Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + February 21, 2018
The theme for our midweek services is “A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil” — a great theme, since the essential purpose of Lent is to prepare for Easter. So on each of these Wednesday evenings we will gather to focus on one of the scripture readings we will hear at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening: readings that are all about how God has saved God’s people over and over again throughout history, until finally we get to hear the greatest story: the story of the resurrection of Jesus.
And I love the Easter Vigil worship service so much that I will definitely be using this as an opportunity to explain some things about it and to talk about how beautiful and awesome it is. Here we go.
At a Jewish Passover Seder, the youngest child sings a question over and over throughout the liturgy of the meal. Following the rules of tradition, she notices how this meal is different than the family’s usual meal: the rituals are different, the foods are different, and everything seems more important. Everything about this meal is special. So four times, the child asks, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” And the older people teach the youngest generation the stories of their people and the saving works of God.
The Easter Vigil might inspire us to ask the same question. It’s a worship service so different from our usual Sunday worship: we begin by gathering outside around a fire; we go through more rituals, and we add more Bible readings; there are more candles in the nave; and everything seems more special, more important. Attending the service for the first time, we might ask: Why all this extra-special stuff? Why a longer service? Why come to church on a Saturday night? “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”
The first song we hear together at the Vigil answers that question. That first song is called the Exsultet or the Easter Proclamation. Over and over again the Easter Proclamation sings “This is the night!”:
This is the night in which, in ancient times, you delivered our forebears, the children of Israel, and led them, dry-shod through the Sea.
This is the night in which the darkness of sin has been purged away by the rising brightness.
This is the night in which heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.
The Easter Vigil takes all of God’s saving works from all of history, and brings them into this moment, right here, right now. We gather in darkness, our nave bare of its usual ornaments after Maundy Thursday’s ritual of stripping the altar, and the somberness of Good Friday’s service hangs around as our last memory of worship here. We gather in darkness, carrying thoughts of whatever evil currently haunts the news headlines or our own lives. And together we celebrate the good news of Easter: this is the night when Christ was raised from the dead. And the idea of time fades to the background as we remember the work of our eternal God. This is the night when it’s all happening, everything God has ever done to save God’s people, all God continues to do for us. This is the night when God creates light in the darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. This is the night.
And then we hear those stories of what God has done. God holding up the waters of the Red Sea for Israel to escape. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones being restored to life, a symbol of what God was about to do for Israel. But the first story we tell is The First Story: God creating the world.
This Creation story explains why we begin celebrating Easter on Saturday night. Some people — and some churches — think of the Easter Vigil as “keeping vigil,” like waiting by the tomb of Christ for him to rise in the morning. The church I went to in high school actually had people dress up as Roman centurions and stand outside the church in shifts from Good Friday evening till Easter Sunday morning. But that is not what we do in the Lutheran church; we celebrate a vigil, like, “Oh my gosh, Jesus is risen! This is so amazing we all have to get together and stay up all night partying!” And we can already say “Jesus is risen!” on Saturday night, we can say “this is the night” when it all happened, because of the Jewish way of keeping time. In the Jewish tradition, a new day begins at sundown. This is because of the Creation story we just read, which says over and over: “And there was evening and there was morning: the first day.” So according to the Jewish way of keeping time, each day begins with God bringing light out of darkness.
And that means that Jesus’s third day in the tomb began when the sun set on Saturday, and sometime before the women disciples discovered the empty tomb during the early hours of dawn on Sunday, sometime in those hours of darkness, God raised Jesus from the dead. Sometime during that night, God again created light out of darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. God acted, and that action was so grand and so cosmically meaningful that it can only be compared to Creation itself. Christ’s resurrection, we believe, is the beginning of God’s re-creation of the whole world.
So we begin our Easter readings with this Creation story because it is the first story of God doing what God does. Creating light. Creating life. Bringing order out of chaos. Making sense of things. Giving food and creating beauty and blessing us.
As we spend our time this Lent preparing for the Easter celebration, we might reflect on all the ways we still need God to be who God is. The Creator, who gives us light, who helps us make sense out of our lives, who brings newness and life. The Re-Creator, who restores relationships, who forgives sin and makes us new, who works to transform our world. Looking toward the Easter Vigil, we are reminded to claim all that God does in the Creation story for right now. This is the night. This is the moment. God is creating and recreating now, in our lives, in our world. Thanks be to God.
 From Sundays and Seasons, Year B 2018, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017) pp. 100-101.
 This way of beginning to talk about the Easter Vigil, as well as the basis for much of my interpretation of the Vigil, come from Gail Ramshaw’s The Three Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), kindle edition.