A Vigilant Vigil: An Easter Vigil Sermon

advent candle

Exodus 14:10–31; 15:20–21 / Romans 6:3–11 / Mark 16:1–8

Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we come to know your Living Word, O Lord. Amen.

I must admit, when Reverend Robert invited me, about a month ago, to give the homily for the Easter Vigil service this year, I was not only deeply honoured, but I was very excited. The Easter Vigil service has, for quite a while now, been my favourite church service of the calendar year. If you would permit me to share a personal anecdote with you, I will tell you how it came to be so.

About fifteen years ago, when I was living in Montreal, and trying very hard to improve my French (although without much success, alas!), I used to like to go to French mass at one of the Catholic churches downtown. I grew up Catholic, so I knew the liturgy and all the responses very well, and this helped me to absorb the French a bit more easily. The church I liked best to go to was the Cathedral of Mary, Queen of the World (Marie-Reine-du-Monde), a replica on two-thirds scale of St. Peter’s Basilica, complete with the great Bernini altar in the middle of its cross-shaped floorplan. To the side on the right of its long axis is a small baptismal chapel furnished with a slightly larger-than-life-sized stucco crucifix, well-meritedly considered to be one of the most impressive pieces of Québec religious sculpture, by the famed Québec sculptor of the late 19th / early 20th century, Louis-Philippe Hébert.

It is typical as a crucifix: Jesus hangs on the cross with his eyes towards heaven, his many wounds of flagellation visible, a crown of thorns on his head, nails prominently piercing his hands and feet. What is remarkable about it, however, is the depth given by the artist to the flagellation wounds. I mean literal depth: gouges measurable nearly in inches into the flesh, chunks of flesh torn off, or seemingly just hanging on by a membrane, littering the surface of the figure’s chest, abdomen, and legs to the knees. Of course, in some sense, this is standard (if medieval) Catholic fare for meditation on the crucifixion, for meditation on Christ’s suffering and death for the sins of humankind.

Yet it was not the crucifixion, neither suffering nor death, that I meditated upon one day after the mass, as I spent some extra time in the side chapel looking at this crucifix. Rather, it was the resurrection that I contemplated; or, to be more precise, it was the vigil of Holy Saturday. For it struck me then that, despite the brutal mutilation of the torso, the stucco skin was nevertheless particularly alive. It seemed as if Jesus’ body had become, precisely with the severe rupturing of the flesh, so porous that it had become in some sense susceptible to the resurrection⎯physically, materially, intimately open to the inflow of the transforming love of the divine into its very cells. If I may quote here the late, great Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

We are celebrating tonight the Easter Vigil which includes the Service of Light⎯the Light which is the Love of God, and which is also the Life everlasting. The Greek Orthodox tradition puts especial emphasis on this Light in its core teaching of theosis, or deification, of transfiguration into the resurrection state, a process that begins even in this very life. One of the 10th century Byzantine saints, a monk and poet named Symeon, was said to be so receptive to this Light that his body glowed; in one story told about him, some of his fellow monks wanted to kill him, but when they came at him with knives, the Light from his body shone so powerfully that it repelled them.

Ever since that day, fifteen years ago, before the crucifix in that cathedral in Montreal, the guiding question of my life has become how to open myself, body and soul, to that Light. The guiding task has become how to become porous, body and soul, to receive into me the life-giving love of God. Such openness, such porousness, requires a vigilance. We are not, naturally, significantly open to God. We like settled structures. We like the comfort of closed systems. The body loves to sleep. In our first reading today, we hear of how the Israelites, a generation of Israelites who knew only slavery, were afraid and spoke against Moses, saying that they preferred slavery in Egypt to dying in the wilderness. They did not know, they were not open to the wilderness as a place where God’s Spirit, as a pillar of fire, as Light, would lead them forth to freedom. The heart that has long dwelt in darkness, or even dimness, is afraid of that Light. The body that sleeps in the tomb, and even in the bed, is afraid of the Life that quickens unto everlasting glory. And the older we get, the more set in our ways we get too. Our lives unfold most of the time as in a series of self-protective grooves. Our institutions become stagnant. Even our muscles tighten and shrink and could really use a good stretching at least once a day. But this is to be expected. We after all carry within us, within our bodies and souls, the consequences of the fallenness of humanity; or, if you prefer, the evolutionary residue of about four billions years since the emergence of life on Earth. It takes a long time for settled structures to open to higher forms of life; and in the mean time, many die.

