A Sermon preached on March 26th, Great Vigil of Easter, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
I am taking a leaf out of Douglas’ book tonight as I am going to preach two sermons. But don’t worry, both are short and one is borrowed! I really do not want to detract or distract from either the wonderful readings we have just heard or the rituals of this most holy night.
In the early Church, this was the traditional service for Baptisms. Baptism was the culmination of a long period of preparation during the season of Lent. Until Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, and membership almost the default option, a catechumenate, that is the technical term for someone being prepared for Baptism, would have had to leave the church after the service of the Word and before Communion. We’ve never forced you to leave the service, Simon, but that is why the Sacrament of Baptism is still placed between the Service of the Word and the Eucharist, as it is the ritual by which you will become a full member of the church, with all rights and duties!
Tonight’s service is also a little like a mini catechumenate. We have just heard six lessons about God’s mighty acts, starting with the story of creation, and through many acts of salvation. After your Baptism, Simon, we will hear – in the Gospel – of the mighty act of Christ’s resurrection – our new creation.
One thing appears in almost all of the readings is water. In the creation story, God orders the water, a sign of chaos, into the earth and into dry land. In the story of Noah water, the flood, brings death – and yet in the sign of the rainbow God water (with light) is a sign of new life in the covenant between God and every living creature. For the Israelites trying to escape from Egypt, water is first a barrier and then thanks to God’s intervention an escape route. For Isaiah, God’s word is like life giving rain as God’s word is life giving. For Ezekiel, water is a means of cleansing from sin.
Again and again, we hear how God uses water as a means of transformation. That is what we will do in just a moment in Simon’s Baptism. – using water as an external sign of the transformation that has already begun in you. Just pouring a little water on you from the Font hardly seems enough, Simon. Perhaps we should pop across the road to the park and dunk you in the lake instead? But tonight’s service is not only about your transformation Simon, but ours too. The promises you make are ones we made. The Baptismal Covenant, we might call it the blueprint for our transformation, is a joint declaration. Together we all ask God to help us grow and become the fully human beings we are intended to be. Tonight is the best night of all to begin or recommit to our own transformation. It is night we celebrate God’s mightiest work, the beginning of a new creation in the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
My second sermon is all about that celebration. In the Eastern Orthodox churches it is the tradition to read the Easter sermon of John Chrysostom (circa 400 AD) on this night. He wasn’t called golden mouth for nothing!
Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!