Vigil Readings Romans 6.3-11
Well, what a week we’ve had! Was it only a few days ago that we assembled in the our two Church Halls with our palm branches ready to welcome Christ into Jerusalem, entering church with shouts of Hosanna! – and then hearing how quickly those joyful shouts turned to ugly cries of Crucify! Together we have walked the way of the cross, whether here or at St Philip’s – when on Wednesday evening we followed the Stations to the accompaniment of a loud and enthusiastic Zumba class next door! Along with many of my colleagues, I was privileged to be in a packed Cathedral on Thursday morning to renew our vows as priests, to continue as faithful servants of the mysteries of God, preaching the gospel of Christ and ministering his holy sacraments, knowing that we can only do this with God’s help. Here we received the consecrated oils as a sign not only of the sacramental nature of God’s mission but also a reminder of how much Wymering and Cosham are part of a much larger family, the family of Christ’s church on earth. And we brought those oils into both churches on Maundy Thursday evening. Later, as we gathered here, we were given again that great commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another; we shared the Last Supper together in the Upper Room, and nourished by the precious body and blood of Our Lord we were reminded that Christ’s love is tough love, challenging love, demanding love; it is divine love which is revealed in acts of service In the words of the hymn, we strain to glimpse the mercy seat, and find you kneeling at our feet.
Little more than twenty four hours ago, we marched up Cosham High Street with our fellow-Christians, a silent witness amid all the chaos of a bank holiday, including mingling with some very good-humoured Plymouth supporters, who had stopped off for a drink at Weatherspoon’s before being accompanied down to Cosham Station to do battle with Pompey. I did wonder if they were impressed, not just by the three police vans, cars and police on foot all there for them – but a crowd of Christians from Churches Together, including the local Vicar, all there to wish them well. And as we proceeded in silence up the High Street, following the cross of Christ, with children stopping to look and the Rector of Farlington directing the traffic, then the extraordinary, harrowing events of Good Friday were being played out, as they were long ago on the dusty Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, before a crowd simply going about their business, a man giving out chocolate oranges to the clergy, the haunting strains of the hymn When I survey the wondrous cross rising above the Tesco clamour…love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.
And here we are this evening, having watched and waited with Our Lord, with the disturbing, disquieting and awesome Passion narrative still fresh in our ears, gathering in the twilight, in the stillness of an April evening, and we listen as the next extraordinary chapter of this incredible story unfolds – and this year we have St Matthew’s account of the day of resurrection.
Each of the four gospels has a different version of the events of that first Easter day – hardly surprising given the enormity of what is being told. Those of us who like detective fiction, or devotees, like me, of Scandi-noir, can have a merry time whiling away several hours trying to piece together a definitive version – how many women were there actually? how was the stone rolled away? Was Jesus there or was he in Galilee? – and so on and so on, when the only truth we need to know is that Christ rose from the dead on that glorious first day of the week. Certainly Matthew’s account is cataclysmic. We have an earthquake, an angel of the Lord, his appearance like lightening, as white as snow, thundering down from heaven, hurling away the stone and sitting on it in triumph – no wonder the guards were rendered senseless. Matthew, with his tidy mind and his scrupulous attention to Scripture, wants us to understand that what is happening is of Old Testament proportions. The angel uses Christ’s own words, Do not be afraid, and passes on his message in the time-honoured tradition, this time not from God but from our Lord himself. And then, as if the message of the angel were not enough, Christ himself appears, greeting the astonished women on their way to take the good news out, trembling as they were with fear and joy.
It is that heady mix we experience too – fear because in walking the way of the cross we have plumbed the depths of human cruelty, misery and degradation, and joy because for all this, Christ is true to his promises and we can dare to believe it. The It is accomplished of Jesus on the cross is vindicated – and we are vindicated. After this roller-coaster of a week, after the sorrow and sense of abandonment as we sat in a church emptied of Our Lord, we are now brought back to his presence in this glorious explosion of heavenly light, this absolutely outpouring of God’s love, faithfulness and grace.
Like the dawning day, we are no longer in the dark. We have listened to the story of God’s relationship with his people from the Garden of Eden to the Garden Tomb; we have listened with the new light of Christ the morning star rising in our midst, just as Christ has been always with us from the beginning. Now, tonight, he calls us out of darkness and into his marvellous light, the second Adam pulling the first Adam and Eve out of the dust of death to share his risen life. The prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled, I will sprinkle clean water upon you…I will remove from your body the heart of stone…I will put my spirit within you…and you shall be my people and I will be your God. The hope of Isaiah has been realised and through the sacrifice of the ram caught in the thicket we walk safely through the red Sea as in the waters of baptism to be brought to the Promised Land. As St Paul tells us, as we have died with Christ, so we will also live with him…..and we do this through the waters of the font as we joyfully renew our baptismal promises.
In these past three days which last a lifetime, the drama of Holy Week reaches its denouement – but this is not the ringing down of the final curtain, far from it. Here is a window wide open into heaven, the veil separating heaven and earth torn asunder as the stone is rolled away. In the hauntingly beautiful words of the Exsultet, tonight is indeed a Night truly blest, when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled with God! What an amazing night, an amazing love – no wonder the women were filled with fear and joy, no wonder they fell on their knees and worshipped, just as we do this evening. And in the bread and wine of this Eucharist, we too will encounter the risen Lord and we too will hear his word Greetings!
Out of the exhaustion of this week, here is new energy, new life, new hope, hope than enables us to go out in the joy of Easter Day and shout Alleluia! to a waiting world.
Alleluia! Christ is risen….he is risen indeed! Alleluia. Amen.