SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D DR. JOHN R. ARCHER AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
THE GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER, SATURDAY, APRIL 23, 2011

V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It's a singular honor for me to preach on this most happy and festive Easter celebration, but you don’t have to be the preacher to notice that there is in this wonderful, complex liturgy, an embarrassment of scriptural riches from which to choose a text. The whole tapestry of symbol and imagery and history of God’s deliverance of humanity lie before us tonight, like a seemingly endless array of savory dishes at a banquet.

Fortunately, there's a menu for this feast. It is found in the ancient hymn we heard at the beginning of this vigil. Once known as the praeconium paschale, or paschal proclamation, it’s better and more simply known to us as the Exsultet. From its opening word of invitation, it calls for its hearers to rejoice in Christ’s triumph over death.

We don't do the Easter Vigil by halves here at the Advent, and some time has passed in the service since we heard this beautiful and moving chant sung by our cantor. So I sought permission from the cantor and choirmaster to let me dare the unusual here, and intone again the opening welcome to the text I want to reflect on here with you this evening:

Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels
And let your trumpets shout salvation
For the victory of our mighty King.

Exultation! Is not this the emotion that we all feel here tonight?:

• As the holy light of the paschal candle announces daybreak for a new dawn, with a burst of warmth and light that brings clarity to human destiny after a long night of uncertainty and longing.

• As the scriptures reveal the prophetic sequences of God's intimate relationship with creation and creation's children: the magnificence of Creation itself; the cycle of judgment and redemption in the Flood, the test of obedience represented by Abraham's willingness to offer his son (a portent of God's sacrifice we have lived once again in Holy Week); the deliverance of the children of Israel as the sea parts to speed their journey; and the prophecy of hope for Jerusalem's exiles in Babylon, of dry bones risen from the grave to receive new flesh, new life.

• As we celebrate the sacrament of baptism for two new souls, separated slightly by chronology, but each now joined to Christ’s body the Church, and dedicated to partake of new life in Him through the miracle conferred by water and the Holy Spirit.

• As we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of a risen lord, given for us, raised for us, and come now to rule forever over a resplendent kingdom of souls ransomed by his death and resurrection.

• As we feel the apprehension and perplexity of the women at the empty tomb, as they struggle to comprehend the angel who tells them that their Lord is no longer there, but risen. And as we share their rejoicing as a risen Lord appears to them and banishes their fear.

In celebration of all this, I say to you again:

V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

* * * * * * * * * *

A lesser known fact about our chosen text is that in the middle ages, the Exsultet itself became one of the earliest examples of we might today call multimedia. Scrolls for singing it were lovingly prepared with large illuminations—pictures that illustrated the litany of events and imagery that in their turn all pointed to the Easter miracle. For example, they included queenly portraiture that symbolized the glory of mother church, depictions of the escape of Israel as the Red sea parted to let them pass, even pastoral scenes of beekeeping in honor of the creatures who produced the wax for the Paschal candle.

These pictures were positioned upside down in relation to the score and text, so that as the cantor rolled out the scroll, and it fell in front of the raised dais from which it was sung, worshippers could see illustrations of God’s presence in history, as they played out in the events recorded in the Scriptures and were celebrated in this triumphal hymn.

For many in a congregation who likely were not literate, this was a visual affirmation that complemented what they heard and what the Bible told them throughout the year about God’s presence in history as they knew it. It also reinforced what they believed about God’s embodiment in Jesus Christ, who had died and been raised, and who held out the promise of a life beyond death, and the travail of the life they knew.

This truth—that God is actively working His purpose out in history, and that this purpose found its compete fulfillment in the death and resurrection of God’s Son—shares space and competes with other ideas that guide thought and belief for many today. About a week ago, I read a book review in the New York Times about the publication of a humanist non-Bible ironically titled The Good Book. It is a compilation of un-credited observations from various pre-Christian and non-Christian philosophers which are woven as verses for chapters of books with Bible-like names such as “Consolations.” The language of the quotations is deliberately re-shaped to make it read more like the cadences of Scripture itself.

