The Great Vigil of Easter - Holy Saturday
April 19, 2003
The Gospel: Matthew 28:1-10
Sermon: "This is the night..."
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Matthew 28: 1-10
This is the night...
Easter Vigil, 2003 - April 19, 2003
Dear Friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
With these words begins the Great Vigil of Easter that we celebrate tonight: for this is the Passover of the Lord. The Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the fundamental event for our community, just as the Passover/Exodus event was and is the fundamental event for the Jewish people. The events of this Holy Week and Easter are closely tied to the stories of Passover and Exodus. It is for that reason that the reading of the story of the Exodus is always heard at this Easter Vigil service.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters don't just hold a memorial when they celebrate Passover. Rather, they take part in the saving acts of those events, in the same way that we Christians don't just hold a memorial of the Last Supper when we celebrate the Eucharist, but rather, Jesus becomes present for us in the bread and wine.
It is traditional in a Jewish home at Passover for the youngest child present to ask the traditional "four questions," which all have, as their overriding theme, "Why is this night different from every other night?" And this ancient question would be an excellent question for us, as Christians, to ask ourselves tonight. Why is this night so different from every other night?
For an answer we might well turn to the joyous Easter song, the Exsultet, which we heard Father Bill sing tonight:
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
Perhaps we think of the Resurrection as having taken place on Easter morning. Actually, we don't know what time of day it was. However, as the Gospel tells us, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came "as the first day of the week was dawning." It was dawn, and the tomb was empty; so it seems that it was sometime between dusk and dawn when Christ "broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave."
How holy is this night, the Exsultet continues, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord. How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.
"It restores innocence to the fallen." How can that be? It's a long time since we have felt innocent, isn't it? In today's world, even the little children aren't allowed to keep their innocence for long. Just a glance at the evening news talking about Iraq, parts of Africa and the Middle East…it all reminds us of that. Yet on this night, we are told, our innocence can be restored.
”…Joy to those who mourn.” Who among us does not mourn tonight? We mourn for those we love but see no more; we mourn for the lost opportunities of our lives, for the sins that weigh us down. No matter what the grief’s are that we carry with us this night, joy can be ours, because this night really is different, different from any other night.
And, we are told that this night “casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord”. What an exchange that is! Pride and hatred have done enough damage in our lives, haven't they? Who needs them? Especially if we can trade them in-if we can just give them to God and receive peace and concord in their place.
”How blessed is this night, heaven and earth are joined, and we can be reconciled to God”. That is really what God offers us tonight. We are bound to the earth, but God invites us to be citizens of heaven. We may have wandered far astray, but God calls us to be reconciled. Come home! God says to us. Christ is risen! And you are delivered from the gloom of sin; you are restored to grace and holiness of life.
When we look upon the flickering flame of the Paschal candle, it reminds us that Christ, the light of the world, is risen indeed. The resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is God's answer for all our questions, fears, and doubts. It is the assurance of all our hopes, dreams, and desires. The resurrection of Christ is the great watershed of history. It is the all-time most important event ever to take place in this world. All our hopes and dreams are centered in this. All our sorrows and heartaches find their relief in this. This is the day of God's triumph. It is the day God defeated the power of sin and death. It is the day God took a stand and said, "That is enough."
Yesterday, on Good Friday, they took God’s Son out and lashed Him with a whip. They mocked Him and insulted Him. They pressed down hard a crown of thorns. They led Him through the streets, a public spectacle. They took Him to a place outside the walls of the city, and there they nailed Him to a cross. Then they left Him there for dead.
God said, "That is enough. I will not stand for any more of this." Good Friday ended with God biding His time. The next day, a silent Saturday, and still God said nothing and did nothing. Then the first day of the week began to dawn. Now God was ready. Now He would do something about all this. Now He would take a stand and take a hand in what had been done to His Son.
On that day a new dawn broke upon the face of the earth. With the dawn of that new day the women made their way out to a garden tomb. There they made a world-shaking, history-making, breathtaking discovery which transformed their lives and the lives of all of His followers from that moment to this: "Christ the Lord is risen today."
Nothing has ever been the same. They thought they had defeated Jesus, but out of that defeat came triumph, glory, resurrection.
They believed they defeated Jesus and sent Him to the tomb -- but He overcame the power of death. God raised Him up. The tomb could not hold Him. As the women went out to that tomb in a garden there was an earthquake. The angel of the Lord came down and rolled away the stone. Then the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay."
The power of death had no power over Him, for the power of death was made weak by the power of God.
The tomb could not hold Him, for the bonds of God’s love were greater and stronger than the tomb.
The enemies of Jesus could not keep Him, for God defeated all of His enemies.
The dawn brought the sunrise of a new day, a new age, and a new reality. The reality of resurrection transformed and continually transforms everything. The resurrection becomes the “power of love” at work in our lives.
Even in the face of all that would defeat us, all the suffering we go through, all the situations we think are hopeless, we find in the resurrection of Christ -- the power, the hope, the strength to go on. Jesus overcame the power of death, and nothing will ever be the same.
Many believed that they had defeated Jesus and all who loved Him mourned -- but He said to them, "Rejoice!" It was a complete turnaround. For two days they had been in mourning. The women went out there to anoint His body with spices. But a time of mourning was turned into a time of rejoicing.
That’s the fundamental meaning of Easter today. Our times of mourning can be transformed, and even in the midst of them, we can find the strength and love to work our way through it. There are many times for all of us when life gets bogged down in sorrows and heartaches, when it seems to be going nowhere and nothing good is happening.
Just recall the disciples, not long after the resurrection, went back up to Galilee. Simon Peter said, "I am going fishing." The other disciples went with him. They fished all night and there was no fishing. They caught nothing. Early that next morning Jesus stood on the shore and called out to them, "Children, have you any food?" When they responded negatively, Jesus replied, "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find food."
There are times when in spite of Easter we keep looking on the wrong side, the empty side. In those times there is no fishing. This reminds me of an old story about a taxi driver who picked up a lady at a hospital in Chicago. He noticed her weeping, and after a few minutes began talking with her. He found out her mother had died. Then he asked her if she and her mother were Christians. When the woman said yes, he said, "Then why are you crying as if everything was over?"
Everything is never over because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the operative word in the midst of our sorrows and suffering is always "Rejoice!"
Finally, they believed they had defeated Jesus and put an end to what He began -- but He assured them there was no end. A new beginning grew out of what was thought to be a tragic ending. Jesus said to the women, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me." It was not the end at all. No one could put an end to what Jesus had begun. He had lit a fire in the hearts of His disciples which would never go out, a light shining in the darkness.
Jesus had told them early on, way back up there in Galilee on the side of a mountain, "You are the light of the world ... Let your light so shine before men...." It was the light of the resurrection, a light which no darkness has ever or will ever put out. The message of Easter is still that same message: "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers and sisters they will see me. I will meet them." He will always meet us out there in the future.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, I pray that you will leave this sacred ground tonight remembering this:
- In every situation, every challenge, every sorrow, The Risen Lord will meet us.
- In every act of kindness, mercy, and compassion, The Risen Lord will meet us and be with us.
- In every kind of ministry, service, and witness, The Risen Lord will meet us and bless us in what we do, what we give, and in what we hope for.
- In every act of study, prayer, and worship, The Risen Lord will meet us and be in the midst of us.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
And all God’s people proclaimed:
Christ is Risen, indeed. Alleluia