In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen!
I am quite unaccustomed to preaching at the Easter Vigil, as we have St John Chrysostom’s homily, and after that, what is there to say? We could start by looking at that homily. It hasn’t anything very much to say about the Resurrection of Christ: no reference to the empty tomb, or the myrrh-bearing women, or any of the events recorded in the Gospels. Instead it falls into two parts: first, the preacher addresses all those present and invites them to celebrate this ‘fair and shining festival’—all, everyone! He takes as his implicit text the Lord’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard: those who have worked in the vineyard all day, those who came a bit late, those who only came half-way through the day, those who came even later, those who came almost at the end of the day. And you remember, in the parable, they all received the same wage, the wage for a day’s work. And the preacher elaborates on this—all whether early or late, whether having fasted seriously all Lent, and those who haven’t—all, everyone is to enter into the joy of the Lord. It is a great festival; there is food and enough for all: ‘the table is groaning, everyone can enjoy themselves’. ‘Let no one bewail their faults, for forgiveness has risen from the tomb’—‘let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has freed us’! And then the mood changes: marked by St John uses a rhetorical devise known as anaphora: a series of phrases that begin with the same word—one series beginning with Ἐπικράνθη, ‘it was embittered’; the other series with Ἀνέστη, ‘has risen’. It is death, hell, that has been embittered; it is Christ who has risen. And St John Chrysostom makes these series of assertions rise to two climaxes: Death is embittered, because it has been destroyed, mocked, slain, wiped out, for it came face to face with God as it battled with Christ—and was overcome; but Christ has risen, and abolished death, made the demons to fall, the angels to rejoice, given us freedom.
But the event itself? That John doesn’t address directly. Nor does the rest of the service, not even the Gospel. For the Gospel is the prologue of St John’s Gospel, which might seem the most unlikely resurrection Gospel—at the wrong end of the Fourth Gospel, for a start, with no apparent mention of the Resurrection. (We often, usually, spoil the effect by reading Mark 16: 1–8, outside the church as the Matins Gospel, but in the books there is no Matins Gospel: we proclaim the Resurrection and go back into the empty Church, for the empty Church is itself the Gospel, symbolizing the empty tomb. But even so, it is an odd Gospel of the Resurrection, for all that happens is that the women find the tomb empty, and have a vision of a rather knowing angel, who reminds them of what Jesus had said before his death—and the women run from the tomb in terror!) And the rest of the Vigil bears this out; there is no dwelling on whatever historical facts there are about that early morning outside Jerusalem—instead there are shouts of joy, shouts that get more and more excited, shouting out the name of the feast: Pascha. Think of the last of the stichera at the Praises—just before we come up to kiss the Gospel Book and great each other with the cry, ‘Christ is risen’!
Pascha of delight! the Lord’s Pascha! Pascha! the most august Pascha has been revealed to us! Pascha, let us embrace one another with joy! O Pascha, ransom from grief! For today from the tomb, as from a bridal chamber, Christ has shone forth and filled the women with joy, saying, ‘Proclaim it to the Apostles’!
We are caught up in what has happened as a result of Christ’s resurrection; we are not encouraged to dwell on whatever it was that happened. And why not? Not because it didn’t happen, but because we shall never get our minds round what happened. It is the same with the icon we call ‘The Resurrection’, Ἀνάστασις. It is not a depiction of the Resurrection—no tomb, no stone ruled away, no depiction of Christ getting out of a coffin (as became popular centuries later), no frightened women or bewildered Apostles. In my view, the only piece of Western art that gets near to grasping something of the Resurrection is Titian’s ‘Noli me tangere’ [‘Don’t touch me!’], depicting Mary Magdalene reaching after the Risen Christ, as he withdraws from her: that, too, is about the intangibility of the Resurrection, its mystery.
No, we shall never get our minds round the Resurrection, because it is the work of God the Creator. Just as we can never make much sense of how God created the universe, or even what that means, so with the Resurrection—and I suggest, too, with the birth of Christ from the Mother of God. Here, if you like, we encounter the white heat of creation: we cannot bear it, we can make nothing of it—but it is absolutely, utterly real.
It is that reality, the sense of an encounter with God who creates out of nothing, and raises the dead, that we need to heed this year, more than any other. The embracing, the kissing, that is so much a part of our Orthodox Paschal celebration has been taken from us. But what all that expresses—the joy at the Resurrection, the realization that something new has entered human life, that death has been destroyed, even though it still leaves its mark among us, and that that newness is manifest is forgiveness, a forgiveness that itself is all too often incomprehensible—all that is something we must hold to. To quote another verse that we sing at Pascha:
The Day of Resurrection, let us be radiant at the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, brothers and sisters, even to those who hate us, ‘Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection’, and so let us cry, ‘Christ has risen from the dead: by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the graves given life’.
Christ is risen! Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Христос воцкресе! Hristos a înviat!