The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson

The Great Vigil of Easter
7 April 2012
Grace Episcopal Church


Romans 6:3-11

Psalm 114

Matthew 28:1-10


Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Hear once more Paul’s exhortation to the Church at Rome (6:3-4):

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus

were baptized into his death?

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that,

just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,

so we too might walk in newness of life.


There you have it, my sisters and brothers; the core of the Gospel.  We have been baptized into Christ’s death, and thus have been raised with him.  So, if the truth of the Gospel is that simple, why do we participate in these elaborate rites of Holy Week and the Triduum?  Why do people dressed up like I am stand up here and go on and on?  And why do you come here and listen?

The reason is that we are, though raised with Christ through baptism, a most forgetful lot. We need constant reminding – reminding of the many and various ways God constantly speaks to us, calls out to us, invites us into relationship.

This is why we luxuriate in the biblical bath that is the Great Vigil.  We tell each other story upon story of our ancestors in faith, and the promises of abundant life made to each new generation – even our own.

This is why we renew our baptismal vows at the font of new birth.  This is why people sign themselves with holy water when entering a church, another reminder of their passage into and through the font of life.

In churchy lingo, this remembering is called anamnesis, and we enter into anamnesis in order to avoid amnesia.  This is why this night of nights, this feast of feasts is so jammed full of storytelling and recollection.  It’s not to make the Great Vigil the longest liturgy of the year.

This overabundance of stories is to help us remember.  I like to think that the stories – and their telling – help supply the photos that have slipped out of our treasured family album – and have gone missing.

The picture that’s usually missing is that really special one. You know what I mean.  Maybe it’s the one that EVERYone in the family likes, so someone has taken it home.  Or it’s been taken out and looked at so often that it won’t stay stuck on the page anymore.  Maybe it’s like the photos in every parish hall – even this one – photos of folks loving and serving God right here…  In Parkville of all places!

But, for all of us, that special photo that we hold in our hearts is travel photo, right?  Close your eyes for a moment; just picture it in your mind.  Smile and nod to yourself at its familiarity.  Even if you didn’t think so at first, you come to see that it is from a trip – there you are, there we are, grinning and waving to the camera – still wet behind the ears, eager to begin our common walk in newness of life.

This is the night to remember that life in the Risen Christ is a road-trip with all of its twists and turns and unexpected adventures.

† † †

Tonight, we hear Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, and none of the Evangelists deals with twists and turns like Matthews.  Matthew tends toward the exotic and dramatic. Matthew is the one who gives us the dreams of Joseph and the Magi?  Even the Magi themselves are a particularly Matthean touch.  So we should expect some drama in his telling us what happens when the women go to the tomb that early morning.  And, we’re not disappointed.  Matthew tells us of an earthquake, this one caused by an angel coming to roll the stone away from the mouth of the sealed and well-guarded tomb.

Because we listen to Matthew tonight, I want to talk a little bit about another exceedingly vivid account of the events between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection known as the Harrowing of Hell.  Out of one small phrase of the Apostles’ Creed – He descended into hell, and an entire tradition has sprung up, mostly in the Eastern Church.

The story of Christ's descent into Hades and his delivering those who sat in the shadow of death since the beginning of the world comes to us in the Gospel of Nicodemus, one of the ancient apocryphal texts which form part of the spiritual reading of Orthodox Christians.  These texts have never been regarded as scripture, but are respected for their insight and beauty.

In the Gospel of Nicodemus, this complicated story is told by the two previously dead sons of Simeon (he of Nunc Dimittis fame), who were raised from their tombs during the earthquake on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, when the veil of the Temple was torn in two.  These men, Karinus and Leucius, describe dwelling in deep, shadowy darkness with all their forbears in faith.

Suddenly, they tell us, “the sun’s golden heat was there and purple royal light shone on us.”  We hear that Adam and all his progeny rejoice, knowing that this light was the Son of God.  One assumes Eve and her progeny also rejoice, but I didn’t write this account.

The commotion disturbs Hades (the keeper of Hell) who tells Satan (the prince and chief of death) not to bring Jesus into the underworld, saying “if you bring him to me he will set free all that are shut up here in this hard prison.”

