Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

“He is not here; for he has risen as he said…Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.” (St. Matthew 28:6-7)

It is Easter – the Feast of the Passover of our Lord – and we have come to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Tonight we begin the celebration of the Great Fifty Days of the Easter Season – what the early church called an “unbroken Sunday” – and it continues for the next fifty days, ending on Pentecost, the great feast of the Holy Spirit. We don’t prepare for Easter for forty days of Lent and then complete our celebration of it in one hour long service! We continue to celebrate it for fifty days!

We are not here to explain or analyze the resurrection, but to proclaim it and to share in it. We are not here to commemorate it as some past event, but to experience it in the here and now, for we are risen to new life with him. Here in our very midst, the Risen Christ comes to encounter us once again, in Word and Sacrament, and in this body of believers gathered in his name, the Church.

Next to baptism and the Eucharist, this service is the most ancient liturgy of the Church. It is called the Great Vigil of Easter, and it dates back to the earliest Christians. It is also the richest and most complete and comprehensive (and the longest!) service of the whole year.

First, it begins in darkness, symbolizing death and the absence of God. We gather in a dark church, for Jesus has been crucified and buried. Then we light the new fire, and the deacon enters into the darkened church with the Paschal Candle, representing the Risen Christ, the Light of the World. Three times he pauses and sings, “The Light of Christ! Thanks be to God!” As we light our own candles from his, the light begins to dispel the darkness. His light and life are victorious over sin and darkness, death and the grave. And soon the entire church is bathed in the warm light of the presence of the Risen Lord, and the deacon sings the Exsultet, an ancient hymn in thanksgiving for our deliverance from bondage and in praise of the Light of Christ.

Then we move to that part of the liturgy known as the vigil, and here we rehearse in several Scripture lessons, God’s great plan of salvation for the world. We hear of God’s mighty acts of deliverance in the Old Testament and of the prophecies of the coming of the Christ, and in prayer and song, we anticipate the fulfillment of it all in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. This was the longest part of the service in the early church and was timed to conclude just at day break, as the sun was rising.

And now, in a few moments after the sermon, we come to that part of the service where we ourselves become partakers of his risen life, first in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, where we die with Christ and rise with him to newness of life. In a few minutes, the candidates for baptism will be presented, and they will process to the baptismal font, where the blessing of the water will take place with these words:

“We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

After being baptized, they too receive their own lighted candles, taken from the fire of the Paschal Candle, as we did at the beginning, for they too now share in his resurrection.

With the newly baptized having been sealed with holy oil, we then approach the altar for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries of his Body and Blood – just as we do every Sunday. All the baptized receive the Bread of Life and drink from the Cup of Salvation, the holy food and drink that sustains us in eternal life, whereby Christ dwells in us and we in him. In these two great Gospel Sacraments, we share in the power of his resurrection and experience the joy of the Risen Lord.

So let the celebration continue! Let us rejoice and give thanks and sing! Christ is risen, and sin is conquered. Christ is risen, and death is defeated. Christ is risen, and we are blest to share in the power and joy of Resurrection light and life!

What we have received and experienced here in the midst of the Easter Church, let us go forth into the world to share and proclaim to others. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Rt. Rev. Jack Iker is Bishop of Fort Worth, Texas.

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