Easter Eve


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Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death…
1 Peter 3:17-22
Matthew 27:57-66

This is perhaps the most curious day in the Church’s year, the one day when we are most acutely suspended between death and new life. It is also the day in the early church which reached its climax with the baptism of catechumens. It is therefore natural that we should consider dying the old death and being born again into new life, the essence of Baptism (although, curiously, this central theme is only introduced by the Collect as a surrogate for Romans 6:9-11 included in tomorrow’s Anthems).

The massive difference between “Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre” and us, as we await the Easter Proclamation, is that they did not know what was going to happen; not even Jesus knew what was going to happen. He had been called upon by God to fulfil a vocation which he carried out in obedience and even if he knew he was divine (cf John, as opposed to the Synoptics), the detail was elusive, as it was to his followers even after the Resurrection. Of course, Jesus had mentioned “rising again” but the Book of Daniel, which was one of the most popular texts at the time of Jesus, was only one of many instances of late Old Testament pronouncements which, at their basest, could be interpreted as the overthrow of Roman power and, at their most exalted, could refer to an after-life of which the Pharisees were controversial adherents. For those preparing the body of Jesus for burial, the arduous, sometimes exhilarating, often bewildering, journey had ended in failure. Whatever the fleeting triumphs, the taunts of the religious authorities and the cold sneers of the Romans would have to be endured on Sunday morning. Whatever Jesus had had in his mind it had simply not worked out. The Resurrection, when it came, was an unimaginably enormous shock.

Its enormity was first confronted by the same Mary Magdalene who was sitting against the tomb and, as there are more fundamental matters for tomorrow, this is an opportune moment to consider the scandal of the omission in the Easter readings (John 20:11-18) of the first encounter between a human being and the Risen Lord? Is this because it was a woman? Why was the constancy of the women in the Passion narratives overlooked when the early church was considering its leadership? The argument is often put that if Jesus had meant women to be church leaders he would have numbered them amongst his Apostles; but the same argument could be used about Gentiles. Whatever our standpoint on the role of female leadership in the Church, we should consider these questions as far from our own prejudices as we are able.

And what of the sepulchre against which the two women sat? It is a scandal (that word again) that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the setting for the longest running inter denominational feud in Christian history, a feud that is so bitter that it frequently breaks out in violence and so intractable that the door-keepers of the Church are Muslim. Because the different occupiers (a better word than occupants) cannot agree on how to preserve the building from collapse, its condition continues to deteriorate and the Sepulchre itself is only prevented from complete collapse by metal girders driven into it as a temporary measure by British Royal

Engineers in 1927 following a severe earthquake. Tonight, on its greatest night of the year, the different denominations will intone their liturgies as noisily as possible, not so that their prayers might reach ‘heaven’ but that the prayers of the others will be drowned out.

It is within the context of this betrayal that we need to consider the themes of Baptism and Resurrection in the Epistle. The history of the Chosen People was one of going away from and returning to God and there is no more spectacular episode in this tension than the flood and Noah’s survival. These events prefigure the nadir and the revival realised in the crucifixion and Resurrection but Peter also means us to see them as a pre-figurement of Baptism. The idea of death in Baptism is that we are consenting to such a radical change in who we are that we begin a new life in which we do not claim to be less sinful but simply ambitious to do the will of God. As the Collect is careful to point out, no matter what mortifications of our corrupt affections we undertake we may only pass to our own “joyful Resurrection” through Jesus’ merits.

For those who live, no matter how falteringly, in the presence of God, this is the loneliest day of the year and therefore provides us with the opportunity to remind ourselves how bleak life must be if such a period of dead calm is prolonged through doubt or despair. We should also consider how life must be for those who have never known the Lord Jesus.

In some Christian traditions we are brought out of suspense by the lighting of the Paschal Candle in the dark of the night, followed by a complete recital of our Redemption from Genesis to the empty tomb. The ancient Easter Baptismal tradition is then remembered through the renewal of vows. In some churches there is a revival of Easter Baptism. Whatever our tradition, we have a strange but precious space in which to shift out of our Lenten mind set and prepare for the renewal that is to come.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is there any significance in the role of the women in the Resurrection narratives?
  2. How do we draw the line between religious devotion and fanaticism?
  3. What are the arguments for and against reinstating the ancient Easter Vigil and rites of Initiation?
  4. Discuss the Credal phrase “He descended into Hell”.
  5. Is Easter Day a better occasion than Ash Wednesday for making resolutions?

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