This evening we are also renewing our baptismal vows. Let us take a moment to appreciate the radical openness of a baby. Babies are like sponges for God’s Light. They barely have any structure at all. They are all growth, all burgeoning life, all openness to the unknown, because everything is unknown ⎯ drinking in love like water, because they know not yet the life in which a lack of love requires them to close themselves to survive. The word “radical”, of course, means, literally, “root”. It can traced back through both Latin and Greek to the Proto-Indo-European word wrad, meaning “root”. (A radish is, quite literally, a vegetable that is “root-ish”.) And, of course, Newfoundlanders know all about roots and love root vegetables. Therefore, we should be particularly good at being radical, of radically opening ourselves to God’s Love and Light and Life, even unto the very root of our being. That root is neither pure spirit nor pure physical matter, but somehow their communion. It is also the place where we are fully consciously in communion with God, and with others in God. Imagine the intimacy of that root then. Imagine the intimacy of the tomb in which a body and soul has become so open, so porous, that it is capable of receiving into itself the infinite. Imagine a heart, a mind, a soul, a body so open – imagine yourself so open, that you allow yourself to be gifted to yourself as your own immortal life. Imagine the intimacy of that moment of awakening, the very first breath, the first heartbeat, the first feeling in the transfigured limbs, the first awareness that someone has called your name⎯and you hear it as if you are hearing it for the first time, and yet, at the same time, as if you have always heard it, as if from eternity, yet you are only just now remembering. Imagine the dazzling intimacy of utter communion with the voice of that eternal call; and then allow yourself to be embraced into Him and glorified in every cell of your being, even in this lifetime.

Such imagination is the vigilance of the Easter Service of Light. It is the vigilance that welcomes the Light of the divine in the resurrection. It is a vigilance in which one feels oneself welcomed by the divine. A few years back I wrote a poem about this vigilance. I was meditating on how the human nature of Jesus received into itself to be transformed the Light and Love of the Father. I always enjoy when Reverend Mark, in his sermons, reads poetry. I ask you to indulge me then, and forgive me for reading my own poetry. But this is the poem that I wrote about the vigilance of Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday

Yeshu’a, beloved of You, Father, was enfolded in shade,

sleeping in that tomb of death within which he was laid.

But something he commended to You, which was his gift

just before he died upon the cross, encountering that rift

between worlds, the rupture housing th’emptiness of being;

something he delivered up just as Nothingness, decreeing

its domain and rule and triumph, embraced him in night –

while that which he had offered up found You in Light,

and so was by You welcomed mightily as a King’s son,

victorious after battle, glorious in the splendour of deeds done.

What was that treasure bequeathed? Lo! He called it “spirit”;

and from the depths lifted he it that You might hear it! –

depths which anon slept cold without breath (so suffer the dead).

But beauty so immortal had in living hours knelt upon his head

that You would have it not be but a truth of one passing day.

That which he delivered, thus, You returned to that which lay

still in the shadow-tomb without You (so suffer those in hell).

But You⎯with that which he had gifted – woke him. O! Tell

all the world, tell my heart and soul what his first thought was,

his primal feeling, what his heartbeat sang then – tell what does

such a waking give to Man on the inside! Yea! infinite Love

is wholly what Your Person is if to depths You bent from above

so as to glorify not just the gift, but even the son who gave it,

to make to breathe eternally a singular earthly fact to save it

from the dust of its undoing in time, down history’s tall ways.

O! Let the earth rejoice! A child of her flesh now lives always!

May we receive into ourselves, body and soul, this evening,

the Light of God and the Love of God, which

is our everlasting Life. Amen.

Dr. Michelle Rebidoux is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at Memorial University and Adjunct Professor at Queen’s College Faculty of Theology. She attends the 10:30 am worship at St. Mark’s and is the artist behind our chancel mural project.

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