loyaThe Great Vigil of Easter

The Reverend Craig Loya, Canon to the Ordinary, Diocese of Kansas

Many of you may have seen the movie “Silver Linings Playbook”, which was nominated for several Oscars this year. It’s the story of a young man named Pat who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. He spent several court-ordered months there after he brutally assaulted the man with whom his wife was having an affair. When he gets out, he is intent on winning his wife back, but she has a restraining order against him, so he can’t contact her. He pursues a friendship with a recently widowed acquaintance of hers as a possible way of getting through. As they spend time together, it quickly becomes obvious to everyone but Pat that the young widow loves him and his wife does not. He is so intent on pursuing a relationship that has clearly died that he cannot see the new life and joy that is staring him in the face. So one of the central questions of the film is whether the death and suffering that is an inescapable fact of his life will continue to be the final word on who he is.

And I think that’s also the question that is posed to us by this night. In the gospel lesson we just heard, when the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb, they find it open, his body gone, and two angelic figures suddenly appear and ask them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Why do you look for the living among the dead?
This is the night, when the light of God’s life pierces the darkness that so often engulfs our world and our lives. This is the night when we are invited to turn our gaze from the death, and the sadness, and the suffering that so often marks us toward the light of the new life offered to us in Christ. We are invited on this night to let go of the ways we are trapped by what has died, and instead embrace a life lived in the light of Christ’s victory over death.

That’s all easy enough to say, but if you really stop to think about what we’re doing here tonight, if you really stop to think about the claims we’re making, you might just find yourself as terrified as the women in the gospel, or as bewildered as the other disciples with whom they later share the news.

Because what we’re claiming tonight is that death isn’t what it seems. Death—real, cold, unavoidable, heartbreaking death—has been overcome by the power of God’s life. So this isn’t a cheap joy, this isn’t just sentiment, or warm feelings. This is a joy that has been refined through the unspeakable agony of Good Friday, this is a joy that has gone through the sickness, and the suffering, and the betrayal, and the broken promises, and the unexplainable evil, and the deep grief that we have all seen and known in our lives, and it has stripped them of their lasting power.

Easter isn’t easy, and that’s precisely why it is good news. The light offered to us begins in our deepest darkness. The joy of resurrection begins by entering into the tomb. Our world is full of real suffering: we lose people we love, relationships fail, people abuse one another, children are gunned down in schools, our bodies fail us, so the only joy that finally changes anything is a joy that has faced down the worst our world can be, and emerged triumphant over it. And a joy that comes because death is no longer the final word changes everything.

It won’t, of course, remove all of the grief and suffering that we will continue to know, at least not on this side of the fullness of God’s kingdom. This isn’t a quick escape. But it throws a different light on the darkness, it transfigures the topography of our lives so that we no longer have to live imprisoned by the fear and death we encounter. It doesn’t remove the scourges, but it changes how we carry them. The resurrection we proclaim on this night makes it possible to let go of what has died, and instead be defined by the new life staring us in the face. The darkness we endure no longer needs to be the final word on who we are.

After their encounter with the angels, the women go and tell the other disciples what they’ve seen. The disciples don’t believe them, and who can blame them? Can you imagine? “Hey, you know that guy Jesus that we all saw get killed, well some angels told us he’s not dead anymore!” If the resurrection sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is. And in a world where the norm can so frequently be meanness, and oppression, and inexplicable suffering, crazy is good news.

The other disciples have to go to the tomb and see it for themselves, before the impossible idea of resurrection can really mean anything to them. So once we have drunk deeply of the literally incredible joy offered to us this night, we are called to use our lives to shine the light of God’s goodness and God’s power over death on the tombs that imprison those around us.

Later on Easter day, the disciples encounter the risen Jesus and recognize him through fellowship with one another, and through remembering the promises of God. That’s the shape our lives after Easter are called to take. Through sharing one another’s lives, through sacrament, and study, and reminding one another of God’s amazing faithfulness, we start to learn how to see every moment of our lives as a chance to meet the living Christ, to have his light once again illumine our darkness.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why do you continue to tend the corpses of sadness, and guilt, and regret? Why do you continue to anoint the bodies of failed hopes, of pains you’ve felt, or insults you’ve endured? Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. This is the night, as we stand on the edge of both darkness and light, when we are invited to turn our gaze, to let the light of Christ cast into mere shadow the darkness that surrounds us, and to be set utterly free, for peace, for love, for joy, and for unrelenting hope. Alleluia. Amen.