The Great Vigil of Easter
Romans 6: 1 – 13
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.
Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality, I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope.
These last three days – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, are what the Anglo-Saxon church called the “Still Days.” The Still Days – days of silent mourning, in which all church bells were silent.
Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came, carrying spices, to anoint the body of Jesus. For these women, another Still Day. Like the day when they witnessed their beloved Jesus arrested and tried. The day when they saw his bruised and bloodied body carrying the cross through the taunting crowds along the streets of Jerusalem, and through tearful eyes they saw him die upon the cross. The day when they watched his broken body taken down from the cross and wrapped in a linen cloth and taken to that garden and laid in the rock hewn tomb, and a great stone rolled against the door.
Today is the glorious culmination of these days of Holy Week. Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia!
Today is a day for rejoicing. He is risen! Alleluia!
It has been a wonderful Holy Week this year. But during the week I thought back to one particular Holy Week I once spent as a parish priest in England, when a friend of mine came to stay for the whole week. Richard and I used to teach together, and it was great to have him to stay. But Richard was not a person of faith. It was a very strange experience to be immersed in all the preparations and liturgies of Holy Week, and then to go home to someone who wasn’t really very interested. Perhaps some of you have that experience, with a spouse, a child, or a close friend. I actually used to feel a bit of a failure. He and my other non-believing friends know me so well – so why don’t they believe? I can’t be a very effective Christian – and a priest as well!