Sermons That Work

Darkness Has Fallen on the Earth…, Great Vigil of Easter (C) – 2001

April 14, 2001

Darkness has fallen on the earth. Jesus, the healer, the teacher, the one proclaimed “God’s beloved Son” is dead. His followers have run away. Courageous women watch from the distance and know that all hope has been extinguished. From now on they will be living only with the memory of his love and his words. It has been a dark day and a terrifying night.

If the women and all of Jesus’ followers on that night could have heard the chapter of Job read to us this morning, they would have recognized the feelings and they would have agreed with Job’s words of despair. Did Jesus live for nothing then? they wonder. Were his days truly numbered and tragically short? The women who loved Jesus watched as Joseph of Arimathea and his helpers took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth. They followed the men as they took the body to Joseph’s own prepared tomb, a cave in a rock close to the city. “But mortals die and are laid low; humans expire and where are they?” the writer of Job asks.

In their terrible grief, are they remembering these words? Are they saying to themselves — even the trees that are cut down have hope of sprouting, but look at us, poor human beings, we are born and we die? Were they remembering any words of hope and of resurrection?

There is no hint in any of the stories that the disciples were hoping for Jesus’ resurrection. We are not told if the women had this hope. Maybe some of them did remember the words of Jesus as he prophesied his own death and resurrection, but that is doubtful. The women remained near the body, because this is what women do. They remained loyal and faithful; fear did not take away their sense of responsibility for the beloved. At least, this is what we learn from the stories of the women in this scene: they watch from afar and they wait for the moment when they can anoint the body properly.

The bodies of the crucified were the bodies of criminals and they were denied burial. But Joseph of Arimathea was one of the distant followers of Jesus. He had a standing in the community, and he had not made his admiration and loyalty known until this hour. He was horrified that the body of the good man he had heard preach and had seen in his healing mission would be left in the open to be humiliated further and become carrion for dogs and birds of prey. When he went to Pilate with the request for the body, even Pilate remembered that during the trial he had found nothing wrong in the man Jesus and he gave Joseph official permission for the burial of the body.

But the wrapping of the body in a clean linen cloth (as the writer of the Gospel of St. Matthew describes it) is not enough for the women. They must wash the body; they must anoint it with myrrh and spices and perfumes. They must give it all the love and honors that women have offered for centuries to their beloved dead. Jesus was the greatly beloved. How could they do any less? One imagines their longing, their intense sorrow, their courage and fear as they waited and watched. Like all women through the ages, these particular friends, disciples, and relatives of Jesus, these women waited, wept, and watched.

Deep darkness falls. Everything has ended. The church has speculated for centuries about what happened to the Spirit of Jesus during those hours of death. The Epistle passage tells us that “the gospel was proclaimed to the dead.” Four centuries later the church drew up the Nicene Creed and proclaimed in its Credo, that “he descended into hell.” But we do know for sure that the dark hours for his human friends passed in grief and in waiting.

It is ironic that we have no mention in the Gospel stories that, as they waited, any of his followers remembered that Jesus had said, “After three days I will rise again.” But the accusers of Jesus remember. Love forgets and hate remembers. How true that is of life. In grief we forget so much. We focus on our sorrow and forget all that was good and sweet and life-giving. In the face of death, it is very difficult to remember life. Grief engulfs us and hides all hope. Even for Christians who have been assured again and again that Christ conquered death, the grief of those who have lost a loved one is intense, and the sense of hopelessness defeats even the strongest among us. God understands this. One imagines that all the universe wept when Jesus died.

It is a part of life to mourn and to wait. The difference between us and the writer of Job is that we have been assured of the coming light and the coming resurrection. “Oh, death, where is your sting?” St. Paul asks. This is what we ask tonight and wait knowing that Easter will come.

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Christopher Sikkema


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