Sermon Archives

Saturday, March 26, 2016
The Great Vigil of Easter 2016
The Reverend Dr. Sam Portaro, Jr., Guest Preacher
Easter Vigil

The Great Vigil of Easter is a bit of a tease, especially when the gospel at the center of the celebration is limited to the first twelve verses of the 24th chapter of Luke. But that’s what we’re given, and just like the penultimate episode of any season of Downton Abbey, you’ll have to come back tomorrow for the finale.

For now, we have Mary Magdalen, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who’d come from Galilee with Jesus, an empty tomb and two unidentified strangers whose only distinguishing characteristics are their fabulous clothes—said to be “dazzling”—and an unnerving tendency to speak in unison, which, by the way, are said to be the casual attire and behavior of angels. So even the angels in this story are unusually subdued, like undercover agents wary of blowing their mission, which—it would seem—is uncharacteristically gentle. Unlike angels whose presence and proclamations upset and up-end human lives, these two are here simply to greet anyone in search of Jesus and to pass along a cryptic message only an insider would understand: Just remember what he told you. They did, and it began to make sense.

Still, liturgically speaking, it's all down hill from Palm Sunday. After that enthusiastic outburst in Jerusalem, everyone seems to slink into the shadows with embarrassment. It's a bit like that moment when you're speaking very loudly to the person next to you at the concert to be heard above the music and there's a sudden rest, your voice echoing clearly across the auditorium. Suddenly that seat you're in can't sink low enough to hide you.

That's how I picture all those happy campers in the back streets of Jerusalem after the parade, after Jesus is apprehended, arrested and hauled off to court—then to death. Suddenly everything gets very quiet. And it stays that way. Except for an eclipse, a sudden unexpected rending of the Temple veil, and a late-night earth tremor that relocates the stone in front of the tomb, there’s not a lot going on.

Folks are lying low in the day and more or less skulking about at night. And whatever excitement attends the events of Easter itself is pretty much restrained and hidden. Everyone's a little cautious in that "did you see what I saw?" manner of explaining any mystery. And, of course, they're all pretty much scared witless that their name’s on somebody’s list for crucifixion.

When we arrive at the tomb with the women tonight, things are pretty calm and subdued. The stone’s been rolled from the entrance, but there’s no anxiety and no one imagines God's involvement at all. There're no trumpets, no processions, but just the opposite; everyone's terribly concerned to keep a very low profile. No ambushes or arrests, And strangest of all—no Jesus.

He’s curiously absent. The story’s pretty unremarkable: The women tell the men what they’ve seen and are dismissed as purveyors of an idle tale beneath credibility. Peter’s even in character, rushing to go see for himself—and just as characteristically, he simply goes home amazed—which is hardly a new posture for him.

After a while, it's as though the very ordinariness of it all is the most incredible and miraculous dimension of the story. Only after it begins to sink in does a new appreciation of Easter emerge. At least for me, there’s gospel in the quiet of Easter.

That gospel is the very sanctification of the ordinary. In words like “perplexed,” “terrified,” and “amazed;” in the simplicity and the quiet ordinariness of human beings responding to a mystery with common human emotions, there’s a sublime beauty, and a comforting good news. It's the good news that our lives, in their seeming inconsequential ordinariness, are holy. It's not that resurrection portends some special or extraordinary purpose, but impresses with its very commonness. It's not power and victory, not riches and thrones, but an unexciting group of perplexed women, incredulous men in hiding, and a curious guy who simply goes home amazed.

What more glorious news could we have? We who’re so programmed to the exceptional that we despair of our average-ness? We who’re so anticipatory of the romantic and orgasmic that we don't know love's simplicity and tender calm? We who’re so primed for achievement and wealth that we’re unappreciative of our privilege and our bounty? We who’re so afraid of dying unknown and alone that we never really know what it is to live honestly among others? This good news is for us—specifically for us.

In this uncharacteristically and uncommonly common resurrection we see the glorious good news that this gift—this resurrection—is intended for this life. It's not an exception for an elect few. It's not a gratification to be delayed. It's a present reality. Jesus’ conspicuous absence is a discreet humility that refuses to dilute or diminish God’s unconditional love exemplified in the gift of eternal life. Jesus’ absence only emphasizes that God has given us everything we need, that everything is blessed in resurrection.

So it is that in this brief moment we step out of the beauty of the extraordinary celebrations of these latter days, and into the quiet, the usual routine of bread and wine shared in communion, not only at this table and this ritual, but in every moment of our very common lives. This is where we find the resurrected Jesus—in the midst of family gathered—and remembering.