Easter Vigil, March 27, 2005
Sermon on Matthew 27:57-66; 28:1-10 by Hubert Beck
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“Buried with Christ – Raised with Christ”
“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered, “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
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Once upon a time in a place very far away – although it may really have been quite near! -- a mother birthed a child. It was a bundle of awe and wonder.
She looked into its eyes on those rare moments in its earliest days when the eyes were open. She wondered what lay behind them. How would the consciousness of which those eyes spoke emerge and show itself?
She held its tiny hands, so small they were buried in her hands. “What will these hands do?” she wondered. Would they be devoted to good things? Not all hands are given to worthy acts.
She took its tiny feet and wondered where they would go. “What paths will they tread?” she asked herself. She tried to see their future, but it was all so vague and uncertain.
She saw its little mouth twitching and churning. “What will those lips speak?” she asked aloud, as though the child could answer for itself. Will the words be soft or harsh, kind or severe?
She held this little bundle of life in her arms and wondered all these things, and more beside. She was anxious to see how this little newborn life would unfold and develop, for, after all, was it not a mystery yet to be disclosed? For nine months she had harbored this ripening life within her womb. For the last six or seven months she had felt its increasing activity grow within her. And now, here it was, lying in her arms, helpless and in need of her. But she knew that within only a matter of years it would be disengaging from her more and more as it became more independent, more filled with a self-consciousness of its own. For now, though, she held it to her heart and was glad.
So she watched it develop over the years. Saw its eyes light up with gladness and darken with sadness. Saw its hands develop, first of all exploring its own feet and face and body, and then learning to grasp with increasing coordination at the spoon with which to feed itself, the toy with which it wanted to play, the hand that reached out in invitation to it. She saw its feet take its first uncertain steps, then progress to swift movements with which mothers have a hard time keeping up. It wandered its own ways and went where mothers fear for their children to go. She heard words forming and speech developing. It expressed opinions, said what it wanted and didn’t want, chatted endlessly about this and that.
Yes, indeed, the life of that child began to emerge into a mature adult and the mother had a harder and harder time coming to terms with some of the things that materialized in the growing child. But she had to keep loving whether she understood or not. For it was her child.
Well, of course, you surely know by now of whom I speak, do you not? Surely you cannot have missed it, can you? I hesitate to even mention the obvious, but in case I have not been clear, I have been speaking about you, of course! You were the “once upon a time” child whose mother held you in her arms, who looked into your eyes, held your tiny hands and feet, watched your little mouth churning, wondering what you would be like as you grew older. Surely you recognized yourself, did you not?
Or . . .is it possible . . . perhaps some of you may have thought that I was speaking of Jesus. Did it not at least occur to you that this was the case? Maybe many or even most of you thought that. For it could apply to him, to be sure.
After all, Mary, too, held a tiny child in her arms, wondering at the tiny bundle of life in her care. What a mystery from the time of its conception through the time of its birth . . . and then in the days and months and years after its birth. She, too, must have looked into its eyes, held its hands and feet, watched its frothing mouth and wondered what this life was all about. What would its hands do and where would its feet go? What words would come from its mouth? To what end will it direct its strength? The wonder and awe must have been immense in her heart as she held this little child, the Promised One first spoken of by Gabriel in the unexpected “birth announcement” in Nazareth of Galilee.
But how could the “once upon a time” story of your life be confused with the story of that child’s life? Are they not two entirely different stories?
Well, yes, but not really!
It must be admitted that the two stories were deliberately fused together, told separately and yet as one from the beginning of this homily.
For the Easter Vigil was the time of baptism in the early church, and it is in baptism that the two stories merge. The account of Jesus’ death and burial which we hear in the text becomes the account of the death and burial of our old life, the life in which sin and death prevailed. And the account of Jesus’ resurrection which we also hear as part of our text, in turn, becomes the account of the new life, which is none other than the life of our Lord Jesus, into which we are raised out of the waters of our baptism.
Do you remember that reading you heard earlier from Paul’s letter to the Romans? “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Those are powerful words, for they speak of Jesus’ life, suffering, death and resurrection as though they were our own. We were joined to his suffering and dying in our baptism, just as we were joined to his resurrected life in the same waters! It is as though time had collapsed and what happened to him happened also to us in the moment of our washing.
Or to put it another way, what was so necessary for us, namely, that the ancient foe of sin and death had to pass away if anything new was to come about in our lives, happened in those waters as we were joined to the one who had overcome them in our place and for our benefit.
Remember how the cantor exulted, singing, “Rejoice, now, all heavenly choirs of angels, and celebrate the divine mysteries with exultation, and, for the victory of so great a King, sound the trumpet of salvation. Exalt, also, O earth, enlightened with such radiance, and, made brilliant by the splendor of the eternal King, know that the ancient darkness has been banished from all the world.” The Easter Proclamation went on to say, “This indeed is the Paschal Feast in which the true Lamb is slain, by whose blood the doorposts of the faithful are made holy. This is the night in which, in ancient times, you delivered our forebears, the children of Israel, from the land of Egypt; and led them, dryshod, through the Red Sea.” Do you hear overtones and undertones of all the readings we have heard?
But then the cantor continued: “This is the night in which all who believe in Christ are rescued from evil and the gloom of sin; are renewed in grace and are restored to holiness. This is the night in which, breaking the chains of death, Christ arises from hell in triumph.” Then, pointing to the Paschal Candle, we heard, “The substance of this candle, O night truly blessed in which heaven and earth are joined – things human and things divine. We, therefore, pray to you, O Lord, that this candle, burning to the honor of your name, will continue to vanquish the darkness of this night and be mingled with the lights of heaven.”
These are not idle words. They speak of the joining of “things human and things divine,” of vanquishing the darkness of this night and being mingled with the lights of heaven. It was so in the body of Jesus, this joining of things human and divine. It is what happens in our baptism, this joining of things human and divine. It is what happens at the table to which we shall all shortly come, this joining of things human and divine. The life, suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord are all joined to us in word, in water, in bread and wine. We are marked with his name, which is to say that we are marked by the redemptive work of Christ who claims us for himself and becomes the new heart beating within us.
When that heart beats within us, does our life not become his life and does his life not become our life in turn? Should our life, then, not be governed by his life? When that heart beats within us, does not the consciousness that lies behind and within our eyes become the consciousness of him who lives within us? When that heart beats within us, do our hands not become governed by his hands; are not our feet guided by his feet; is not our mouth governed by the words that are born of his life within us? Is this not what we mean when we speak of the “Christian life?” Is it not a life joined to the Christ who is life itself, having defeated all the powers and terrors of death by his dying and having been raised as the One in whom all true life is to be found?
This most certainly is what Paul spoke of, writing, as we heard earlier, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. . . In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. . . . but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”
Yes, your story is his story. Your “once upon a time” is joined to a “once upon a time” two thousand years ago. May your life be so “confused” with his life that those around you can hardly tell the difference! Oh, yes, sin continues to live within us – even alongside the Christ who is in us – but the wonder is this: The venom of Eden’s serpent has been drawn by this crucified and risen one, and although the serpent may bite with a fierce sting, it no longer has death-dealing power. .
For we are joined to the one who has crushed the serpent’s head even though the serpent struck a mighty blow on the heel of him who crushed its head. (Genesis 3:15) The serpent no longer has any ultimate power over us. For we have been “buried with Christ and raised from the dead!”