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Thinking Out Loud

Easter in the Dark

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2015

Easter VigilSome things we only learn by practice. In the case I am thinking of, liturgical practice, and I was late getting to the party on this practice. It happened like this.

As a pastor, I led congregations through Holy Week services for well over a decade. We observed Maundy Thursdays and engaged in moving Tenebrae services. We chained the doors of the sanctuary on many a Good Friday and prayed in silence on many a Holy Saturday, when tombs were full and our hopes were empty. All of these practices prepared us for Easter Sunday morning and the full-throated celebration, "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!"

It wasn't until I began to teach in a seminary, however, that I learned the age-old Christian practice of the Easter Vigil - a service of worship, which reminds us that Easter actually begins as the sun goes down on Holy Saturday. As the darkness falls, it is then that Christians have long made their way solemnly to some sleepy sanctuary to remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I must credit my old friend, the late and utterly irreplaceable Professor Stan Hall for introducing me to this venerable Christian practice. Although it was Stan's predecessor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Professor Fred Holper, who introduced the Easter Vigil to that seminary.

While I had attended the Easter Vigil a few times and always found it liturgically rich and moving, it was not until I preached at this service that its full impact struck me. Standing in the pulpit that evening, looking out at the congregation huddled in the resolute shadows that crept from every sacred corner of that chapel, the Gothic windows like gaping black holes lining the walls, our hymns of praise raised on high, I realized that celebrating Easter in the dark is not ironic, it is true. What might sound merely cheerful, merely happy on Easter morning amid sunshine and spring flowers, resounded in the darkness as joy. Joy. Not mere happiness. This is the Christian promise. And in no other instance have I felt the truth of the claim of Easter so powerfully than with darkness at every door of that sanctuary, the chill of winter not entirely vanquished, with only the hidden promise of spring in the night air.

The truth of Easter makes its claim most powerfully with darkness at the door. The vigil reminds us that it was amid just such gloom that Christ was raised from the grave. And it is into our gloom that he steps risen.

But perhaps there is another place where Easter speaks with just this power: at the graveside, or even on the way to the grave. Here we feel the echoes of the feet of death on the gravel path behind us, like a stalker stumbling in the dark. And it is here that we sense we are not alone on this path because we walk shoulder to shoulder with one who has taken our flesh through the gates of death and risen from the cold dark earth.

My old friend, Stan, died slowly. It took years. He had a painful, debilitating illness that slowly stole life from him. For years before his death, Stan kept a wooden coffin in his office. The old-fashioned coffin had been made for him by Benedictine monks. And it stood erect in his office until that day when Ted Wardlaw and I unlocked Stan's office door and brought in the undertaker to take it away. Only a half hour or so before, Ted and I had helped the undertaker and the undertaker's assistant lift our friend's body into a hearse at Stan's home where he had died earlier that morning. It was a dark day, a day for grieving, and we kept that day holy like a vigil.

I've not preached or led an Easter Vigil since the death of the friend who introduced me to this Christian practice. But as dusk approaches on Holy Saturday, I find myself now remembering that Christ was risen, though it was still dark. And however darkness may gather, Christ is risen indeed.

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