April 20, 2019, Easter Vigil, John 20:1-18
I make no secret of the fact that the Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the church year. It’s a service that has it all – darkness and light, fire and water, sadness and joy, and what seems like the entire story of God’s People if you do all twelve readings (we only do four so while I’m sure this seems long, it could be soooo much longer). While of course Easter morning is beautiful and typically draws the big crowds with over the top celebrations including Easter lilies, multiple choirs, trumpets, bells, Easter egg hunts, Easter breakfasts and Alleluias galore, I always feel like there is something missing from that service and those who attend are missing out. I’m sure most of them don’t feel that way, they go because it offers exactly what they want from it: the good news of Jesus’ resurrection in an uplifting and festive worship experience. However, for me there is so much more than that to the story that I think the vigil includes that Easter morning alone does not.
It is that movement from darkness into light. The liturgy includes it as we begin outside in the dark and light the new fire and then light the Paschal candle which leads us through the dark into the nave where the light of Christ is shared and is our only light in the still dark worship space as we hear the familiar stories of God’s People throughout time. And then after we remember our baptism and hear how we are joined to Christ, not just in a death like his, but also a resurrection like his, all the lights go on and we celebrate the resurrection breaking forth with our first Alleluias since the start of Lent. To me this movement through the liturgy is like our movement in so much of life, from times of darkness to times of light. From times when all seems lost and hopeless and we have given up, to times when the light finally breaks through and reveals all is not lost and the ending we expected is not the ending we end up getting.
Life is not all Easter joy and Alleluias, is it? We might like it to be and we might try to project that image of our lives to others, especially in these days of social media and social pressure to keep up with the Joneses. However, if we are really honest with ourselves and others, life includes a lot of those times of darkness that we must travel through to get to the light. Many of those Easter only worshippers try to skip all of Holy Week because they don’t want to have to go through that darkness. They’d rather go straight to Easter Sunday and miss facing the discomfort of facing what happens in the dark. For them what happens in the dark stays in the dark or at least that’s just how they’d like it to be as it is easier to ignore that way. And while I understand that, is that really how life is? If we just ignore or look the other way and don’t face the darkness, does that make it cease to exist?
No, and the message from the gospel of John that we read on this night at the vigil reminds us that darkness is part of life and leads us to the light. Notice how it begins. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” The Easter story doesn’t being at first light with the sun gently rising over the horizon. It begins in darkness. It begins with sadness, grief, mourning and loss. It beings with confusion, fear, uncertainty and pain. It begins with hopelessness, panic and worry. Yet, while Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and all the other disciples are dwelling in this dark time in their life as they think their friend is dead and buried in a tomb, resurrection happens. In the quiet of early morning before the sun comes up new life appears and hope springs forth. No one is there to see or hear. God went to work in the cover of dark not revealing the mystery of the details of how it happened. Yet, there in the dark everything is changed forever.
And who was there to be the first to see it? Those holding out for the first sign of light to appear? No. Mary Magdalene. The one who wasn’t afraid to wait in the dark. The one who showed up at the tomb while it was still too early for any shred of light to be in the sky. She leaves when she finds the tomb empty only to get the others and share the news with them, but as soon as they see what she has said is true they simply turn around and head back home while Mary stays weeping outside the tomb. As Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber puts it, Mary “remains present to what is real, to what is actually happening.”
And that is why I think the vigil is my favorite service. It is present with us in what is the reality of life. It doesn’t let us skip over the difficult parts of the story so we can sail smoothly toward only the joyful and uplifting parts. Instead, it meets us in the messiness of life and allows us to be ourselves there. It doesn’t demand that we clean ourselves up so that we are more acceptable. It allows us to be real, to be who we are. To dwell in the dark of our current reality and to know that isn’t the end. The story isn’t over yet. God is still at work. Just wait and you’ll see! Darkness leads to the light! Death leads to new life! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!