The idea behind this is to create a book of resources for people who are seeking to make the most out of this life, in part because they embrace a probability that this existence is all they will be given to enjoy.

The editor of The Good Book points out that this objective stands in contrast to religious quests, which he notes "premise themselves on relationships between man and deity." Well, Easter is all about that premise. Easter is unabashedly happy to proclaim the resurrection of one who was both divine and human, the agent of creation who came to earth purely because God wished to remain in relationship with souls created in His image. These are the Christian notes we celebrate tonight, but that fundamental perspective of a God-centered view for creation's end is what lies beneath all religious experience. What makes Christianity unique is what renders it accessible to those who seek after God, even those whose path lies outside that tradition. It's the catalyst both for authentic evangelism and ecumenical understanding.

James Kugel, for example, teaches Hebrew literature at Harvard, and writes well about a lot of things. He refers to a kind of thinking which is an unfortunate part of, as he says, “humanity’s great march up to the present….where the one thing that we undeniably don’t control—our own death—has gone from part of what God…used to do to each of us (since we were small human beings back then) to being the tragic end of a big human being’s existence. In that context, he recalls Max Weber’s observation that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he [himself] has spun.”

Kugel writes: “There we hang, so big that we can barely see that which is real, but altogether outside of ourselves, and utterly unable to return to what was an earlier, true sense of things.”

This is why, especially in recent years, I’ve come to hear the whole song of Easter not only in a major key, but with a kind of audacious, almost defiant orchestration. Through our worship tonight, we boldly proclaim to have recovered this early, true. astonishing, improbable viewpoint, that God loved us enough to repeatedly manifest His being in the brief record of flounderings we are pleased to call our history, and graced that flawed tale by elevating human life as a prelude to perfect bliss, by sending his only begotten Son to suffer death and be raised to offer us the gift of everlasting life. We immerse ourselves deeply in the sweet mythology of God’s care for us and for our immortal souls.

Let me hasten to say that there's no sin in calling the rich witness of Scripture a mythology. Time was that mythology was not simply an imaginative, fictional construct, a sort of interchangeable metaphor that might be tamed and applied as an academic veneer to any tale that featured a hero of virtue, from Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. Christian mythology was—and is—a narrative pathway to a deeper gospel truth.

Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime discerning commonality in religious narratives across a wide number of cultures and religions, knew this. In his famous book, "Hero with a Thousand Faces" he wrote:

"Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only the remote facts of a distant time or sky…it is never difficult to demonstrate that, as science and history, mythology is absurd. [But] when a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved."

"To bring the images back to life," he says, "one has to seek, not interesting applications to modern affairs, but illuminating hints from the inspired past. When these are found, vast areas of half-dead iconography disclose again their permanently human meaning.”

For him, the power of Christianity lay in its revelation of what was deeply and eternally true. He saw signs of this in many places, but nonetheless mourned the loss that occurs for the power of Christian proclamation when believers allow an elastic metaphor to substitute entirely for faith in an abiding truth.

Campbell saw this meaning vividly embodied in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Reflecting on the celebration we repeat tonight, he wrote: “[Through] the blessing of the new fire, the blessing of the Paschal candle, and the reading of the prophecies, the day between the death and resurrection of Jesus [becomes] the moment of the renewal of the ages.”

This Easter vigil welcomes us once again to this threshold of renewal. And the threshold is the lintel of the empty tomb. For here the women, who gather to anoint a body, first hear from an angel the miracle of Jesus' resurrection. It confounds them, as it does everyone else in that apostolic company who encounter evidence of Christ's rising. They meet in their risen master a beloved being who has been changed, and who holds out the promise of that change for those whose faith unlocks their transformation.

This is our legacy, the paschal proclamation, sounded in the Exsultet, that we share and are called to experience this night. Approach the place where he lay with respect. Receive the good news of this resurrection from the mouth an angel. Join yourself to the risen Lord through the sacrament of his Body and Blood. And above all, rejoice!

V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Amen.