The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Great Vigil of Easter
March 31, 2018
How do you feel about being in the dark? Were you a child that wanted a light on at night? Are you an adult that keeps a night light? I leave a few lights on every night when I go to bed--I couldn’t even tell you why, maybe to show that someone lives here on campus--maybe in case I need to get up at night that I can quickly see where I’m going, orient myself, keep from tripping or falling. We keep security lights burning around the border of campus, street lights on the streets of New Haven that help us feel safer about where we are, more secure about where we’re going. I even leave a light on for the dog at night if I’m going out after dark so she’s never alone in the dark. Darkness often seems to be a thing to be avoided--something at least unsettling if not menacing. And with beeswax or electrons we can fight it back, illuminate the world around us.
Tonight we gathered in the dark and lit a fire, that primal element, that basic chemical reaction, that fast oxidation of combustible substances, that gives us light, and heat, and a sense of security. That drives out the darkness.
And even though it was just a small fire that we lit, it was enough to light the paschal candle, the candle that will burn through Easter from which all our candles will be lit, the central candle that lit our own lights, that lit the candles on the altar, that shone across our faces so we could see one another, that soft warm glow that we carried from the garden around the street and into the nave.
There in the darkness we heard again the story of God’s saving works in history. Our creation and preservation; the deliverance of God’s people from bondage in Egypt; the knitting together even of old dry bones to create something new; the calling together of God’s people. And together, as the people of God, we remembered our baptisms--our plunging into the dark cool waters of death and our resurrection, out of the empty tomb, with Christ into the light of new life.
And now we have proclaimed the resurrection of Christ with alleluias and acclamations. And we may feel secure, triumphant, assured in the theological and historical knowledge of our Christian tradition. Of course Christ is risen. It’s Easter! As sure as the Easter bunny and chocolate eggs, Christ is risen! Cadbury crème eggs indeed, Alleluia!
In that Easter darkness tonight I confess I felt anticipation, joy, excitement--not the fear or anxiety I might feel any other time in the dark--those times when I might leave a light on.
But that’s not what the earliest followers of Jesus were feeling. That’s not what Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome felt early that morning as they were rising to go to Jesus’s grave, to anoint him with oils and aromatics as part of the burial tradition. I wonder if they’d even slept, so fearful for their own safety, so distraught over the loss of their friend and teacher, the one whom they loved.
We hear it in the gospel passage we read tonight; when they reach the tomb and find the stone rolled away, they must have been surprised; when they look inside the tomb and see a young man, a youth, dressed in white sitting at the side of the tomb, they are positively alarmed. He speaks. He tells them Jesus is risen. And they flee, alarmed, amazed, shocked, afraid.
Fear is palpable through the ending of the gospel of Mark. If you’ve been reading Mark with us as a parish this Lent, you’ll remember that a couple of chapters back, as Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, a mob comes to take him by force for trial.
As he is taken, his followers flee--and, as Mark says, “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (14.51-52).
It’s a bizarre detail in Mark, and it’s hard to say exactly who the boy is. Is he Mark himself? Is this John the beloved disciple who makes cameos in other gospels, or James the Less, brother of Jesus, or another figure entirely? Is his appearance a holdover from an earlier story, corrupted in transmission before being written down in the story that is Mark? Or is he just a random person who shows up in a burial shroud? Is he merely a metaphor for death? I’m convinced he’s an actual person, and I’m convinced we absolutely don’t know who he is. He’s interesting as an oddity--a thing we can speculate about, a baroque detail that grabs our imaginations. But at the end of the day, the only thing we can say about the boy that runs away is that he’s frightened.
And maybe that’s why this detail is there. To remind us that Jesus’s friends, his disciples, his followers are afraid. Very afraid. And with good cause. They’ve just seen their friend and spiritual leader dragged off by a mob. They will seem him crucified. They’ll see him put in the grave. And, when these brave and faithful women show up two days later to anoint his body, they’ll be afraid--afraid that the tomb is open. Afraid of the young man inside. Afraid, amazed, astounded at what they hear--that he is risen.
The young man runs away in the dark. The women quake in fear in the early light of dawn. They are afraid.
Tonight, there in the dark, we were not afraid. Because we know what the empty tomb means. Because we saw the light of Christ spreading across the garden, across the church from candle to candle, across our faces. Because we know that Christ is risen. That Christ lives. That Christ has conquered death. That we have nothing more to fear.
Last autumn in Charlottesville hundreds of alt-right protesters including neo Nazis marched with torches around the Grounds of the University of Virginia, and the photos were frightening. But the photos that remind me of the light tonight, of the light of our procession, of the light spreading across your faces in this church, the light that shines in the darkness, were not those torches of the protesters, but the candles of the counterprotesters mere nights later--the thousands of men and women, young people, that showed up to lend their presence in a crowd ten times greater to advocate for peace, for love, for inclusion of all people. Their light reflected in part the light of Christ for the world, the love of God. That light began to drown out fear and despair. To give us hope.
That light, the light we bear tonight, begins to question the very nature of the dark for me.
Perhaps darkness is not fear at all, not a place to avoid, to drive out, or to be afraid. Perhaps darkness is the place where everything stops, where our illusions fall away, where hatred and falsehoods fall shattered to the earth--and where only the truth of God’s love can remain, there burning in that place where all else has been stripped and burned away. Slowly and softly at first, and then gathering its light, until it shines through all of creation.
Hundreds of times in scripture Jesus tells his disciples, Jesus tells us, “Be not afraid.” That there is nothing to fear. Perhaps the darkness is not fearful at all but just our response to realizing that the lies that sin and death tell us are wrong. Perhaps darkness is that holding space, the place before the dawn, where light begins to shine to show us a new way. Perhaps darkness is not full of fear but of hope, of new possibility. Perhaps we have been waiting in darkness, waiting for Jesus to show us the way by the light of his countenance, in which we are made whole. (Ps 80)
In our gospel reading tonight from Mark we see again a young man there at the empty tomb. Is he the same figure as before? Is he a literary construction, a metaphor for resurrection, for new life? Is he the same actual particular person that’s made his way first to the tomb? Who knows! But what we do know is that this young man, this youth, is not afraid at all. And he tells the women who have faithfully come there looking for Jesus that he is risen. “Do not be alarmed! …He has been raised; he is not here.” (16.6) He shares his hope, he shares the resurrection with them. He shares with them the good news that Jesus has conquered death.
The good news that he’s passing on, the good news that Mary and Mary the mother of James and Salome will go on to share with the world, is that Christ has conquered death. That there is nothing to fear. That everything they thought they knew about fear and death is a lie. That there is hope. Be not afraid.
The Church has a hymn, a chant, that encompasses this revelation of this new reality in Jesus. Much like Fr Carlos’s story of the mad curate that ran about the church, waving the cross, shouting over and over again, Victory! Victory! Victory! So has Holy Mother Church sung through the ages the shout “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!” Christ is victorious! Christ reigns! Christ commands!
Friends, if you have any doubt, look to the empty tomb. He has been raised; he is not there. He is here in our lives. He is here in the sacraments. He is here with God. And he has conquered all.
Do not be afraid. Do not believe the lies that the world tells us about fear, about darkness, about despair. Live in hope. For Christ is risen. For. Christ reigns.
Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
 Hawes Spencer and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Photos of Peaceful Charlottesville Vigil: ‘Our Home, Not Their Home.’” The New York Times, August 17, 2017. (Accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/us/charlottesville-vigil-candlelight.html 3/31/2018.)