Easter Eve 2019
This is the night.
There is a story of a white preacher who was asked to preach at Atlanta’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church on the first celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He must have been very experienced and esteemed as a preacher to have been asked to preach in Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit on such a momentous occasion and naturally would have been well prepared, but when he stepped into the pulpit that day he looked out at that packed sanctuary and froze. He couldn’t seem to speak at all. In the silence, a voice from the middle of that gathering shouted out, “Help him Lord!” It was the voice of a deacon.
I heard this story in the sermon for a deacon ordination by a priest named Hazel Glover at St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta more than a decade ago. I’m repeating it this evening for a couple of reasons. One, I want to talk a little bit about the deaconate and two, I want to talk a lot about story telling.
The interesting thing to me about the retelling of this story of the deacon cheering on the reticent preacher, is that I don’t remember the details. I don’t know who the preacher was, or the deacon. I don’t recall what month and year it was, though I suppose I could Google that. And I don’t know why the preacher stalled. The racial overtones of that setting might have set a tone of intimidation, or maybe he was just really moved by what that particular celebration meant. I don’t remember, and I can’t look it up a reference to the feelings that night.
You see, this is a mini oral tradition. We don’t know the details. But do the details matter? I also don’t remember what else Hazel said about the story, except that she used it to expound on the deacon’s special calling to proclaim the Gospel. What I do remember is how I felt about it. I remember my experience of Hazel’s story.
This is the way that we tell stories, from our experiences. For the women who found the empty tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning, the story was very personal. They ran to tell the others what they had just discovered. It was a complete surprise, they were awed by this turn of events and didn’t know yet what to make of it. I imagine they were very excited and very scared, maybe even a bit reticent to tell of it. I expect they were careful to tell only those whom they trusted would understand.
It is interesting to note that the disciples didn’t believe them. Peter didn’t believe until he went to the tomb himself. Others didn’t believe until they saw the resurrected Lord in person. Thomas didn’t believe until he had the chance to actually touch Him.
But I don’t want to talk about hearing the story tonight. Rather than concentrate for this moment on how we hear the Easter story, I want to challenge you to consider how it is that you do the telling. How is it that you will tell this story when you leave here?
When I was in college I was in a traveling passion play of sorts. One of our little troupe, Charlie, would hide in the back while we gathered and began the telling of the passion story and sang some songs and after we got started Charlie would sneak quietly into the back of the nave and on his cue would shout as loudly as possible, “He’s Alive!” Well of course this would scare the living daylights out of half of the congregation. Silly young people that we were, we had a little game of watching each unsuspecting audience startle and we would laugh later about it like some sort of April Fool’s joke.
Tonight we are actually celebrating four liturgies in one. The Liturgies of Light, Word, Baptism and Eucharist. The service begins with the Liturgy of Light when the darkness of the night is broken by the kindling of the Easter fire. The community gathers round this sign of new light and warmth and watch as the light of the Pascal candle is drawn out of the ashes. As this light gathers the community we sing the Hymn of exultation, of rejoicing: the ancient and beautiful Exultet. The Liturgy of the Word follows - and the telling of the story of the whole history of salvation from Creation - through Noah's Flood - right through Exodus to the prophets - culminating in the Proclamation of the Easter Gospel.
Then we celebrate the Liturgy of Baptism with the rich symbolism of newly blessed water - newly kindled fire - anointing with oil - enrobed in white. At least we are supposed to have a baptism. This was the only time baptism was done in the first and second centuries. In the early church, new converts spent an entire year learning the story of Jesus before they were finally baptized at the Easter vigil.
Easter was originally celebrated with this liturgy – these liturgies, four in one - just before dawn. It was primarily about the initiation rites of new Christians who had studied and fasted for months and carefully prepared themselves to die unto Christ, sometimes literally as the early Christians knew well they would likely die as martyrs. The experience of these rituals, after such careful preparation left the participants ready to “go forth into the world” because of the experiential nature of the practice. Baptism is a one time experience; Eucharist is the re-telling of our story every week. The reason we do Baptism at night, this night, is that Jesus was resurrected at night. Those baptized die unto Christ and are resurrected with Him - at night. The women came after the dawn to find an empty tomb.
So, this is actually a sunrise service. We just don’t have the capacity to stay up all night reading scripture and praying before that part. So it became tradition to sing about the light and baptize who we can and then go home and rest before celebrating the Easter part the next morning.
We just celebrated the Easter part with the first Alleluia. But still, we keep it toned down to save some rejoicing for in the morning.
I had hoped we could have baptized young Stone Iglehart tonight so that we could have a taste of that part of the tradition. But last Sunday was a fine time too. So tonight we will renew our own Baptismal vows anyway, in honor of this ancient tradition.
Finally, at the Liturgy of the Eucharist around the Table of the Lord we celebrate our New Passover. The old unblemished lamb gives way to the new: the Lamb of God. The People of God pass from the old slavery of sin into the liberation of new life in Christ.
The retelling of our story in this way, every year is the reliving of an experiential model of the great mystery of God’s love for us in the resurrection of our Lord. Come and see then go and tell.
Tonight I have enjoyed hearing the telling of the story through the proclamation of the Exultet that Jon sang. The voicing of this call for us to sing out our rejoicing in the light of Christ. I wish that I could express for you what that experience has been for me to both sing and listen to the story through this ancient chant. But I find it hard to describe.
There is a groaning amongst deacons and others who are blessed with the assignment of singing the Exultet. While it is beautiful and feels special to get to stand up here and look important singing such a long solo and all, the truth is – nobody really wants to sing the Exultet, because it’s hard. It is difficult to sing and it is long. A perusal of the internet will reveal blogs and the like of deacons everywhere scrambling to prepare for the singing of it this week. Most of them are searching for recordings of it so they can learn it by listening to it over and over again. Chanting does not come to us modern church musicians very naturally and requires work. Most clergy don’t get the opportunity for this type of singing lesson. One such exasperated deacon replied, “This great chant, like Easter Eve itself, ‘humbles earthly pride.’"
Part of the problem is that we don’t sing in the way that the early church did. The Exultet evolved out of the Gregorian era of chant in the sixth and seventh centuries. Chanting was then a kind of speaking that we seem to have lost the ability to do. It was a way of voicing the story that is now so old it puzzles our modern ears.
I too, in spite of my musical training was initially intimidated by this enchanted chant. It is terrifying to enter this dark room and sing out “the light of Christ” and begin into this mysterious ritual but when I used to sing it, about mid way through this vigil service, I would always find Easter. The light would begin to shine in my heart like thought a break in the curtain. Then I knew how to tell the story through the song. As is true of most music and of most story telling, I can sing it best when I can feel it.
How then will you tell the story of your experience of Easter? I don’t think we need to shout it so loudly as to frighten people. But neither do we need to assume they’ve already heard the story. Perhaps we need not be concerned too much with details. I believe it comes through our experience of it and is retold in the way that we show love to others. Our telling comes out in our behavior, in the way that we model our experience of Easter. But in the end it comes down to you, each individual is called to tell the story in his or her own way. Each of us must find our unique way to carry the light of Christ into the world.
So Come and see then go and tell.
Go in Peace, rejoicing with your own Exultet.