Since Therefore Christ..., Great Vigil of Easter (C) - 2004

April 10, 2004

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same intention . . . so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.

As we gather here today in the empty tomb, it may occur to you that something fundamental has changed about the way we view the relationship between life and death at different times in our life. As a child you might have been encouraged to “pray for the grace of a holy death.” Later in life, you might have developed a certain nagging concern about the “salt” you discovered mixed in with the familiar color of your hair—whatever that color might have been. But perhaps the time has now come to see this all quite differently.

The society in which we live would consider that childhood prayer foolish, at best. Wider society sees nothing holy in death. It considers death a curse, something imposed by force, and we simply must endure it. We are expected to get to it and through it kicking, screaming, and holding onto this life. We have all heard innumerable stories in the news of the death of people who have lived long and fruitful lives, some into their 90s. The news of their passing is often treated as if some unnatural, unspeakable tragedy had snatched them away unawares. It’s as if what we see here is all that there is. But if this is what we really believe, why are any of us here in this place today?

No, we are here because we believe in the gift of Eternal Life. We are here today in this tomb to give witness to our faith in a God who gives us vision beyond the limitations of the present. We say that we look forward, not only to the time of Christ’s return but also to the day when we, too, will join the ancestors and the Saints on the other side. But what will that mean for us? And how will Our Lord and the Saints recognize us as their own? Do we just get through life and then just show up? Somehow, that doesn’t seem to make sense. Holy Scripture teaches that our time here is to prepare us for timelessness “there.” So how should we be spending the time?

A friend of mine has had a recent experience that has really highlighted this question for her. After doing without for more than a year, she moved to a place where she could have access to cable television, and she could not wait to have it installed. She had no idea how much television had changed—until she fell asleep one afternoon while watching one of the popular movie channels and woke up to find the TV “watching her” in the middle of the night. What she saw on the screen was steamy, seamy stuff that she had thought could only be ordered from a pay-per-view station. Evidently not! But something worse troubled her. Holy Scripture teaches us that the Christian path leads us away from the degradation of licentious living. But serious degradation was taking place on her television screen, and the man in the couple was wearing nothing—well, nothing but a gold cross around his neck. My friend has talked about her television experience with me. Her question, when she recalls that scene today, is, “Just how did this graphic scene honor Jesus and his incredible sacrifice for humanity? Or had that man with the gold cross simply taken in so much of the meanness of life that The Faith had become meaningless?”

On this day, we consider the possibility that our faith can lose its meaning, that we can “lose Christ” through our own faulty choices. Today, we stop to meditate on the meaning of the Cross on which Christ’s life was sacrificed in order to save our souls. His absence from this physical space today confronts us directly. It forces us to ask ourselves many questions as we seek to discern God’s will for us and struggle on with life’s uncertainties. What does the Cross really mean to us? What is its demand upon us? Can we meet this demand? How? This brings to mind a familiar song from the Gospel tradition, “Lord, we need a word from you, we need a word from you, if we don’t hear from you, what shall we do?”

When we cannot feel Christ’s presence, we feel bereft. We flounder. Often, we become so wrapped up in our own wailing that our voice drowns God’s voice out. We forget that God never leaves us and that Jesus said not “I will be with you always,” but “I am with you always.” Feeling cut off from the Source of Life, we surrender to our helplessness instead of leaning on God’s strength, and hell breaks loose in our own lives. We direct our energies anywhere we can to escape the pain. “Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” School, social life, professional accomplishments. Money, power, success. We vainly search, we come up empty-handed, and the hole in our spirits can grow to the point that we descend to the depths of our humanity, instead of climbing to its glorious heights. All this is happens because we forget who Christ is. We forget what it means for us to follow in his steps and to strive, not for earthly goods, but for “the peace that the world cannot give.” We become confused and cannot find our way to that peace, because we are lost in the hell of the war within.

But there is a wonderful tradition, based on our creeds and expressed in a beautiful icon from the Orthodox tradition. Christ’s Decent Into Hell is a powerful representation of Jesus “in the in between,” in the period after his entombment and before his re-emergence on earth. In this painting, we see Our Lord reaching down into a lake of fire to snatch people out by the wrists. On this Holy Saturday, this is his witness and his call to us. As we await his return from the darkness of death, we look to God in hope, as we should. But let us also honor the sacrifice of God that enables us to enjoy the riches of eternity. Let us cherish the gift of Love, keeping in mind that the Love so freely given to us has come at a very high price. And let us show that Love in action, as we co-labor with Christ to regain and retain the souls of the lost.

As we live out the rest of our days, we can show the world just who and Whose we are. We can live holy lives that are the best preparation for the day when we ourselves move into the nearer presence of God. We can recommit ourselves to prayer that draws us ever closer to God. We can glorify Christ by fulfilling our promise “to honor the dignity of every human being.” If we do this, we can defeat death by the sheer power of our love. So even in our grief, let us rise to the challenge on this holy day, trusting in Our Lord’s promise never to leave us comfortless—and let all the People of God say, AMEN.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema