Alleluia, the Lord is risen! Alleluia.
We’ve just completed Act III of a drama that will continue for two more acts, but those acts are the deepest and most important acts that any human being can do, because we are to participate in that dying and rising with our Lord, even as Noah this evening received baptism so gloriously that he will have to be told about it when he’s a little older; but the important thing about tonight is that this is the most important day of the year. Not only is it the birth of the church, but it is that point in the year when all of God’s glorious creation is focused on the renewal of that creation in a new humanity provided for us in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The priest at the mass, when he blesses the water and wine about to be used for the Eucharist, says a wonderful prayer that is not normally heard by the congregation: he says as he blesses it, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we who participate in Christ’s humanity also participate in his divinity.” Tonight, we are becoming divinized.
Evelyn Underhill once said that it’s hard for many people to realize, but if they could really see other Christians as God sees them, they would realize that they are actually before the face of gods and goddesses. Not that we are equal to God, but that one of the great parts of the Anglican faith is that theosis – becoming one with God – is part of our cooperation in response to what God has given us in his Son. And at Ascension, we see that Jesus is now with the Father in heaven, having brought our humanity with him, himself, into the heavenly presence of God.
No other creatures, angels or other forms of creation, have that privilege of being brothers and sisters of the God-Man Jesus Christ. It is the deepest and most wonderful privilege of anything in God’s creation, and tonight, in each of the various acts we’ve gone through, we are participating in something that is deeper than the present moment, and a part of that resonance from the past we call anamnesis (we’ve talked of that before). The fact is that we’re not just looking back to what once happened in history, we are eyewitnesses participating in that event.
And tonight also, we’re doing something else – another Greek word that’s wonderful for cocktail parties after Easter Mass: it’s prolepsis. Even as anamnesis is our participation in what once happened in the past, at each Eucharist, and especially tonight, we are also experiencing prolepsis: the experiencing of that which is yet to come, but is already a part of who we are in Christ Jesus. So even as each Eucharist is the anamnesis of bringing us back in time to the presence of the Lord at the Last Supper, each Eucharist is also a prolepsis where we enter into the Heavenly Banquet itself. In that which is for the Bridegroom and all those who are with the Bridegroom at the Heavenly Banquet. What a wonderful privilege for us.
Let’s unpack that a bit as we go through because the liturgy itself teaches so much, but is so rich that it’s very difficult for us to catch much of it. And the particular beauty of this service in this place is something hardly found anywhere else in America. I’ve been lots of places, so I can tell you that. (And I’m not being paid to say that!)
The reason I say that is because, as slowly as we progress through this, with the silences, we are allowing ourselves to enter into this great drama of salvation. We began with the lighting of the fire. In the ancient world, of course fire was the only source of heat and light and the only way to cook food, so fire became very much a symbol of life, and the kindling of the new fire was something that was very often done where all the fires had to be extinguished, and then on the Solstice, the fire of the king or the high priest would be the first to be lit from which all other fires would be lit. You might know from the legend of St. Patrick that he proclaimed Christianity by an act of civil disobedience. He did so by lighting the first fire that was the right of the High King of Ireland on the solstice that happened also to be Easter, and here he proclaimed with the new fire of Christ was greater than all of the mystery religions of the past.
[Editor’s note: the interruption in the sermon at this point was the result of the noisy collapse of a floral arrangement at the altar.]
The lighting of the Paschal Candle, then, is something that is not just a large candle – although this is a magnificent one, and I give the deacon and subdeacon tremendous credit for managing it without lighting themselves aflame as well. But the Paschal Candle represents the pillar of fire that went with the People of Israel in the time of the desert. For those 40 years in the wilderness it was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that represented the Shekinah, the presence of God in the midst of his people.
Early on in the Church, the Paschal Candle became the symbol of Our Lord’s presence upon earth for the 40 days He was alive in His resurrected body before He ascended to the Father. Consequently, the pillar of fire represents that presence of Christ with us in human, resurrected form, that is now also his Body, you and I, the Church.
The various passages from the Old Testament that we heard are a part of that salvation history that begins with creating the world. Why did God create the world? He had no need of the world. He created the world for something to love. And because of all the creatures He had created in the world, none could respond like we could, He created our first parents, Adam and Eve. And you might have heard in the Exsultet, what in Latin is called O felix culpa, O happy fault, that our disobedience to God had brought God’s response by bringing his Son to save us and to redeem us, and not only redeem us, but transform us into his likeness. Then we go through the covenants that God had given us. The covenant with Noah; the covenant with Abraham; the covenant with the people of Israel, the hope of the resurrection of the people of Israel in the Dry Bones.
