Harrowing Of Hell
April 19, 2014

The Great Vigil

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

We are in the middle of the most ancient worship experience in Christianity-The Great Vigil of Easter.  This is a service that fuses together our fundamental human development with the basic features of creation…and then takes them, and transforms them, giving them purpose through Resurrection. Resurrection is the point toward which human development moves; toward which human development evolves; and this is what we celebrate at The Great Vigil of Easter.

It starts with prayer, and then moves to fire, then song, then story, then food, then water.  There is birth and there is death; and in the end we come to the point: Resurrection.  The Great Vigil of Easter is a celebration of connection and connectedness, as we track back into the recesses of time.  We are indivisible, one to another and each to God stretching backward and reaching forward all at once.  Resurrection gives this pose purpose.  Our evolutionary trajectory began with prayer.  Prayer is an internal conversation, and, as such, I dare say the first conversation our ancient forbears participated in as they wandered the earth wondering at their purpose.

We have just come from Lent. Lent is the season when we consciously pay attention to this inner conversation.  It is the season when we set aside time to ask: “Why do I have this internal monologue, or is it a dialogue, and if so, with whom?” “God?”  Over the past 40 days we have set things aside that distract us from this internal conversation. Many prayers were written and set in that box during Lent.  Many more prayers were brought to the Holy Fire and laid as fuel then sparked dramatically into flame…  with the intention of our most primitive fears vanishing in the ash as our greatest hopes ascend in the smoke. The new fire of resurrection begins with prayer.  The management of fire came, I imagine, as an answer to prayer.  Fire is dangerous, but when we learned to manage it, warmth pushed back the cold night; food became soft and safe; the growling beasts moved back in fear; as children slept more secure through the night.  I can see how fire was an answer to prayer.

Songs of thanksgiving came next.  An article from Psychology Today recently posited that music came before words. From a developmental point of view the neuro-synapses that are carved by song in the brain pave the way for words and sentences to come into being.  I can imagine an ancient man chanting a tune of thanksgiving as he sat in safety by the fire. (Hum the Exultate) And others heard it; they gathered for warmth; they gathered for food as their prayers were answered as well.  It was prayers, then fire, then songs of thanksgiving, and then stories.  Words stumbled forth as humanity gathered around the fire they began to tell stories of answered prayers, stories of what God did and what God was doing.  Maybe that was the evolutionary path: prayers, then fire, then songs of thanksgiving, then stories.

At The Great Vigil of Easter we hear stories about what God has done.  Tonight we hear of the flood and the exodus. These are stories of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of their wives and families.  The Bible is filled with these stories.  They are stories of the good times and the bad times.  They are stories that speak of marital difficulties and the challenges of raising a family.  They talk of neighbors, some who are kind and some who are cruel.  They talk of the great leader, Moses, and how God gave him the power to free a people.  Then come the teachings of Isaiah and Ezekiel, the prophets, to remind us how to live first for God and then our neighbor.  Prayer came first, after all.  There were prayers, then fire, then thanksgiving, then words to tell stories about our relationship with God.

Finally, on this most holy night, we pass the stories on.  Myles John Fooshee Wesch is our recipient.  He is our representative child, the one who sits closest to the fire, but not to close, we all make sure of that.  He was given to us by God.  He had no say in the matter, nor did his family have any choice about who would spring forth from the womb.  It was Myles given to us, and Myles who is asked to pass the stories on.  He will be lifted out of the water, that primal element from which we all came.  We will dunk him in water and we will pull him out of water:  sanctified, baptized, into a community that prays, and gathers around the fire, and chants thanksgiving, and tells the stories of God.

Then we eat, as we must.  But the meal we eat together tonight is small; a wafer and a sip of wine; too small for sustenance, not enough to live off of, but even if it were a feast we know that food can’t ultimately forestall death.  Death was the question; I am sure, in the minds of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as they carried Jesus’ lifeless body to the tomb.  It is a story we hear later in the service.  I imagined, as they carried the body, these men wondered: “Is that all there is… life then death?  Where is the value?  Does it come from our work, or the children we birth and the children they bear?”

Prayers, fire, thanksgiving, stories, birth, water, a small meal, death, they all come together on this most holy night and are given meaning by the Resurrection.  It is the next step in the process, in the evolution.  Resurrection is the new thing.  It is not resuscitation; it is transformation into an eternal form.  The Great Vigil of Easter gathers up all that is old; all that is foundational and fundamental and rolls it together and marks it as God’s own forever.  Tonight we celebrate the new fire, the new light, the new insight that Jesus gives us.  We are drawn into Resurrection. It makes everything else make sense.

I think about it often.  It is the prayer I say every Sunday as I wash my hands.  It goes something like this:

“Wash my hands as you wash my heart, that, with my best self, I may stand on this holy ground to recite the story, the real, true, authentic story of Jesus.  And I thank you that by his story our stories are given life and meaning and immortality.  Let this bread and wine be more than our minds can imagine as a feast for our souls. May this moment in time be known for eternity.  AMEN”

It is the Jesus story that brings our stories into the fullness of their being.  It is Jesus story that makes sense out of our stories. Prayers, fire, thanksgiving, stories, birth, water, death, a meal for our soul, find meaning, purpose and power in the Resurrection.  Our evolution is punctuated by our eternity. Resurrection gives it all meaning, and that is what we celebrate on this most holy night.