A sermon for the Easter Vigil, March 30, 2013, with thanks to the Rt. Rev. James E. Curry, for a story that bears repeating. The lectionary readings for Mass are Romans 6:3-11, Psalm 114, and Luke 24:1-12.
There’s a lot that goes on at the altar rail when people come for communion. Sometimes people from other religious traditions bring their own customs of piety. The way that people cross themselves varies, as do the words used upon reception. And then there are the children.
Some have been taught to cross themselves and receive a blessing. And so, they twist their arms around themselves as tightly as possible, pretzel-like, presenting themselves a bundle of energy and goodness. It’s hard to bless them with a straight face. Another child has been taught to receive communion ever since she was baptized, and to watch her look and wait and receive is like watching an angel (though I’m not sure if angels receive communion or not). One child did his best to be honest at the altar rail. As the cup of wine was offered, his mother placed her hand very slightly in front of him, looking at me and shaking her head, that no, he would not be receiving the cup. The little boy made a curious face at his mother and then said, audibly, “But you always let me drink at home.”
One thing I’ve noticed about children is that a few will almost stand up to try to see over and into the ciborium, the silver chalice-like vessel that I usually use at the altar rail, which contains the blessed communion hosts. They want to see inside. They wonder what it looks like in there, how deep it goes. Are the hosts stacked up neatly, or in some other way? How much is left? Why are some triangular and some round? What else does Father John have in that big, silver cup?
I like their curiosity—that they want to see inside the cup. I like it because that curiosity relates directly to faith and growing faith—to the wonder of looking, of seeing what we can see, of trying to understand just how far we can go in perceiving this mystery of the Body of Christ.
In the Gospel for this evening, the disciples go to the tomb to look inside. They are curious. They expect to have to deal with the guards, to ask that the stone be moved away, and to tend to the body of Jesus. They expect to see a body that surely must be bloodied and beaten. And so they go to care for it, and to look inside. The women go first, but the men standing guard speak to them strangely. They ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” The women are amazed and go and tell the other disciples. This is all unbelievable, but gradually, the men go, too. Peter runs to the tomb and looks in. They all look in.
Entering the tomb, they find it empty. But it’s a different kind of emptiness than they had imagined they would find. They went expecting to look in and see death, sadness, despair, darkness, failure. But when they look, they see the burial clothes Jesus had used. They see emptiness, but it’s full of possibility, it radiates promise, it holds life, and in that “full emptiness,” those first disciples discover new life for themselves, as well, because this changes everything.
At various times of our life, we approach an edge and look in. We tentatively open the door to step into a new classroom. We look inside at the place that is about to be our new home. At the beginning of life we peer into the window of the hospital room to see a newborn. We peer over at opportunities and challenges. And at the end of a life, we look into the final resting place for the ones we have loved. We look in pretty much knowing what to expect. We look in, a lot like those first disciples.
Last week I heard a story about people who look into a burial place, in a ritualized way. The Rt. Rev. James Curry, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Connecticut, was here on Monday for the Way of the Cross that went through downtown Washington. Bishop Curry does a number of things for his diocese and the national church, and that includes maintaining a relationship with the Anglican Diocese of Lebombo in Mozambique. He tells a story about being there one Good Friday.
He explains that every year on Good Friday, the church in Maputo gathers for what they understand as the Burial of Christ. A black casket is brought into the church, complete with pallbearers. The pallbearers lift a lid off the casket and place it to the side. The bishop leads prayers as the people affirm that Jesus is dead. He is really dead and this is his funeral.
The congregation is invited forward to pay its respects. Two by two, they are invited with the words, “Come and see the one who has died and will rise from the dead.” There are acolytes standing along the side, who hand flowers to the people for them to place on the grave.
Two by two, the people make their way forward and pass the open casket. Choirs are singing, as the people stop at the casket, bow, and look upon “the one who has died and who will rise from the dead.”
Finally, Bishop Curry says, it is his turn. (One wonders what he must have felt—fear, embarrassment, nervousness, foreign-ness… ) But he goes forward, flower in hand. As he approaches what he understands to be a holy moment, he bows, and looks in. He looks into the casket, and there, in a mirror, he sees his own face. He is the one who has died and will rise from the dead.
We are the ones who, in baptism, have died, and have been raised to new life in Christ. We are the ones who die daily to sin, as we make good choices, as we repent and forgive, as we put one faithful foot in front of the other and walk with Christ into tomorrow, we rise from the dead. We are the ones who, one day, will have died to this earthly place. But because of the death and resurrection of Christ, we will rise from the dead.
Easter is about looking in—looking into an empty tomb and finding it full of possibility. Looking into our future—even the future of the grave—and seeing in it a blending of the image of Christ with our own image.
St. Paul encourages us to look into the image of Christ:: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” And then Paul tells us how to gaze, how to peer, how to keep looking, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:12-13).
I hope that when the kids come up to the altar rail and look into the silver ciborium, they might, from time to time, see their own reflection, blending with the Body of Christ. My prayer for all of us is that this Easter we might be given the faith and love to look more deeply into the life of Christ, and find in it the fullness of our life, both here and hereafter.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!