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Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Great Vigil of Easter

Well, the silver is polished to a faretheewell, the Paschal Candle is in place, and everything is ready for the 'new fire'. I have practiced the Exsultet and my sermon is below.

And, because it has become traditional fare at the Festive Reception following the Vigil, I have covered eight pounds of strawberries with chocolate and one of our members who LOVES the Vigil has been chilling the champagne since Thursday.

The Chicken Pot Pie is in the oven for a late night's supper when the family will begin to arrive. The lamb is marinating but the home made ice cream is yet to be finished. Tonight. After mass.

Undoubtedly, when I walk into the church in about 20 minutes, I will be greeted by members of the choir with, "Happy Easter!" They say that to me just to hear me say, "It ain't Easter till I say 'Alleluia!"" Then, we'll giggle and head off to our various last minute tasks.

What a wonderful celebration!

The Great Vigil of Easter

I have a very dear clergy colleague who has been rector of his church for almost 20 years. He’s a very successful rector of a thriving parish where close to 250 people gather every Sunday. That’s an Episcopal church. Here. In New Jersey.

It was not always so. I remember meeting him when I first came to this diocese in 1991. At that time, his church was not as successful as it is today. There were, perhaps, 40 or 50 people in church on Sunday, but that was up from the 15 or 20 who were there when he had started five years earlier.

When I asked him if he was worried about church growth, he said, “Nah,” he said, “You know, when I first got here, this place was so close to death, you could smell the resurrection.”

I love that. ‘So close to death, you can smell the resurrection.’

That pretty much sums up what we do here at The Great Vigil of Easter. We hear the history of our faith, from the story of creation through the Valley of the Dry Bones, and the New Heart and New Spirit that we are promised in Christ Jesus.

We who gather in this Vigil come so close to death, we are the first to smell the resurrection. We are the first to sing Alleluia to the newly Risen Lord. We are the first to hear the Gospel proclaimed. We are the first to partake in the Eucharist since we celebrated and remembered the first Eucharist given to us by Jesus on Maundy Thursday.

What does resurrection smell like, you ask?

Well, it smells like the air does after a heavy snow storm. Even though everything is covered by a thick blanket of snow, and the grass and shrubs and flowers have buried their roots deep beneath the hard, cold ground, you know that this snow storm has not had the last word.

Spring will come again, and with it will come the signs of new life: buds on trees, and crocus lifting their heads, seemingly bruised purple as they struggled to lift them through ground made hard by Winter.

What does resurrection smell like?

It smells like the first new house you bought, after all the papers were signed, the day before you moved in, when you didn’t think you could ever afford a home of your own, much less this home, your dream home; where, as you looked about the empty rooms you could imagine them filled with furniture and the people you loved and the children who hadn’t yet been born.

Resurrection smells like the waiting room of a hospital after the doctor comes in and says that the operation she performed on your loved one was a complete success and that, after a short hospital stay and a side trip to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitative exercise, your beloved will make a complete recovery.

Those are the smells of resurrection. The promise of Spring. The Renewal of life. Relief and Gratitude.

These are the bouquets of hope. This is the perfume of the Great Vigil of Easter.

Oh, I see. You thought it was the lilies, didn’t you?

No, my friends, hope has an aromatic odor all its own, and it is the first gift for those who wait and watch and keep Vigil. Others will hear of Easter in the morning. They will smell the lilies and enjoy the music and that will be fine.

But we, we who gather around the Holy and Sacred flame of the Paschal Candle are like the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who went early to the tomb, as the first day was dawning.

We are the ones who get to experience the way the earth quakes when angels flutter their wings.

We are the ones who first learn that God can not be contained, even behind great stone coffins; that Jesus will not stay put in one place. Jesus can not be found in the grave but is already in Galilee.

We are the first to know that Jesus can always be found where we expect him and also where we don’t – in the pristine suburbs of Chatham and back streets of Newark; in the unemployment lines near a closed car factory in Chicago and with young families who wait patiently in the lines outside a soup kitchen in Boston; in the violent, drug-infested stairwells of housing project in South Bronx and on the battle fields of Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan. Jesus is even in the offices of Bear Stearns where anxiety hangs so thick in the air you can cut it with a knife. Jesus roams the office buildings on Wall Street, weeping at the greed which robs so many of hope.

We are the first to know these things, the first to smell the resurrection. We, like the women at that long ago tomb, also have the first responsibility to bring the good news to our sisters and brothers who do not yet know the good news.

The angel of the Lord has come to say, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised as he said.”

We are not to be like the guards who shook and became as dead men. Rather, we are to leave here quickly with fear and great joy to tell the other disciples. And, on our way, we will meet Jesus who will bring us Easter greetings and such deep joy as the apostles knew who first saw the Lord.

We have smelled the resurrection and it smells like love and joy and hope, a fragrance far surpassing the beauty of the lilies.

It is now our responsibility to tell the whole round earth: Wake up! Smell the resurrection in the air!

Alleluia! He is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!



FranIAm said...

Extraordinary. Easter blessings and joy to you, your family, friends, your congregation.

He Is Risen!

JimMollo said...

For those of you who missed the Easter Vigil - you missed a powerful sermon and service. The imagery of 'what the resurrection smells like' was fodder for wonderful conversation over champagne.

For me, the smell of the resurrection is not all wonderful. I love the Easter Vigil, because you don't quite have Good Friday out of your mind. There aren't little kids in Easter bonnets and egg hunts quite yet. You can still smell the stench of the tomb mixed with the love of the Risen Christ. I come on the Easter Vigil to stand amidst that chaos and know that I've been given a great gift, but here in this night, I can understand the cost.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.

C.W.S. said...

Alleluia! Thanks for this, my second sermon of the evening. The first went by so quickly at our own Vigil service that I barely recall it - always a danger as a choir member with head stuffed full of anthems and service music for a week that seems to have begun many many days ago and isn't over yet! Nice to have some quiet time for reflection and a different persective. Now off to bed - not long enough until the next service!

Ellie Finlay said...

This is wonderful, Elizabeth. Right now I'm serving a small mission and we've lost several families just lately so this is much needed encouragement. I sent it just now to our vicar.

Thank you!