Just a dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Byz Res mosaic

On Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, an hour past sunset 26 years ago, I greeted the Resurrection with the Ethiopian community in their courtyard on the roof above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Processing around a small cupola representing the empty tomb, they sang and danced with torches and umbrellas. Their graceful, white-robed bodies and joyful faces were vivid icons of the risen life, producing in me a state of dreamlike wonder. As I later made my way through the deserted stone passages of the old city in search of the midnight liturgy at the Russian church, I fell into an apocryphal reverie.

I imagined the risen Jesus quietly reversing the steps of his Via Dolorosa, away from the cross, away from the mindless crowd now sleeping off its orgiastic fury, away from the city of betrayals and farewells, away from the awful time of trial. Going home. To Galilee.

Of course we don’t know how the Resurrection actually happened, nor do we grasp the concept of passing out of existence only to return the same yet different. Perhaps the closest we come is our daily rising from sleep, when it may take a moment before we remember who we are and reconnect with the continuity of personal identity that somehow survives the abyss of unconsciousness. Even so, there sometimes remains a strange sense that we have crossed over into a new space and time full of unimagined possibilities. We are not quite the same person who closed his or her eyes the night before. Behold, says Jesus, I make all things new.

The sublime intensity of Holy Week, culminating in the Triduum, or Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, can produce a similar effect on the faithful who make the long journey from the Last Supper to the first Alleluia. We not only learn something along the Way of the Cross to the place of Resurrection, we become something as well. When it’s over, we are somebody else. Forgiven. Set free. Made new.

As I said in the Vigil homily on Saturday night, “we have made an exodus from our tired old stories of death and loss into God’s new story of possibility and promise.” Any Vigil worth its salt will enable us to dwell for a few hours in the light of that new story, the light that penetrates our shadows with the bright splendor of God’s future. And when it’s over, we may wonder: What just happened? Was it only a dream?

One of the striking things about the Easter Vigil is that there is no single representation of the Resurrection. The gospel reading might describe dazzling messengers announcing it after the fact, but the event itself is never described in the text. The closest the liturgy gets to a specific resurrection moment is when the Presider launches the eucharist with a shout of Christ is risen, and a holy tumult is made with chimes, bells and drums while all the lights switch on to banish the darkness. But the victory of Life and Love is actually manifested repeatedly throughout the liturgy in symbol, word and sacrament, as well as in the faces and gestures of the assembly. The liturgy as a whole is an experiential analog of the Paschal Mystery.

Here are a few of this year’s many resonant manifestations for me:

  • The New Fire: It is always moving, after we have all been scattered from the bare and mournful church interior of Good Friday, to see how many return the next night to gather outside around the New Fire with expectant faces. Death has done its worst, and we have come to make our reply: Love wins anyway. I especially rejoiced to see the children, already dressed for the Ark story in their animal costumes, standing right up front with their floppy ears and shaggy coats. As St. Paul said, not just humanity, but the whole creation, eagerly awaits the day of renewal.
  • The Creation: “Once upon a time, human beings had no story. Only the gods did things worth telling.” So began the Prologue to our sacred stories, concluding with the discovery, by an ancient “tribe of nobodies” that their own lives were, in fact, part of something much, much larger. “Human beings had become a story told by God.” Then out of the darkness a voice said, “Let there be light!” Projected on a 15’ screen, we saw the first light of the creation, from Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life, continuing with spectacular cinematic images of earth’s evolution up through the arrival of the birds. Then the film switched off and a monkey and frog entered to cavort among the assembly, until a flute sounded, and the musical “breath of God” turned them into the first humans. They straightened up, removed their wooden Indonesian masks, and became suddenly conscious of their own humanity. “Adam and Eve” were played by pre-teens, but when they cautiously crossed the gap between them to touch hands and connect with the strange and unknown “other,” they gave us a transcendent image far beyond their years.
  • The Red Sea: This central metaphor for the Paschal Mystery of “crossing over” from death to life was a complex interplay of live actors, projected images (documentary-looking Exodus images from DeMille’s 1927 silent, The Ten Commandments, plus Civil Rights footage from the Selma to Birmingham march of 1965), soundscapes (6 separate cues to mark different stages of the story), and dramatic theatrical lighting. After the Red Sea had been crossed, the narrator concluded by saying, “When the world says no, the power of God is …”. The Israelites, all played by children, completed the sentence by shouting, “YES!” The brave sound of those young voices will long stay with me.
  • “Hallelujah”: After each story, we sang a song and said a prayer to reflect the story’s themes. The last story, The Valley of Dry Bones, was followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with powerful Easter lyrics by Scott Lawrence. Our hand candles were relit as we sang: “no darkness can conceal the light within you … hallelujah, hallelujah…” All those candlelit faces, all those beautiful voices raised in song, said Resurrection as powerfully as anything else we did that night.
  • The Dance: At the end, following communion, we invited people to come out of their seats to gather in a great circle to dance. I had been warned to expect only a half-hearted response. Episcopalians are reserved, I was told. Dancing in church might be outside some people’s comfort level. But as we sang a couple of choruses of “I will raise them up” from the Bread of Life hymn, everyone did in fact rise up and come out of their pews. We joined hands, and off we went, circling and spiraling as we sang the Easter Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”) and “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Resurrection wasn’t just something we heard about or thought about, it was something we embodied, something we danced. As Christ shows us every Easter, “I am the Dance and I still go on.” Amen to that! We proved it with our bodies.

When the Vigil was over, we each went our separate ways. The Vigil “set” was struck, like a circus tent, leaving behind little trace of what had taken place. Had it all – not just the Vigil but the entire Triduum – been just a dream, soon to fade in the glare of everyday life and ordinary time? Or had our extraordinary journey together, soaked in Paschal images, revealed something essential, enduring and profoundly transformative?

Whether in this year’s Triduum, in my Jerusalem Holy Week long ago, or in many other memorable traverses of the Paschal Mystery, I do believe I have encountered, embodied, and imbibed the core of our faith: Christ lives. Love wins. We shall be changed.

The resonant images and experiences of the Triduum have been planted deep within me, year by year. They may still have to struggle in my poor soil or compete with the choking thorns of my world, but as the collect-prayer for Thursday of Easter Week asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.”

God, bring that day closer!

3 thoughts on “Just a dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

  1. Pingback: Are we too late for the Resurrection? | The religious imagineer

  2. Pingback: What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday? | The religious imagineer

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