Sermon preached by Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Great Vigil of Easter – April 7, 2012
Be with us that we may fully be with you,
On this most holy night. Amen.
This is the night. (i) This is the night. This is the night, the night for which our earliest Christian ancestors labored and longed, adorning it with all their celebratory passion, art and music. This night, bathed in solemn sacramental promises, is the glorious culmination of the entire liturgical year. St. Augustine [of Hippo] called the Great Vigil of Easter, the “Queen of Feasts.” Tonight the doctrine is the drama, and it is very, very old drama, indeed, and yet . . . and yet it is also extraordinarily new.
The Easter Vigil is one of the oldest services of the Church. Its observance was regularly practiced well before the church in the West set down prayers for Holy Communion. (ii) This is the night on which our ancestors, generation after generation, made history keeping their faith alive as they welcomed the newly baptized. How do we know this? At the end of the 4th century a spunky pilgrim nun [her name was Egeria and she kept a provocative diary] brought news back to the West about how Holy Week was celebrated in Jerusalem. Her depiction of the feast was rich, full, and engaging. (Too bad Saturday Night Live [SNL] didn’t know of it . . . for example the story of a bishop being bitten, but I digress). Her witness caught on and still shapes Christian liturgies. (iii)
On this night, in the early church, baptism was the primary focus, the main event! It was common for those being baptized to lay aside their old clothes before being fully immersed in the moving waters, then to have anointing oil generously poured over their heads, then to emerge as innocent nudes, and then to put on the white robes of the baptized. They were, as one commentator noted, symbolically clad in the new “wardrobe” God had picked out just for them: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, and the all-purpose garment of justice and love. Another early Bishop noted: they emerged from baptismal waters: “Smelling of the Resurrection!”
On this night, we – this gathered and beloved community – we also make history. We in particular are graced by the courage of Dash, Taye, Maeve, and Shannon, and of their godparents and sponsors. They are graced as well by this community which has nourished and welcomed them so abundantly. On this night their witness prompts us to enact ancient practices to herald new life. Their baptisms mirror the fullness of baptismal spaciousness: adults, infants and children, male and female, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, younger and older. As in the 4th century particular care and delight is taken for the very young. Patriarchs from the East spoke of “making new Christians” . . . holding up infants and younger children and kissing their feet.
Whatever our age: the liberating powers of baptism must not be tamed, forgotten, or hoarded. Baptism is our way of recognizing what God has done in creation. God’s love is not exclusive, nor is the baptismal theology of the Episcopal Church. In baptism we are specifically named by God as God’s well beloved ones. This “belovedness” extends beyond our understanding, beyond the limitations of our belief, and even beyond our wildest imagination.
Whether we are among the newly baptized, we were baptized long ago, or we are now considering being baptized, whether we are familiar or not with the Baptismal Covenant, or perhaps we are just curious about this quirky Episcopal church, on this night we are all offered renewal and embraced by the audacious hospitality of the Holy Spirit.
On this night, as did our ancestors, we celebrate the movement of the whole community through death to life, born anew in the Spirit. In Greek we are not “born again,” rather we are “born anew.” As St. Paul insists, those of us who have “been buried with Christ in baptism,” must now consider ourselves alive to God in Christ. The dynamic movement and drama of baptism, like that of our Lord’s resurrection, is through death to new life.
On this night we have not been observing “mere memories,” sacramental snapshots that become faint, like faded family photographs. That would be blasphemy, a word I seldom use, and when I do it is with real passion. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, his rising up from the muddy waters, his baptism expresses compassionate solidarity with those he came to save. His death and resurrection herald the promise of his eternal presence and of our new birth in the Spirit.
Tonight’s liturgy is not only beautiful. The power, the smell of the resurrection, is in our midst. We may not fully grasp the Resurrection. What matters much, much more is that the Resurrection grasps us. The Christ who has Risen is here, born anew not only in Dash, Taye, Maeve, and Shannon, and born anew in me, in you, in this place, in this time, and in this world. On this most holy night, we are all invited to be fully alive to God in Christ. Amen.
(i) This sermon is informed by the work of two faithful friends and colleagues: The Rev. Dr. Richard McCall and Dr. Paul West.
(ii) The Gallican liturgies of the 7th century were among the earliest at use in the West .
(iii) Information on Egeria (note: this is the accepted spelling of her name) and her journey in 381-384 AD is available in The Pilgrimage of Etheria, M. L. McClure and C. L. Fetloe, ed. and trans. (London: Society for Promotiong Christian Knowledge: 1919). Audio readings from her pilgrimage may be found at http://archive.org/details/Egeria.
Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett is the Mary Wolfe Professor Emerita of Historical Theology, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a good friend of St. Paul’s and extraordinary teacher and retreat leader. We are pleased to welcome her back to St. Paul’s