Easter Vigil: Using our Long Name

For those of you who are familiar with the fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, you probably remember the creatures called Ents.  They were this race of tree-like beings that lived for thousands of years in the forest.  And when you live for thousands of years, your perception of time is rather different.  To the ancient Ents, the oldest trees in the woods are the young upstarts, the whippersnappers.  Names in the Entish language took a long, long time to say.  As one Ent explained to one of our hobbit heroes: “It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”

In our world, timing is everything.  Now speed and quickness is not always a bad thing—ask me about that in August when I’m in the delivery room.  But perhaps the Ents were J.R.R. Tolkien’s way of commenting on the hurried pace of modern life.  And, as a few pastors have observed, Tolkien was a devout Catholic—he no doubt went to his fair share of Easter Vigils.

Now, I will admit that the Easter Vigil has a bit of a reputation for being a looong service.  I once went to a Vigil at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, that lasted a good solid three hours—that with twelve readings, psalm responses, hymns, a baptism, not one but two sermons.  And if we were Eastern Orthodox, we’d start at midnight and be done, oh, around 5 AM or so.

So I’ve been getting a few crazy looks from a few of you when I told you this thing may go for a whole two hours.  I know, I know, let’s hurry up and get through this thing so I can get some dessert over a Queen Bee!  But no matter how long or how short it takes, we are sharing in something that goes beyond our narrow vision of time.

“This is the night!” we sing out today.  This is the night when we retell our story, our name.  We remember the very beginning of the cosmos, when God spoke and creation came into being.  And we remember our spiritual ancestors—our very human ancestors—the deep and fearful obedience of Moses, the fiery call of Ezekiel, the stubbornness of Jonah, and the certitude of Paul.

This is the night when we stand beside our brothers and sisters, those who came before us and those who will come after us.  This is the night when we stand alongside Mary and the other disciples, peering into the darkness of that empty tomb.  And this is the night when we stand the threshold between life and death, earth and heaven—and we remember the promise of new life.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that tonight would be the night that the early church would perform baptisms. Picture this early church: Baptismal pools at that time were built big enough to wade into.  There were stairs on either side…on one side are the candidates—stark naked and shivering. There is the threshold, the frigid waters where they are dunked three times.  This was not some sprinkling of water on a precious little infant’s head, but a violent thrashing, quite literally a near-death experience. They were held down a little longer than would be considered “safe” by our modern standards.  On the other side of this pool, just beyond, stand the are the newly baptized, freshly clean, a little dazed, but clothed in brilliant white robes.

It must have been a little terrifying, and a little exhilarating, to stand on the edge of that pool.  And it must have been a similar feeling to see that stone rolled away.

Mary had come with the spices to prepare Jesus’ broken body for a final burial, to restore what little dignity she could muster.  But what she found was something entirely different.  What she experienced was the exhilarating terror that occurs when everything is about to be turned upside down, when you’re about to encounter something genuinely new.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the stranger asks Mary.  And she knows.  She knows.

“This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.”  Look around and let your imagination open up before you.  See resurrection surrounding you: in the new faces joining this fellowship, in the new journeys beginning, in new opportunities, in breaking destructive habits, in reconciling with others, in the way that the earth itself is resurrecting from a long, hard winter.  Everywhere is resurrection.

So, like the Ents in Tolkein’s novels, tonight we’ll use our long form name, and we’ll take the long view of history.  It is a tale that is indeed worth taking a long time to say.

Jesus is risen.  We are risen.  Resurrection is our story. Resurrection is our name.