Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most
By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
For many of us, Easter worship this year will look dramatically different than it has in years past. I know I am grieving that we won’t be packing into a sanctuary adorned with spring flowers, raising our voices as the swell of the organ and brass carries the sound of our joy, celebrating Christ’s resurrection with all the glory and gusto we can manage.
Recognizing that loss, I’ve heard pastors say that when we can gather together again, in person, with our people—that will be Easter. And it will—it will be a marvelous rebirth of our community after a long (much too long) dormant period.
Yet in some ways, I think this Easter will be much closer to what Easter originally felt like to the disciples. For them there was no glory or gusto. Instead, as they peered into the tomb at dawn, there was emptiness and gloom; confusion and contradiction; fear and doubt. No one began Easter morning dressed in new spring finery and no one gathered with special instruments to sing songs of praise, because on Easter morning the disciples were still in mourning, still lost and heartsick over devastating loss, still trying to grapple with a breath-taking new reality they had hoped never to experience.
For me, Easter Vigil (and Easter sunrise service) comes a little closer to this reality than the traditional Sunday morning pomp-and-circumstance celebration in the sanctuary. Of course, we still know the outcome, but there is a hush in the air; a sense of humility as we gather in plainer clothes and simpler circumstances. We are here to meet Jesus, not in the sanctuary, but in a cemetery.
And isn’t that the point? Jesus doesn’t wait for the moment of triumph. Instead, he meets us in the midnight hour, in the darkness before dawn, in the hopelessness of our lives and the brokenness of our world. This year—and every year—that will most definitely preach.
The first time I attended an Easter Vigil service was in college, at the UCC church just a mile from my campus. The thing I remember most about it was gathering outside and kindling a fire while the sun set and ancient words were read. It felt very elemental, and I remember feeling pleasantly surprised that such a primal-feeling service was part of my tradition.
The second time was a few years later at the Catholic cathedral where I sang in the choir during my year studying abroad in the south of France. We gathered before midnight to watch our friend Emanuel, a catechumen robed in white, be baptized into the church. When the clock rolled over to midnight, we broke our Lenten fast with platters of langoustines and profiteroles. Again, it felt ancient; sacred—like we were let in on a secret hours before anyone else would know the good news that Christ was risen…risen indeed!
In the lectionary readings for this service—famous for their quantity—there are the primal accounts of creation and the flood; stories of our foundational covenant with God and God’s making good on that promise by bringing the people out of bondage; pronouncements and praise and promise; zombie army performance art (thank you Ezekiel); good old Pauline exposition; and finally—finally—the Story; the good news that death has not triumphed! Love has!
I think each of these scriptures has the two pieces I felt at the vigil services I’ve attended: something elemental, fundamental, pointing to ancient forces playing off of each other in the oldest dynamic there is—light and dark, death and life, fire and flood, ancient wisdom, divinity and humanity. And good news that reads almost like a secret passed from person to person, people to nation, whispered in gardens and shouted from rooftops.
The Gospel reading, for instance, begins with an earthquake, an angel whose appearance recalls lightning and snow, and guards who faint at this blinding apparition. And then there is the message shared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (identified in Mark and Luke as Mary the mother of James, and likely the same Mary as the mother of James and Joseph who watched the crucifixion in Matthew 27:56): He is not here, he is raised; go and tell the others. (vv. 6-7)
Did you notice that even though the angel also tells the women not to be afraid, the Marys run off to share the news with a mixture of “fear and great joy” (v. 8)? (Maybe you’ve been there before, afraid to believe that what you could barely allow yourself to hope for has actually come to pass, your pulse racing and your stomach dropping even as your heart fills to bursting.) It doesn’t say so, but I imagine that the women’s fear only subsides when they actually meet Jesus, discovering for themselves that the angel’s good news is true.
This Easter, may we and our people encounter Jesus not just by hearsay, but for ourselves: in the midst of our fear and our joy, in the middle of the humility of our circumstances and in the celebration we manage to pull together anyway. In other words, may we meet him this year—and every year—where we need him most.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a nice long walk, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris.