The Easter Vigil, 7 April
The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor, Pastoral Associate
The Easter Vigil
Several years ago, on a hot day in late summer, I watched a grass fire sweep across one of the rolling East Bay hills. The grass was tinder dry and the wind was high. The flames spread with astonishing speed. Fortunately, there were no homes or people or livestock on that hillside and crews arrived quickly to contain the blaze. Who knows how that fire had started—perhaps a spark from a truck lumbering along the road at the base of the hill; perhaps a cigarette carelessly tossed from a car window. Perhaps a shard of broken glass lying in the weeds had acted as a lens that focused the sun’s rays to burning intensity. However it began, what had started as a single flame quickly grew to engulf a great swath of ground. Within minutes the face of that hillside was completely transformed by flames born of a single spark.
Tonight, as at every Great Vigil of Easter, we have struck a spark and spread its flame from person to person across this assembly, as Christians have done for centuries. Tonight we celebrate the light of Christ which broke forth from a garden tomb and transformed the face of the world. Standing here, more than twenty centuries from the events of Good Friday and that first Easter Day, it may be hard for us to grasp just how swiftly and with what intensity resurrection fire swept across the ancient Roman world. Within a generation, there were Christian communities—resurrection communities—in virtually every major city of the Mediterranean basin. Within three generations, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection had kindled Christian communities in all but the farthest outposts of the Roman Empire.
Why did this story of the death and resurrection of Jesus strike such fire? We know that the religions of the ancient world were replete with myths of gods who died and rose with the annual cycle of the seasons. And there were stories of mortals raised from death in reward for their valor in battle or simply for their beauty in the eyes of the gods. There has been great debate among scholars of comparative religion about the significance of these mythological parallels. Egyptian, Greek, and Mesopotamian religions all had them. So the story of someone rising from death would not in and of itself have astounded men and women of the first century world. What made the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection so powerfully different? C. S. Lewis, who was himself a student of the religious lore of the ancient world, wrote that unlike other stories of dying and rising, “this one actually happened.” The story of Jesus is not the story of a timeless mythological figure but the story of a real flesh and blood human being who lived in a particular time and place.
What sparked the fire that transformed the world, I think, was not only that a real human being had been raised from death, but that it was this human being, this man Jesus, who was raised. This man, who called God “Father” and who taught his disciples to begin their prayers in the same way. This man was raised to life, who embodied the deepest imperatives of his own Jewish heritage—to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself—and lived them out in still profounder ways. This man, who in the name of God transgressed boundaries of class and race and gender in order to change lives. This man was raised, who treated women as people, who loved the poor and broke bread with the disenfranchised, who said no to false piety and religious hypocrisy. This man was raised, who so believed that God loved the world that he became willing to lay down his own life for his friends. The power of the resurrection story to galvanize hearts and minds of those who first heard it and to set the world ablaze was that it was this man, with all that his life and work embodied, whom death could not hold.
Tonight we ponder this astonishing story of Jesus’ resurrection as twenty-first century men and women. We hear the story as citizens of the world’s most economically privileged society. We have rights enshrined in law. We are freer to chart our own courses in life than any people in history have been. Those men and women in whom the resurrection story first struck fire could not have imagined such an existence as ours. Consider that as much as twenty per cent of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, people who had been uprooted from their homes and cultures by Roman armies and force-marched into involuntary servitude. Across the Empire, the chasm between rich and poor was wide and fixed. The poor got by as best they could. The patchwork of indigenous cultures that made up the provinces of Rome was riven by sharp internal divisions of caste and class. The life you were born into was the life you would almost inescapably lead. Life for huge numbers of human beings of the first century world was, to borrow Thomas Hobbes’ phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short.” And death was its inescapable terminus.
So imagine for a moment what it meant to those people to hear that Jesus, this man who proclaimed that the reign of God was at hand, who loved the poor and healed the sick and lifted up the fallen, had been raised to life again. This man in whose face those who knew him best saw the face of God—imagine what it meant to hear that this man had overcome death. If that had happened, what else might be possible? What lesser but seemingly inescapable hard realities of life might be overcome? Might cruelty and ignorance, poverty and division, be overcome? Might resignation be supplanted by hope? Everywhere resurrection fire spread, men and women who believed the good news began to come together to ask, “What else might be possible?”
They began to organize so that the poorest of their number were cared for. Rich and poor began to pray and break bread together. They began to try to live as if they and every human being were worthy of respect because God loved them. They began to understand that justice and dignity are the birthright of every human being. They began to see that God’s love would not be constrained. They did none of these things perfectly in those earliest Christian communities—far from it. Nor have Christians in the twenty centuries that have followed. Nor have we. Christians have been on the wrong side too often and we’re still trying to get it right. But this Easter, in the light of the resurrection, it is still our charge and our joy as Christians to ask, “What else might be possible?” If in Christ death has been overcome, what else might be overcome in our own lives, in the life of our parishes and the whole Church, in the society in which we live, and in the world at large? What else might be possible?
To be clear, what I am suggesting is not that we adopt the easy-breezy “possibility thinking” of some contemporary spiritualities. There is scarcely a person here, or in any church tonight, who has not or will not one day find themselves up against daunting personal challenges which cannot simply be wished away by the power of positive thinking. But it is possible is to meet them with courage and grace. A hard look at the state of our increasingly uncivil society, to say nothing of the conflict-riddled international scene, is enough to give any thoughtful person of faith reason to wonder if justice and lasting peace can finally prevail. There will be no easy answers to such questions. But resurrection fire still burns. It burns most fiercely, as it always has, among people where life is toughest, where justice and equality are still unrealized, and hope is hardest to come by.
Throughout Lent and Holy Week we have sought to walk the way of the cross with Jesus. The cross of Christ calls us to selflessness and sacrificial love. It has been our template for service to the world. But just as in the cross of Jesus we find our mandate to compassionate service, in the resurrection of Jesus we find our moral imperative to work for justice and peace. You and I have the joyful privilege to be ambassadors of possibility. Because Christ has overcome death we dare to ask, “What else might be possible?” An end to malaria and AIDS and tuberculosis? An end to the exploitation of workers? Might there be an end to the marginalization of women and minorities? Might universal health care finally become a reality? Might devotion to the common good somehow overcome partisan rancor? And might those who live in the valley of the shadow of death come to believe that death does not have the last word?
Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed. This holy night, let that resurrection flame burn bright in us again. Let the questions come. What, by the power of God, may yet be possible? We can start small if we need to—there are possibilities for just beyond our doorsteps. What do we have power to do, with God’s help, to make them realities? “Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus forever.” Amen.
The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor