Easter Vigil

Sermon for Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 4 2015, 9:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Mark 16:1-8

“He has been raised, he is not here … He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

The women come to the tomb worried about how they might find someone to move the stone away from the entrance. They come thinking of barriers and closures and heavy things. And instead they find no barrier. There is no stone, no corpse, no grave at all—but an open entrance, an empty space, and an unfamiliar messenger, with news so extraordinary, at the same time so desired and so evidently impossible, that it is nearly beyond what they, or we, can comprehend.

And then these women, whom Mark has so very patiently, so very carefully, positioned in his story, whose movements he has described in practically forensic detail, the women he has so precisely designated as the reliable final witnesses—the women do not bear witness after all. They say nothing. They run away, terrified and speechless. And the gospel comes to a stop right there. It may be one of the boldest and strangest authorial moves in history, this astonishing and abrupt hanging conclusion, seemingly the most inappropriate ending imaginable, so strange that even very early manuscripts often contain a patched-up additional ending summarizing the resurrection appearances in the other gospels. But I think Mark knows what he’s doing here.

“He has been raised; he is not here.” Everything we had believed about the world is erased in that moment. Where we had always thought there was an ending, there is none. We had believed that death ends all stories, that the final point is a lifeless body, and all of this is no longer true.

But the truth, now, in this new moment? No one is here to tell you the details. No one is going to explain it to you, you are going to have to move into that open space yourself, into that vast possibility and that unbelievable lack of an ending. No one is here to hold our hands. We are thrown from all the old familiarities into a morning of potential and decision. He is not here. He has gone ahead of you, and you need to move. You need to act for yourselves. Get out there and find him. Because if you do, he will come and meet you.

And—the women don’t. In that sudden eruption of hope, those women, who have met every challenge so far, now fail. We know from the very existence of the Gospel that they must have spoken eventually, or they couldn’t be known and named as they are. Just as we know that Peter must have come back from his betrayal, that the disciples must have reassembled, or we wouldn’t be here looking at this passage today. But Mark, in his always startling way, chooses to tell us none of this. To leave us with the women frightened, failing, standing at the verge of possibility and afraid to move. Like us, like all of us, in this fearful, troubled world.

Mark, we should remember, was probably writing for a community in deep trauma, either during the final war in Jerusalem or, more likely, after it, when the Temple had been destroyed, Jerusalem ruined and the community scattered, when everything seemed final and hopeless. He was writing to tell this community that there was hope, there was possibility, even in the apparent wreckage of all things. But to do that, he had to let them know that it was all right to be afraid. It was all right to be confused by the empty tomb, the suddenly unknowable future. It was all right to fall down. It was all right, even, to despair, because our own despair is not the final word. He has gone ahead of us. And we will struggle forward in our weak and frightened and failing ways, and somehow despite it all, he will meet us.

In the words of Samuel Beckett—who I think had a few things in common with Mark—“Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failing better may be the best we can do. And it is good enough. For Christ is risen, and gone ahead into our future, the future we keep on moving into.

We are given a story without a proper ending because it is not the end, because we are still in the middle of this story. Because all of those things we thought were final—disloyalty, inadequacy, loss, collapse, and even death, that apparent end of all stories—they are not final after all. The wind sweeps across the horizon and we, dry bones that we are, are called towards it, called to get up again and again and again, and go to meet him.

Mostly, we don’t even know what that means. We try to discover the meaning in living it, in living out the values of love and justice and resurrection. We have no certainty. We just keep on trying to put one foot in front of the other and hoping that we will someday understand. And that is enough. We have just enough courage to get through the day, and then the next day. Just enough love to do one kind thing. Just enough hope to keep building in the wreckage. And that is enough.

In the astonishing morning of the world, in the sudden empty expanse of freedom, we are astonished and afraid, but we are not abandoned. He has gone ahead of us. And we, we too, stumbling and confused, move forward into the dawn.