Buried with Christ, raised with Christ: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, 2016

 

“The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

“On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” Luke 23:55-56.

The older I get, the longer I’m a priest, the more fascinated and moved I am by the period of time between Good Friday and the beginning of the Easter Vigil. It’s dead space. There is silence in the church, silence in scripture, silence in heaven.

The Christian tradition has answer to the question where Jesus Christ went after his death. The marvelous story of the harrowing of hell, that Christ descended to the dead, as the letter of I Peter has it, preaching to the saints in prison, is a powerful statement of the victory of Christ over death, the grave, and the forces of evil. But for those of us with less imagination, the theological questions raised by the death and burial of Christ are profound indeed, especially when thinking about it in light of the Trinity.

Let’s leave theological speculation aside and imagine what it must have been like for the disciples. Whatever their expectations, their hopes and dreams, whatever they thought might happen when they arrived in Jerusalem, they couldn’t have imagined or expected this. They had given everything up to follow Jesus. He was their friend, their teacher. They had pinned on him their hopes for the restoration of Israel. It’s likely they expected a violent confrontation with Rome, divine intervention maybe, but certainly the overthrow of the Roman occupiers. Instead, their friend and leader had been betrayed by one of their own, arrested, and executed in the most ignominious, offensive, and excruciating manner. He had been mocked. They had been mocked. All of their hopes had been mocked.

Even worse, they had fled from him. Frightened that they might suffer the same fate, ashamed, fearing the worst, they went underground. The only one who sought to follow Jesus and bear witness to what occurred, Peter, denied his friendship and fled at last, too.

The men went undercover but the women kept watch. And while the men cowered in fear, while others arranged for Jesus’ burial, the women went about their preparations for Jesus’ burial and embalming. What were they thinking? Did they begin to make plans to go home, to pick up their lives where they had dropped them those months ago? They were mourning but like mourners everywhere, they were also beginning to think about putting the pieces of their lives back together.

But step away from the what was happening among Jesus’ grieving friends in Jerusalem and think about the cosmic significance of this day of silence. On Good Friday, we witness the death of Christ on the cross; we watch him being taken down from the cross, buried. We weep and grieve, with Mary. With the disciples we fear. But what about God? What about God the Father, God the Son, on this day of silence?

The mystery of absence. God became flesh and dwelt among us, but on Good Friday, God was ripped from us. God was ripped from God. The Son of God, asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The Son of God saying, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The Son of God breathing his last.

Jesus Christ, Emanuel. God with us, but after the cross, after Good Friday, God with us no more.

With the silence, absence. A world charged with God’s glory becomes a world bereft, a world less real, less beautiful.

The absence persisted. The women came to the tomb, intent on anointing Jesus’ body with spices and instead, they found an empty tomb, a message given to them, “He is not here. He is risen. A glimmer of hope, or yet more fear? The tomb may be empty but they couldn’t know what it meant. Luke leaves us on the verge—wondering, questioning. An empty tomb, the promise of Christ’s presence, but we are left to wait, and wonder.

Let’s linger a moment longer in that uncertainty, in the silence, in the absence, with the burial. And as we do, let’s take note of Paul’s language from our epistle reading:

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.”

For Paul, and for the early Christian community to which he was writing, the connection between Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection with their own experience of baptism was clear. Death and burial were not the sanitized, marginalized things then that are today. Most people had probably nursed their loved ones through their final illness, perhaps been eye-witness to the tragic and unexpected death of a friend or loved one. They had undoubtedly prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. Death and burial weren’t the preserve of professionals, or restricted to special places like hospitals or hospice. Death was everywhere. Death was part of life.

To use this imagery as a metaphor for baptism, for the Christian life is then to draw in sharp contrast between then and now, before and after. To baptized into Christ’s death, to be buried with him in baptism, is not just flowery, dramatic language, it expresses a profound experience of discontinuity and change, an experience of something utterly new, becoming a new being, raised in newness of life.

The immensity of chasm between life and death, burial and resurrection, the metaphorical distance traveled when passing through the waters of baptism, that immensity, that distance, is inconceivable to us. But if we imagine the absence, the silence the stillness of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, we may begin to grasp not just the experience of the disciples as they lived through that day. We may also begin to grasp the experience of those early Christians, who conceived of baptism as a metaphorical burial and resurrection, who experienced the before and after of their own lives in terms of death and resurrection.

Can we in the twenty-first century share that experience? Can we know even in small degree, the death and resurrection, the burial and newness of life, that baptism is and should be? Can we know, in the absence, in the silence, in the stillness, can we sense some signs of new life, some signs of resurrection, in our lives? Is the risen Christ, restoring our humanity, remaking us in God’s image? Can we know the risen Christ, in the breaking of the bread? Can we see the risen Christ, in the candle glowing in the darkness? Can we see the world being made anew in the work we do? Can we see signs of death and resurrection in our own lives and in the world? Let us look, and wait, and rejoice. Alleluia. Christ is Risen!

 

 

 

 

 

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