Lessons for the Great Vigil: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4; 9:4b-6; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11;Matthew 28:1-10
“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”
These are the words of the church, sung in the Exsultet with which the Easter Vigil begins. How blessed is this night.
This is the night when we tell again the great stories of our faith, ancient words with which people of faith recount the mighty acts of God, words that tell of the power of God, words through which God’s love for us has echoed throughout history – the ever-unfolding story of God seeking humans and reaching out to us in love.
This is the night when we hear the word of God, and God’s promise that God’s word is powerful and true. We hear this promise in the words from Isaiah:
“For as the rain and snow fall from the heavens, and return not again, but water the earth, Bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating, So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”
In these words we hear God’s guarantee that the stories we tell tonight, the words of our scriptures and psalms and prayers are not just stories, not just idle words to share around the fire. Tonight we tell love stories, words of God’s love for us, about how God’s word will accomplish that for which God sent it.
We tell these stories, knowing that the greatest word God spoke in love was THE Word, Jesus Christ.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Jesus was God’s greatest statement about love. Jesus used words to heal, not to dominate; to give hope, not to threaten. He used words to promise life and peace. He lived the words he spoke. So Jesus was a threat to Satan and the death-dealing forces of evil in the world. The evil one knew that he could not stop up people’s ears to the love song Jesus sang, so this Word made flesh must be silenced. And the cross would be the means of silencing the Word made flesh. Silenced. Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father and died – the Living Word silenced. Death had had the last word. And to ensure that death would have the last word, Pilate and the enemies of Jesus had posted guards at the tomb, just in case those who had followed Jesus might try to come steal his body and claim he had been raised as he said.
On this night, just as dawn was breaking, two women came to the tomb. We imagine the stillness of the night, just before daybreak. The quiet. The women expect no sound. They expect the silence of death. They had no words to say. Words are so hard in a time of death. What can we say? What comfort can we offer? Words cannot express the sadness we feel. The women come to the silent tomb.
But then, an earthquake – the world itself reverberates with the wounds of God’s other plans, God’s Good News shaking the foundations of the world. Our gospel reading tells us that the women found not silence, but an angel, whose appearance was like lightning, whose words must have rung out like thunder:
“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.”
And then he gave the two Marys words to say, their own glad tidings to tell:
“Go quickly and tell his disciples, He has been raised from the dead.”
They go, running with fear and joy. They go, running to tell, to share the news of the angel: he has been raised, as he said.
On the way, Jesus meets them. He speaks: Greetings. They come to him, take hold of his feet, and worship him.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Just as Isaiah said,
“My word will not return to me empty; But it shall accomplish that which I have purposed, and succeed in that for which I sent it.”
The Word of God could not be silenced. The risen Jesus, this enfleshed Word, stood before them, no apparition, no ghostly whisper, but real and true. The risen Word, Christ Jesus.
Then he said to them,
“Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
And the women, the first apostles, the first ones sent with a message of the Good News – good news that could not be silenced, that could not be sealed in a tomb, drowned out in a torrent of hatred or evil – the women go and tell: Death will not have the last word. The last word is love.
That message has been told, from witness to witness, from generation to generation. Not some long ago, far-away tale, but the living Word, witnessed to as one in our midst. Witnessed to as one who speaks a word of victory to us, not empty words, but words of strength and power and might – words of love. One who gives us words for each other, words for the world: healing words, words of comfort and new life. A message that the promise of new life is not empty words, but already won, already accomplished. Words of the victory of love proclaimed in creation: tree bud, lily blossom, and birdsong; words sometime whispered, sometimes sung and shouted; words in the peal of resurrection bells, word in the sound of a baby’s cry at the baptismal font, words proclaimed to us, and given to us to proclaim. Go, tell: Jesus has been raised, as he said.
Death will not have the last word. The last word is love.
What word can we say? What can we say in response to God’s victory? Tonight, on this holy night, after a long Lenten fast, we say “Alleluia,” the cry of jubilation, of praise to the Lord, shouted out by the church down through the centuries, untranslated. A word that means only praise, only wonder and amazement and jubilation.
What word can we say? Tonight, on this holy night, we say the words of our baptismal promises. We recommit ourselves to the God who delivered us from sin and evil. We bring others to God in Christ Jesus through baptism. We speak simple words, words given to us as a gift from God:
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
We remember that someone, sometime, spoke these words for us as the sign of the cross was traced on our foreheads. We remember that our names and Jesus’ name are together now: Christian. We remember that our names too are woven into the story of God’s mighty acts of salvation. Our names, along with Adam and Even, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Moses, Mary and Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, and John and countless others called and loved and redeemed by God.
As Isaiah said:
“So shall my word by that goes forth from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in that for which I sent it.”