And finally we come, at the end of that darkness, into the baptism. In the ancient Church, there were two times of the year that Christians were baptized. They were baptized on Easter, because to rise with Jesus we die with Jesus, and also on Epiphany, because that was the baptismal day of Jesus according to the Gospels. And indeed, Advent and Lent are actually the six weeks of preparation for baptism before Christmas or Epiphany and Easter, with the whole congregation participating in penitence and prayer for those candidates about to be baptized.
So we’ve now done that: we’ve now experienced that dying and rising and renewing those vows which were made for us by our parents or made by ourselves, and anointed by the oil of the Spirit.
And then, as the Litany of the Saints progressed, and we realized that we are at every Eucharist not alone, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses because when at the celebration the priest says, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” they’re there. They’re here. All those who’ve gone before us in the Faith are present with us in this great time, because in the Mass, all time and all space is transposed into God’s time and God’s space. And God’s space is forever and God’s time is always. And so we then join with the whole host of Heaven, with angels and archangels and all those who’ve gone before, and the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant are joined together in this great celebration of our Lord’s triumph. Now finally you come to the words of the Gospel and the words of a mere preacher that help to exemplify and bring into our experience that which we’ve touched and seen and heard.
Now, what am I supposed to say after having given you that as a preface?
Tonight, we have already experienced all that we will of that anamnesis. It’s our privileged position to know the happy ending of the story unknown to the three Marys. Can you imagine the experience of those women, coming to embalm a dead body, to find the tomb empty and this being – we don’t know what angels exactly looked like; angels don’t necessarily have to have a human form – but this divine presence announces to them that He has risen and gone on before them. And you can just see those Marys, with all of these herbs and spices brought to embalm the dead body, totally and utterly confused. We don’t even hear any bit of joy in what’s happened. It’s too overwhelming for them to have any indication of what this absent body meant.
We too often in our own Christian lives can be like those Marys. We can go through our routines, our formalized practice of religion, we can have a Christian faith that we inherited from our parents and grandparents at second- and third-hand, or we can have a compartmentalized faith that’s fine for Sundays and saint’s days and has nothing to do with who we are or what we do the rest of the week. But then at some point in our lives, that angel and the empty tomb will come into our own experience and devastate us. Not necessarily bring us joy, because the demands and the transformations expected are not where we are, and very often not what we want to be.
Let me share with you briefly what happened to me in a very strange situation. I was teaching in a college that shall remain nameless, and was denied tenure. We won’t go into that, but I was totally and utterly crushed. I had had good responses from my students, I was successful, I was publishing, I was doing all the things I was supposed to do, and suddenly my whole life fell apart. And I realized, in my desolation, that as much as I knew (because I was ordained by then) about the Scriptures, and as much as I knew about theology, my theology stunk, because my God was too small. My God was what I call a “gimme God.” A God who gave me the things that I wanted. I was obedient, and he provided me with my tenure and my family and my two kids with perfect teeth, and everything was going hunky-dory and that would continue until I retired and became a Professor Emeritus and lived happily ever after in Florida. But suddenly that world crashed, and I had a dream. It was Holy Week, and I was actually the celebrant that Sunday for the Easter Mass, and I was wondering in my depression how on earth I was going to get through that. And in the dream, I woke up in Jesus’ tomb, just like it was described in the Gospels. It was cold, and it was dark, and suddenly the stone was rolled away. And I was petrified. And I heard a voice outside the tomb say, “Arnie, come out.” And I responded, “I’m mad, and I’m not happy, and I don’t like the way things are going, so I don’t want to come out!” And the voice kept calling, and calling, and calling, and finally it said, “Look, we’ll compromise. I’ll put up a pup tent, so you’ll come out of the tomb, the stone’s rolled away, but you won’t have to be in the sunshine yet.” And I woke up.
I was able to celebrate Mass that Sunday, thankfully, but it came to me that I had been embalmed with the dead Jesus and God had to break the idol of my own contained image of God before I was able to have a greater understanding of who God was in Jesus Christ and who I was because of that, and that my worth came not from being a husband, or a father, or a professor, all of which were good things in themselves, but I was a child of God, and I was a beloved of Jesus, and that the resurrected Lord had called me out of love, that I would also know something of resurrected life. And indeed, my life was far better than it would have been if I had stayed in that podunk town for the rest of my life. God had plans for me to go on, just as he told the Marys, “I will meet you beyond.” He calls all of us out of our own depths and our own experiences of crucifixion, to that new life, that new experience that he’s calling all of us to possess in our love for him.
We’ve gone on long enough, but I think I want to end with my favorite poem of George Herbert. I know it’s the Rector’s favorite as well. It’s “Love bade me welcome.”
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, tonight you have the chance to do the Anglican altar call, which means:
Come and receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.
Come and greet your Lord in his resurrected self
and make your Easter Communion rejoicing in the new life he has offered for you.
To him be glory now and for ever. Amen.