The Great Vigil of Easter 2013
Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill.
We begin in the dark, because God is dead. The dastardly deed was done yesterday, when we, the people of God, killed God. Our crime was suicidal. God is the Maker and Maintainer of all things. If the Creator is dead, creation must be dead, too!
We have listened to the lessons. In the bible, creation isn’t ex nihilo, and death doesn’t mean annihilation. God creates the world by ordering chaos. Chaos isn’t nothing. Chaos is stuff in a mess, stuff that lacks any inward power to give it shape or definition, to pull it into regular patterns of being and doing.
Animals have souls, forces that work in secret to form limbs and lungs, nerves and brains, mouths and claws. Sheep are animated by power on the inside that gets their organs moving “in synch”–teeth for chewing, stomachs for digesting, eyes for peering, legs for frolicking and running away from wolves–all working together to enable sheep to “do the sheep thing.” When the animal dies, its body gets disconnected from the soul that held it together as a functioning system. The stuff out of which it was made loses integrity. The corpse rots. Dust returns to dust. Just as often, animals get eaten, so that what was their stuff becomes part of, gets taken up into the being and doing of something else.
The world as we know it is full of many and various things. For them to make a cosmos–a universe–they have to be organized into interactive systems. Not only do they have to be spatially arranged–Mercury closest to the sun, then Venus, then planet Earth before Mars. Their activities need to become regular and predictable. Think of the inverse square law, elliptical orbits, water dissolving sugar, Einstein’s matter into energy conversion, the speed of light… The bible tells us, right from the start: an orderly world is no accident. Divine power exercised on purpose is what holds the universe together. God is the force operating on the inside to persuade all things to work together for good.
In the bible story, God proceeds methodically: first separating the elements and setting up distinctive environments; then making all kinds of living things and welcoming them into their homes–birds to the air, fish to the sea, plants and cattle to the solid ground.
Making arrangements for human beings made in God’s image, was and is more challenging. God invites us into harmonious life together with God and other creatures. God calls us to experience the whole universe as a society, a body-politic held together and animated by God, its esprit de corps. God is the One, the only One, Who can underwrite this project. This is because God is life, life that is self-sustaining, life that does not depend on the existence or the destruction of anything else. For all else, God is the source of life and its only reliable sustainer. We are meant to receive life, not as a thing to be grasped, but as a gift from a Boundless Source. Because God recognizes that animal life is not self-sustaining, God cuts a covenant, setting out a life-style of courteous consumption: human beings will be generously provided for so long as they honor God as the source of life and show respect for God’s other creatures.
Because courtesy does not come naturally to human beings, God works hard to civilize us into harmonious living. God prescribes liturgies in which we “act out” the fundamental truths of our existence. Old-time sacrifices of first fruits and first born acknowledge that all life belongs to God by voluntarily offering life back to God, the source of life. Eating and drinking sacrificial foods reminds us how we are entitled neither to life nor to the necessities of life, but receive both as gifts from a Boundless Source. God also guides us with the gift of God’s law. Ten commandments reinforce the message that God is the vital organizing center of the universe and that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect. Warnings not to over-use–to give the land a sabbatical from planting, to allow the livestock time to rest; in harvesting, to leave rows of grain and fruit on the tree so that the landless poor, immigrants, and travellers will have something to gather–all of these teach courtesy towards God’s other creatures.
Courtesy does not come naturally to us, because we are animals in a world of real and apparent scarcities, animals who have a “darwinian” counter-credo written into our genes. Animal-instincts insist that we are entitled to life and to the necessities of life, that preserving life is entirely up to us, and that we are therefore entitled to do whatever it takes to secure it. Our very flesh drives us to live “darwinian,” which leads to the proverbial “struggle for existence” in which only the fittest survive.
Because animal life by nature is not and cannot be self-sustaining, because animals by nature are mortal, our efforts to secure immortality for “us and ours” becomes a desperate effort to control–the better to consume–life-sustaining resources. Its logical conclusion is the demand that “us and ours” be the unifying principle of the universe, the organizing principle that presses everything and everyone else into service to meet our needs. Aristotle and how many other humanists down the centuries declare: “Man”–ahem, yes, they meant ‘man’–“is the measure of all things.” The cosmos is anthropocentric. The whole material world–its basic earth-air-fire-water elements and all other life forms–were created for the sake of human beings! With tribes and clans and nation-states down the centuries, we take our turn in imagining that we are God’s chosen people, that we are the climax of world history, that all of those earlier civilizations rising and falling have been leading up to us! The bible bears witness how civic religion goes further to press the gods into service as mascots, genies in the bottle who exist to grant our wishes and promote our aims! Friday consummates the blasphemy, when the people of God kill God, murder the heir so that the vineyard may be ours!
We have had a day to ponder the consequences. God is dead. But God was the animating principle, the organizing force of creation, of human personality, and of harmonious society. God is dead, and they have reverted to chaos. Top soil has thinned, waters are fouled, the air is full of toxic chemicals, the climate has gone crazy. Individually, we caricature God’s image, while human society oozes injustice like sewage into polluted streams.
The bible makes its diagnosis explicit. God is a center that will hold, because Divine life is self-sustaining. God keeps on being and doing without needing to gobble up anything else. By contrast, human life is not self-sustaining. Making human life the center of all things is life-wrecking, life-devouring, life-destroying. It is a recipe for medium-run chaos. It is a recipe for death. Vigil lessons rehearse: everything is dead, because human beings are slow of heart to believe that God can be trusted to keep on giving the gift of life forever.
The Vigil dramatizes this verdict. Easter is not simply about bringing a worthy individual back to life without the magic tricks of ICU. The scale is cosmic. Easter is about the resurrection of all things. The Vigil “acts out” God stepping back in as organizing principle and center, to order chaos, to bring all creation–earth-air-fire-water elements, human personality and society–back to life.
In the bible story, God’s first words in creation were ‘let there be light!’ Therefore, the Vigil begins by striking new fire. Just as primal time was organized by the heavenly bodies–day and night divided by the sun’s regular motion, weeks and months counted by the waxing and waning of the moon–so in the new world order time is marked by Christ, the alpha and the omega, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Christ is the context within which we hear our history of Divine dreams wrecked and ruined, of rising hopes that God will intervene to re-order chaos again.
We continue with the blessing of the water. Just as the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep, so we call down breath of God to rout the demons, to blast away the halitosis of man-is-the-measure-of-all-things self-centeredness. We hover over the deep, blow a psi for ‘psyche’, purifying what was poisoned into the water of life. We plunge the phallic pascal candle into the water three times as outward and visible sign of Divine-life-giving fertility. We sprinkle holy water towards the four points of the compass, to wash away the violence with which we have polluted the earth.
Holy water is a solvent. We plunge candidates for baptism into it, we soak ourselves with healthy doses of it, to die to the old world order centered as it was on “us and ours,” vowing to live into God’s new world order that centers in Christ. We come at last to the eucharistic feast that feeds us with food fit for the reborn, risen, and re-organized. We eat Christ’s Body and drink Christ’s Blood as proof of our intentions: from now on to let Christ be our functional center, from now on to live by His Life!