The Great Vigil of Easter, April 3rd, 2021

The Great Vigil of Easter, April 3rd, 2021

Holy Gospel: Matthew 28: 1-10
Rev. Phil Schmidt

In the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, there is a small town by the name of Alta. It was founded in 1865 because of silver mines in the area. In 1873 a stranger entered the town at dawn. He attracted attention because he was wearing a robe and his eyes had a mystic look, as though he were seeing a vision. After a crowd had gathered around him he told them: “I have come to raise the dead in your cemetery”. He was so charismatic that his uneducated listeners thought it possible that he might indeed have the power to bring the dead back to life. At first, people were excited. They were about to witness an astounding miracle, or at least they could enjoy seeing the stranger make a fool of himself.  However, after a while the excitement was replaced by nervousness. People started asking themselves: do we really want the dead to come back into our lives?  Some people had remarried after losing a spouse. Some people had inherited money or property.  Some of the buried dead had been nasty, crazy or dangerous. Bringing the dead back would be disruptive and cause impossible complications. The mysterious stranger was asked to cancel his resurrection plans. However, he became stubborn, stating that he had come to raise the dead and that he was going to carry out his holy mission. The people collected money, and the stranger was offered $2,500 to leave immediately. This argument convinced him, and he went away, never to be seen again. This visitor was obviously a con artist, who knew how to trick people out of their money.

This incident illustrates that raising the dead back to life is a disturbing idea. When people hear the word resurrection, the first image which comes to mind is of the dead being revived and coming out of their graves.  When the resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed, many people have an image of Jesus coming back from the dead, being restored to life as we know it. However, resurrection is not resuscitation. The mysterious stranger was threatening to carry out a resuscitation of the dead, not a resurrection in the Biblical sense of the word.

We like to think of our departed loved ones as being at rest in God. We do not want this final rest to be disturbed. For this reason, the word resurrection is – surprisingly – an unpopular word among Christians.  Resurrection and resuscitation seem to be the same thing, which is why people do not like to talk about resurrection.

In the course of my ministry I have discovered that the term “resurrection” is not part of the vocabulary of church people – at least, not in Germany. For example, I have had hundreds of conversations with people in preparation of funerals. If my memory is accurate, I have never been asked by anyone about Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. “Resurrection” is a word which does not exist in pre-funeral or in post-funeral conversations, unless I bring it up myself.

Another situation in which “resurrection” is conspicuously absent is in church group discussions. Whenever I attempted to describe how “resurrection” is defined in the Bible, I got the same response again and again. People said: we have never heard this; we are hearing this for the first time. Many church people have been conditioned to think that resurrection means only a reversal of death.

The Easter Vigil is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the true meaning of resurrection. There is one Biblical text which is absolutely essential to this service: the account of the Exodus. Exodus means literally “way out” or “exit path”. At the Easter Vigil we celebrate the exit path of the Israelites. As we heard in the Exsultet:

“This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.”

The path of the Israelites out of Egypt through the sea is the foundation of resurrection faith.

Accordingly, the resurrection of Christ, as well as Christian baptism, is expressed with the oldest word for Easter, which is “Pas-cha”. Pas-cha is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew “Pessach”, which has been translated into English as Passover. (Aramaic was the mother tongue of Jesus and his disciples). The death and resurrection of Jesus were originally not regarded as two separate incidents but as one single event, designated as Pas-cha, which means transit, a passing through or a crossing over. 

The Hebrew slaves crossed over from bondage to freedom. They crossed from the shore of the Red Sea in Egypt over to the shore of the Sinai desert. They passed through the parted sea in the darkness of night, reaching the opposite embankment at sunrise. These are the basic images of resurrection.

The Easter fire, from which the procession of the congregation into the dark church begins, is a representation of the appearance of God as a pillar of fire which led Israel through the parted sea during the darkness of night.

In the same way, Jesus passed over from the bondage of death to the freedom of immortality. He died in darkness on a Friday; he crossed through the sea of death, reaching the opposite embankment of divine glory; his open grave becoming visible at sunrise on Easter morning – the same time of day that the Israelites reached the opposite shore of the sea.  Therefore, resurrection is not resuscitation. Jesus did not return to life as we know it, but passed over from death into glory.

Another crucial aspect of resurrection has to do with the question:  Why did God free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery? This question leads us to the center of God’s heart. In the ancient world slavery was wide-spread. There was no concept of human rights or of unconditional human dignity. It was regarded as self-evident that a master could work a slave to death.

However, God had created humanity in his image.  Every human being was an image of God.  Slavery was a defilement of this image. Slavery was a blasphemy. The liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage was a revelation that the violation of human dignity would not be tolerated endlessly. The Exodus was a demonstration of what God intended for all slaves – living or dead.

Along the same line, death is a bondage. As stated in the book of Hebrews: Fear of death turns human beings into lifelong slaves. Fear of death can contaminate everything we do, making us too self-centered, too materialistic and too greedy.  Death is an abomination in the sight of God because it desecrates and degrades his children. Therefore, death cannot be tolerated unendingly, but has to be eradicated.

At the first Exodus an entire nation passed through the sea under the leadership of Moses. Not a single slave was left behind in Egypt   At the Easter Exodus Jesus was the new Moses, who did not go into eternal life alone, but who – in effect – took all of the slaves of death with him. The Easter Exodus will not be complete until every single person has been liberated from the bondage of the grave and has become united with God’s all-encompassing love.

There is one other aspect of resurrection which the Exodus revealed. The Egyptian army was drowned in the Red Sea after the Israelites had reached the opposite embankment. This eradication of the enemy is an ugly image. But the message here is that freedom from slavery in Egypt was irrevocable. The power of the Pharaoh to enslave Israel had been broken permanently. Along the same line: death is our Pharaoh. It is like a totalitarian regime which cannot survive unless it has absolute control over everyone. A dictatorship cannot allow a single person to defy its authority and live to talk about it. When Jesus crossed over from death to life, he exposed the seemingly absolute power of death as a lie.

The early church had a powerful image of resurrection: Christ descended into the darkness of death, flooding it with a light which is brighter than the sun. He shattered the gates of hell, breaking them off of their hinges so that they could never be closed again. He grabbed Adam by the wrist and pulled him up to heaven – and with him all of the dead. Since Easter, there is nothing to stop all prisoners of death from escaping. An all-encompassing resurrection of the dead is therefore inevitable and irrevocable. Resuscitation is temporary; resurrection is permanent.

All of these Exodus images are summed up nicely in the wonderful Easter hymn of John of Damascus, written in the 8th century:

The day of resurrection! / Earth, tell it out abroad; / The Passover of gladness, / The Passover of God. / From death to life eternal, / From earth unto the sky, / Our Christ hath brought us over, / With hymns of victory.


Holy Gospel: Matthew 28: 1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he was laid. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”