In the Episcopal Church, if you take a look at what the Book of Common Prayer prescribes, there are four parts to the liturgy. One of them is Baptism, which can get really long, depending on how many people you're baptizing. Point is that my faith community only did three of the four parts and we only renewed our Baptismal Covenant; we didn't have any new baptisms. Nonetheless, it was still a long liturgy.
The second of the four parts is the Service of Lessons. There is a huge list of lessons that faith communities can choose from (and I know some congregations that do all of them). Saturday night, my wife and I were helping the youth group to enact the Exodus story; Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and then the Children got mad at him because they got stuck at the Red Sea and Pharaoh and his army had decided to come and get them to bring them back into slavery in Egypt. It was quite a process to take that text and enact it in such a way that it was both moving and engaging, but neither hokey nor campy. It was tough.
In the end, we made it through; the Vigil happened. We, the youth group, did not bring anything to a standstill (go us!) but as the Vigil went on, I noticed something (and this is the point of my blog today): this Easter Eve mass is both the culmination of Lent and the beginning of season when all is made new. Sunday morning after the Vigil, Christ has risen and there is an overall feeling of resolution. Friday (and even Saturday during the daylight hours) is still firmly entrenched in the Lenten penitence mode. But the Vigil is the point at which these two seasons collide and we churchgoers are thrown in the midst of it all. This may seem obvious but I say it because, last night, I could feel that statement.
Lent has been long and ponderous this year. Yes, I know, Lent is always the same length, but it felt much longer this year. And I could feel that length stretching into the Service of Lessons at the beginning of the Vigil last night. The Service of Lessons happens in a half-dark church with an aura of candlelight. As a church, we tell ourselves these stories about our tradition and heritage. We hear them echoing from somewhere in this space, somewhere in the half-light. It has been a long time that we've been in the desert these 40 days. Moreover, things feel dramatically more barren, now that the man we thought was our Saviour is dead. But I think everyone can feel that something new is about to break out.
Even though my faith community did not have any baptisms last night, it is good to remember that, after we've told ourselves these stories from Genesis and Exodus and after we've heard the words from some of the prophets, those we have nurtured in their study and prayer for the past 40 days stand up, curse the darkness and then are immersed in the water; they die with Christ and are ready to rise to new life on the eve of this season when all is made new. All the rest of us gathered also remember that we have cursed the darkness; we repeat the vows we've taken that bind us to this life, directed by Christ.
Once we've done this; once we've renounced all these things, the new thing breaks out! We find the empty tomb and nothing is the same!
But in my experience of this last night, as we began our Easter celebration, I could feel that everyone was still reeling from this desert time in Lent.
We unleashed our Alleluias! They (literally) floated up to the ceiling (attached to balloons). We proclaimed that He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! But this word has been shut away for so long that it felt awkward on our lips.
For my part, I wanted to sing at the top of my lungs, but I was so accustomed to those minor key songs and chants that the new keys felt awkward.
And really, I think all of this was okay. The Lord is risen, but who in the world expected a dead man to rise? Nobody really knows what to do with an empty tomb. An empty tomb is a frightening thing. In the Gospel reading, it says twice that we should not be afraid (which is, of course, easier said than done) but even if we disregard our fear, we still find ourselves coping with this strange and wonderful mystery; Jesus the Nazarene was killed, brutally, by the Romans and now that same man is up walking around and talking with his old friends.
I have a couple take-aways. The first I shamelessly take from my priest. He pointed out the question that is asked of the women who go to Jesus' tomb, "What are you looking for?" In Matthew's version, the angel says, "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here." But no matter how you respond to the women, all you need to do is put yourself in their shoes. When you come up onto the tomb on Easter morning, the question that is still posed to you is "What are you looking for?" For all of Lent, we could have answered "I am looking in the desert for the presence of God." But now, if we look anyplace that we expect Christ to be, we will not find him. The truth is that the Lord has risen! Sometime during the night, he got up and now he is out there in the world.
Which kinda takes me to the second take-away: the uncertainty of the whole thing. Those reading closely will recognize that we've seen all this before, whether it's Lazarus rising from the dead or talking to the women first or just being unexpected... but I don't think any of those stories include the "what comes next?" question. As a disciple of Christ, we can celebrate that our savior is not dead, but nonetheless, we are still left with the aching uncertainty. We are still left asking "what are we to do next?"
In all honesty, I do think there is a lot of joy in the potential answers to that question as well as all the uncertainty in them. And I don't think there are any simple ways to answer what we are to do next. But for my part, I'm going to spend some time meditating on that and posting some blogs in an attempt to explore this question: "How are we to live in the light of the Risen Christ?"
I hope you'll join me on this journey. I hope you'll feel comfortable commenting now or in the near future to share your own reflections on where this path is leading.
Alleluia! The Lord is risen!