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When the Church Is Empty

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Easter Vigil 2008

Romans 6:3-11
Matthew 28:1-10

Robinson Chapel
Boston University

The Easter Vigil breaks all the rules about time. According to the Jewish way of reckoning, with a day beginning at sunset, we are already into Easter Day. This is a vigil, however, waiting for the resurrection, something that liturgically has not happened yet. Tomorrow, Easter morning, you get a sunrise service, then a triumphal resurrection liturgy with trumpets and choirs of at least temporary angels, and a brighter younger preacher. The fact that we do this every year, and know what’s coming, means that the vigil-suspense of today, Holy Saturday, is pretend. Nevertheless, the distinction between the pretend and reality is no clearer than how the Vigil fits into the rules for real time.

Consider what we know about the events leading up to Holy Saturday, piecing together things from the gospels. The gospels are not consistent in details, of course, but here is one reading, mainly from John which I believe is likely the most historically correct. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jerusalem authorities were upset at his revolutionary potential and began searching for him. For several weeks, or even months, he and a number of his disciples hid out in the Judean hills in a town called Ephraim. Then he and they returned to the Jerusalem area six days before Passover where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus threw a big dinner party for him at their home in Bethany, a suburb. That was on the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday. They must have planned the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem then. Sunday he was received by the crowds in triumph, making the authorities all the more nervous. Sunday night he returned to Bethany, and for the next several days went in to the Temple to teach, getting sharper in tone, debating his opponents, and, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (though not John) overturning the financial apparatus for selling sacrificial animals in a violent confrontation. Each night he returned to his friends in Bethany. Toward the end of the week, probably Thursday, he stayed in town and had supper in the upper room with his disciples. That evening he was arrested, tried through the night and next morning, and executed before sundown on Friday.

His disciples, who had been so exhilarated with the popular enthusiasm for Jesus the previous Sunday, were devastated and confused. Judas had betrayed Jesus to the authorities and, though some of the disciples tried to defend Jesus with force when he was arrested, by the time he was finally hauled away they abandoned him. Or at least the men did. Peter famously denied that he knew Jesus three times. When Jesus was on the cross, naked and dying before his mother, some of the women were there, plus the Beloved Disciple; Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were not far away. But no one could help. They just watched him die. When given his flayed body they hurried it into a temporary tomb before the Sabbath sundown fell.

On Saturday they could do nothing because of the Sabbath. They just had to sit with themselves. Imagine the emotional plunge from Palm Sunday’s high expectations to Friday’s utter defeat. On top of that was the guilt of betrayal and abandonment. Judas committed suicide, either on Saturday or the day before. The male disciples were in guilty hiding because they could expect the authorities to come after Jesus’ deputies as well as Jesus himself. Only as recently as Thursday they had professed their loyalty unto death. How could they live with that? Worst of all, their dear friend Jesus, their charismatic leader, their hope for Israel, was dead, really dead. Had not God forsaken him, and also them? Why? Jesus was dead. Their God was dead as they had hoped in God. They themselves were dead in soul, and in body in danger of arrest and execution. It was a hollow dry rats’ bones time of self-hatred, despair, absence of all that distinguished life from death, a day of desolation. Their enforced Sabbath inaction was supposed to celebrate God’s rest from the work of creation! For them, the creation had become a graveyard! What could be a greater trauma?

Well, contemplate what we know this Holy Saturday and you will see that that was not the only trauma. Since that time and ours, many beloved friends and charismatic leaders have died with mission unaccomplished. Hordes have overrun whole societies. Earthquakes and tsunamis have smashed people like insects on the windshield. Medieval Christendom betrayed its legitimacy when it sent crusaders to the Middle East, and we’ve done it again. The supposedly most Christian country in Europe lit a holocaust under millions of Jews, Gypsies, gays, and non-conforming Christians. What greater guilt than that? In 1855 the Chinese put several million Muslims to death in a pogrom that compares with 1945. We’ve built a civilization on oil that is running out, and are making the poor peoples of the world pay the price first. We may simply be too late with global warming. And in case you are fantastically optimistic and can overlook all this, the astronomers say the Earth will fall into the sun in about six and a half billion years. This is reality at its trauma point.

Oh, if you think this is abstract reality, ridiculously distant reality, someone else’s reality, have you not found death slipping around among your older relatives? Have you not lost a friend to death or to disabling sickness? Perhaps you lost a child. Perhaps you lost a dream. Perhaps you lost your innocence about your parents’ love, or about your own ability to love, or your beloved’s. Perhaps you’ve done something irredeemably bad. Or perhaps you feel the blind forces of nature coursing through your body giving you vigor but using you up with all the causality of chemistry and none of the human story. Perhaps you taste in your blood the salt of oceans teeming with microbes from which sentient creatures evolve. Perhaps you feel that the most fundamental realities are the swirls of cosmic gasses pulsing out from the Big Bang that clump briefly into habitable worlds which will dissipate into non-entity quickly on the cosmic clock. The human project is a cosmic blink. Aren’t there dark nights when you feel these negations of your life, your worth, your home?

Well, maybe no!. I bet some of you have never let yourself feel those things. The very fact that we are here means that we are religious, and being religious means that we probably buy into stories such as that after Good Friday and desolate Holy Saturday comes glorious triumphant Easter. Always and every year! The Christian liturgical calendar calls a square-dance comedy where things turn out happily in the end. Suffering is temporary, half a weekend. Lenten penance brings absolution and Easter resurrection. The frailties and confusions of our current lives will be taken up into the eschatological glory of God.

