I once worked with a parish who wanted to tweak their outreach efforts. Instead of simply volunteering together with an outreach ministry or donating funds, they wanted to partner outreach and formation – what the secular world would call service learning. And so, we experimented. We gathered a team for six weeks in preparation for service with a transitional home for women coming out of prison. The first week, two clients came to talk to us about their experiences with the ministry we were serving. We heard stories of abuse, addition, and authority. We learned about the things within their control and the things outside their control. Then we spent four weeks reading about a woman whose ministry in a prison led to her live and serve among the prisoners, guards, and families affected by the prison. In the final week, the parishioners served a meal for the women in the transitional house, engaging in meaningful conversation as we ate. When we gathered after our days of service, each participant felt as though their experience at the transitional home was much richer than the experience would have been had they simply showed up at the house with a hot meal, having never thought much about who they would encounter and why. With old assumptions gone, parishioners were able to ask meaningful questions, understand how hard the road ahead would be, and share their own journeys.
Easter Vigil is a bit like that service learning group. You see, we could gather tonight, and ring in Easter, happily celebrating the empty tomb the two Marys discover. The miracle of that event, and the consequences of Christ’s resurrection are cause enough for a tremendous celebration. But what we do tonight is not just jump into the resurrection. First, we learn together why the resurrection is meaningful at all. We start at the beginning, when the world was a formless void. We learn about the creative God, who makes order out of a disordered world, who creates the beauty of the world around us, and who trusts us to care for that beauty. But, of course, we fail at being stewards of God’s creation, and fall into sin so deep that God destroys most of the created order, saving one family from every species. And God gives us a covenant – to never destroy the world again. Generations later, as God helps us flee suffering and enslavement, God does the impossible – parts an entire sea so that we might be forever free. Later, God is able to restore a valley of dry bones to life through God’s prophet Ezekiel. God teaches us that even death and destruction can be restored. Even as they are scattered in exile, God once again promises to restore the people. Story after story after story tells us tonight that we belong to a God who creates us in beauty, stays in relationship, and restores us to wholeness.
When you know the breadth of our walk with God – when you remember all the pieces of what we know about God – then what happens to God’s Son this night makes more sense. We can move from singing, “this is the night,” to singing, “how wonderful.” “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son. How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord. How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.”[i] What is shocking about this night is not just the empty tomb. What is shocking is the empty tomb in light of all that has gone before – despite our sinfulness, the breaking of covenant after covenant, our unfaithfulness and lack of gratitude, God stays in relationship. God keeps making creation new. God goes a step further in the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
That is why I love that we get Mark’s gospel to close our learning tonight. Ever the succinct writer, Mark describes for us perfectly how overwhelming God’s love and commitment is to us. Despite all the drama of our relationship with God, despite all the unfaithfulness, and despite all the waywardness of our behavior, God’s love never ends. That realization leads to the same sort of terror, amazement, and fear that the Marys experience – the experience of a theophany – of an encounter with or a revelation of God.[ii] The women flee the tomb tonight and remain silent because they are completely overwhelmed by their encounter with God and God’s love. On Palm Sunday we were silent at the tomb in grief and despair. Tonight we are silent at the tomb in unspeakable joy. The women at the tomb give us permission tonight not to describe the experience, but simply to allow the blessing of this night to overwhelm us. We can go and tell the news to others tomorrow. But for tonight, hold on to that marvelous, wonderous feeling of knowing that Christ has been raised. Amen. Alleluia.
[i] BCP, 287.
[ii] Gail R. O’Day, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 357.