April 23, 2011 – The Great Vigil of Easter
Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Yesterday morning, I got an e-mail from a parishioner, who posed an interesting question: “When does Lent end?” I thought about skirting the question with a wishy-washy answer like, “Whenever you decide it does,” but he mentioned in his e-mail that my professional opinion was being sought to help settle a small wager. Not being one to let opportunities when theology and money intersect pass by without comment, I pulled out my Book of Common Prayer. Quoting the rubrics that outline the details for this service, the Easter Vigil, I replied, “The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”
That’s still a fairly vague answer, but I’m told it was enough to secure a small payment for our fellow parishioner—10% of which I expect to see in the offering plate. Basically, Lent ends whenever we first behold the empty tomb and realize that Jesus has risen from the dead. For us, that happened about 12 minutes ago, when we turned on the lights and cried out, “Alleluia!” But really, it could have happened at any point between sunset on Saturday and sunrise on Friday. In most cases, it’s hard to know when the good news first breaks. Regardless, as Christians we celebrate the reality of the resurrection rather than a particular moment locked in chronological precision.
Of all the gospel accounts, however, Matthew’s seems most interested in pinning down the miracle of the empty tomb to a specific moment in time. As tonight’s lesson reads, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” Matthew is the only gospeller who tries to explain how the stone was rolled away. The other three are satisfied by leaving that little detail unexplained. Matthew, though, wants us to encounter the empty tomb as it happened—to ring out that first great Easter moment with such clarity that could only be delineated by an earthquake.
An earthquake—really? Might there be just a touch of overstatement there? You may not be surprised to hear me say that I don’t really like those passages in the gospel that are completely over the top. Of the four gospels, usually I prefer Mark’s account because his is the plainest, the simplest, and the most straight-forward. Passages like this one in Matthew, when a central moment in our faith (like the resurrection) gets yoked to an unbelievable phenomenon (like an earthquake), seem to have their impact ameliorated by their hyperbolic quality.
But that’s where I was last week—before I read a letter that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to a six-year-old from Scotland. Tonight, something is different.
Lulu Renton is like many British six-year-olds. She goes to school in a country where the lines between church and state are blurred even though she lives in a home where no faith is practiced. Her father, a journalist for the Times of London, was surprised when she came home with an assignment that required her to write a letter to God, asking, “How did you get invented?” To his credit, he decided not to let his ardent non-belief influence her letter, instead forwarding it to the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, and to the theological head of the Anglican Communion—Rowan Williams—who was the only person to write back with an age-appropriate reply. This is the content of his letter:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.
Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.
I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
“Then they invented ideas about me—some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible.” That’s a wonderful way to think about humanity’s relationship with God. God created the universe, and we’ve been trying to figure it out ever since. Sometimes God’s hints are subtle—like a gentle breeze—and other times they are earth-shattering. And, as Rowan Williams points out, God’s clearest revelation came in the form of his son, Jesus.
What, then, is God like? God is resurrection. God takes our darkest moments and brings light where no light seems able to shine. God is the empty tomb. He takes our broken and damaged lives and puts us back together in his love. God is victory over death. Anything that we could ever imagine coming between us and God—even our very worst—is overwhelmed by God’s transformative love.
There is no superlative too great, too powerful, or too magnificent for the miracle of Easter. No account of the resurrection could overstate that which happens on this night. Tonight we celebrate that God has made himself known to us—not only in the stars of the night sky and in the quiet calmness of a morning’s dawn—but in the greatest expression of triumphant love that the universe has ever seen. Even the rocks and the hills cry out in celebration that the Lord is risen this night. Even the earth quakes under the magnificence of the empty tomb. Amen.