: God gives both the invitation and the power to accept it, wrapped up in the gift of forgiveness when we fail.

God’s story with humanity through the Old and New testaments, even in the few passages we heard tonight, offers salvation: a new people to the Israelites freeing the imprisonment of Egypt, God offers a new heart and a new spirit in Ezekiel, God offers a new people to Israel from exile as sinews form over bones, Every time we hear listen to the Words of Christ, every time we gather how ever we gather in Christ name, and when we receive the Body of Christ in order to be the Body of Christ in the world. In all those things the dead is raised. The dead in us is raised, and all creation moves one step closer to redemption.

For Jesus calls us not into death, but rather to follow Him onto the cross of the crucified, so to open ourselves to the resurrecting possibilities of new life. 

Christ is risen, and with him we are risen – the Lord is risen indeed!

Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Ezekiel 36:24-28
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Zephaniah 3:14-20

Romans 6:3-11
Mark 16:1-8