Now if you believe that or some other version of the Christian story wholeheartedly, wholeheartedly, you probably are not able to feel the deeper realities of a divine creation that treats human beings like straw dogs, as the Daodejing says. You might admit the fact but deny the horror of human mindlessness and cruelty. You tell yourself that death is only temporary and that any loss is not too bad. The Christian story, like the stories of all the other religions, is a symbol system that imposes human-scaled sense on a reality that is too chaotic and out of scale with the human to be tolerated in daily life. Our stories domesticate the tsunamis of cosmic realities. They persuade us that God the Creator is like us, only better, with the intent and power to run a just and benevolent world. Although these stories carry some truth, they are pretenses insofar as they lead us to deny the trauma of reality. Religious stories and theologies are a kind of whistling in the dark that lets us get through life by covering our true eyes and ears with a film of human-scale meaning and self-respect. The pretence is in the liturgical comedy of Sunday anticipated on Saturday: the reality, which we glimpse like an after-image when the lights go out, is the desolation of Saturday without hope.

Look back at our liturgical calendar. On Thursday, Maundy Thursday celebrating the Last Supper, we acknowledged the beginning of the Passion of Jesus by snuffing out all the lights, clearing the altar, and removing all the vestments and paraments from the church. There should be no church on Good Friday—that is a secular happening most fittingly celebrated on a hill in a cemetery with the church leaders in hiding. Saturday, Jesus is gone. God is gone. The Spirit is gone. Our theology is gone. So is the theology of every other religion: don’t shop. Our stories are broken. Our hopes have no ground. There’s a fishy pretense to this service which we began by relighting the candles snuffed on Thursday before the resurrection makes us jump. You see, we have to sit with the trauma of desolation before we can grasp the depths of its reversal.

To domesticate the terrors of reality, every religion weaves a comic canopy of sacred symbols, to abuse Peter Berger’s phrase. But reality breaks that comedy. The Jews had their Holocaust. The Muslims did not conquer the world for Allah, but were rolled back and then colonized. The Hindus fell to the Muslims and then to the British. Buddhism is forced to say it’s all in our mind. The Daoists collapse into silly magic and the Confucians implode with pomposity. By no means is this self-denying trauma the whole of any of these stories, but it is a real dimension of them all. All recognize the trauma that the realities of nature do not accommodate themselves to human intentions about birth, health, security, longevity, fulfillment of ambition, or permanence of accomplishment. Tsunamis are not scaled to our lives. Sit with this truth long enough that you don’t have to deny it any more: on Holy Saturday everything is dead, our hopes are broken, our faith has no ground, and our theology is whistling in the dark because of the traumatic reality we are forced to acknowledge.

Now I trust you all have noticed the queer irony in the fact that my preaching the ghastly desolation of the Crucifixion’s consequences has been a formal explication of the very liturgical year and scriptural symbols I’ve called a domesticating pretence. Precisely because the Christian story includes the Crucifixion and the despair of the disciples, precisely because the liturgical calendar comes to its sharpest focus on the lights-out of Thursday, the tragedy of Friday when God does not act, and the desolation of Saturday when the church is empty of everything Holy, that Christian story is true. Like the stories of other religions, the Christian story exposes its own comic façade and points to reality’s depths. Because of this, it is true and worth preaching.

This self-undermining, this self-mockery, this kenosis or self-emptying is hard to understand when we think that our religious stories describe what reality is like. Children do think that reality is just like the stories we tell them. Religious stories, however, are true when they refer indexically, that is by pointing to things we cannot describe in likenesses but that we can grasp because we are pointed to them. The story of Holy Saturday points to all the desolations we know.

The Christian story, like all the others, points to many dimensions of ultimate reality at once, not only to the trauma. We should understand the time of the liturgical year as the representation of all the dimensions of ultimate life as if they were separated and spread out. We have a season to recognize the depths of sin and the grace of penance, a day of lights-out to acknowledge that religion betrays its best, a day to watch dying, a day of desolation at the stark impotence of religion, and a day of rejoicing that though death is real and final there is something more important about life than that fact.

In life, we do not run through these with easy sequence. Every day we sin. Every day we can be true to ourselves only with penance. Every day we confront the dying and can be real only if we sit watch with them. Every day we fabricate our human lives out of the maelstrom of cosmic chemistry. Every day we recognize that our best ideas are approximations and often blind us to the deeper realities. Every day we draw strength from the God who creates a cosmos vaster than we can imagine, whose swirling gasses and oceans of microbes produce glorious civilizations, whose creatures’ guilts and despairs are tipped to the ecstasies of life beyond measure, to joy, hope, adventure, zest, eyes and ears for beauty, intimacies of companionship, loving and giving and having a life. Every day we are pointed to these realities, realities so deep that no story can describe them nor picture paint them.

Yet we cannot attend to them all together, and so we spread them out in our Christian story and attend to them in the seasons of the Christian year, as happens in other religions. Tonight we need to sit with the desolation of death, for the ecstasies of resurrected life will be meaningless tomorrow unless we do that, or they will be domesticated to the point of falsehood. In baptism, said Paul, we are first baptized into Jesus’ death, dying with him, before we can be raised with him in new life. Let us not too quickly skip over that part about going under. All the dimensions of ultimacy are together every day, to be sure. So know, if you are worried, that the death in baptism is accompanied by the life in resurrection, and both are pointed to in our ceremony tonight. So also the resurrection we are to celebrate in moments is accompanied by the death and desolation which is the underside of its comic face. Be sure you come back tomorrow when resurrection has its own day, and its preacher.

But as we wait in vigil, let us sit for the while in the hell of death, with no Jesus, no God, no church, no hope, no story, and nothing to do, oblivious to whether Christ might descend to harry this hell of desolation. This desolation has no voice, except that we point back to it in the Easter Vigil in the weird time before the action. It is not for nothing that we call this Saturday Holy.


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