Then, like an action film hero, Jesus smashes through the iron-clad and well-guarded doors of hell, causing general pandemonium, and great terror among the minions of Satan.  Satan himself ends up being imprisoned for all eternity.

Then Jesus, stretching out his hand to Adam, says, “Come to me, all my saints who bear my image and my likeness.  You that by the tree and the devil and death were condemned, behold now the devil and death condemned by the Tree!”

Jesus, holding the right hand of Adam, says:  “Peace be to you with all your children, my just ones.”

Now, I tell you this tale because many of the Easter sermons you and I have heard over the years dwell on other aspects of the resurrection account, particularly the empty tomb.  And tomorrow morning, I will do much the same thing.  But we are called to travel beyond the empty tomb – called to walk in newness of life.  Easy to say.  Hard to do.

The Gospel of Nicodemus tells us that Adam had dwelt in Hades for 5500 years.  Can you imagine being anywhere for 5500 years?  What I want to know is this:  how many of those in Hades didn’t want to be yanked out, even by the hand of Christ.  There must have been some.  It was all so familiar.  They knew the neighborhood.

Do you remember in 1973, when four Swedes were held in a bank vault for six days and became attached to their captors?  This phenomenon was dubbed the Stockholm Syndrome, but it is as ancient as God’s dealings with us.  Remember the Children of Israel crying to Moses:  did you bring us out of bondage because there were no graves in Egypt?

What is all this about?  It’s about not being in control, right?  It’s about FEAR!  In addition to lots of special effects, Matthew also takes fear by the horns.  In this relatively brief story, fear is mentioned four times!

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, "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.  Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.'  This is my message for you."  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!"  And they came to him, took hold of 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."

So, let’s talk about us for a minute.  Where is our fear? How afraid are we about being pulled out of our prisons, even by the hand of Christ?  How many of us are stuck in prisons – often of our own making?  One of the reasons we tell all our stories, is to remind ourselves that Christ has already broken down the doors of our prisons, and reaches in to lead us out through the shattered gates.

This is living in newness of life, even at the expense of the comfort of death.  We might say out loud that Christ died once for all, but we all know through our own experience that the journey into newness of life is unending, requiring constant attention to the path before us.

God called our ancestors in faith, and calls us, to metanoia, a constant turning in our journey together.  For some of us this metanoia means turning away from our well-guarded tomb of self-involvement.  For others, it means smashing through the iron-clad doors that hide a glorious, redeemed self from view.  For most of us, it’s a combination of the two.

Even in a parish as stable as Grace – the unexpected often throws a spanner in the works – and the road ahead is not at all clear.  Life in a parish isn’t all that different from life in a family… and when big changes come, it’s very tempting to go to ground, to hole up in individual, safe tombs of fear, anxiety, hurt, rage, vindication or smugness.  We’ve all been to these places, right?

How easy it is to refuse to see the hand of Christ extended to us by others, or to withhold our own hand from others.  And easier still to keep the good news of the gospel to ourselves, hoarding it as private treasure.  We may live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection, but there are days when we make walking in newness of life pretty difficult.

Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” come to keep watch at the tomb of their slaughtered friend, and find their expectations turned upside down.  Not only is Jesus not there, but they are not permitted even to sit and ponder the empty tomb.

Instead, they are told to get on the road, to go quickly and tell the disciples what they had seen.

God constantly calls us – as individuals and communities – to metanoia; to turn from where we are, or where we want to be, to somewhere else.  Just so, even as we long for rest, we are called out of our several tombs and told to join the road trip to newness of life.

† † †

Remember the photo of us on our common journey?  As we move forward into new life, treasure it.  Keep it before your eyes.  Time will change the faces in the picture:  all will age, some will die, or move away, others will join the trip, and countless others will make the journey on other paths.

But we can’t walk in newness of life if we try to stay in one place, and if we trod the path with our hands jammed in our pockets, we will surely stumble and fall.  I pray that each of us may freely extend and eagerly grasp the hand of Christ in each other.

St. Paul calls on the Romans, and us to:  consider yourselves alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Just imagine!  Alive to God.  Alive to the world.  Why seek the living among the dead?  Christ is risen indeed.  Go quickly now.  Get on the road and tell the world what you have seen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!Alleluia!


A blessed Easter to you all. Amen.

Return to Grace Church Newsletter Page