By Stewart Clem
We began our Lenten journey hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words were recited as we received ashes — in the form of a cross — on our foreheads as a reminder of our fragility. We were reminded that each of us will someday be buried in the ground, and our bodies will eventually become one with the earth. It’s not a very pleasant thought (and, you may be thinking, not very fitting for an Easter Vigil homily). But it’s an undeniable fact of life that, someday, you will die. You will not be able to take your bank account, your IRA, your résumé, your charming wit, or whatever else might give you an “edge” in this life, with you to the grave. Some of us may enjoy a higher quality of life than others, some of us may have the opportunity to check more items off our bucket list, but each of us has an expiration date.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The story of Lent began with these words, but the story does not end there. And like all good stories, we find some bits of foreshadowing even at the very beginning. The Collect for Ash Wednesday begins with these words: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” These words give us a hint that God is going to have to do something to make things better. If God hates nothing that he has made, then surely God can’t just abandon us? Surely he can’t just leave us to die in our sin, alienated from God and from everything that we hold dear? But what is he going to do? How is he going to do it?
Tonight, at the Easter Vigil, we finally have some answers. We have reached the climax, the dénouement, of Lent’s story. We find that Jesus’ death was not the tragic end to an otherwise promising life. We find that death has been conquered once and for all. We find that, not only does God not hate what he has made, he loves it so much that he sent his only Son into the world in order to recreate us. And not only does God forgive the sins of all those who are penitent, but he has brought us into the inner circle of divine love that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” These are the best-known words in the entire Bible. But we also know that, if it were really that simple, then we wouldn’t need the rest of the Bible. We wouldn’t need the dark and difficult story of betrayal, death, and resurrection that we’ve been commemorating during Holy Week. The promise of Christ’s resurrection is not that life will now be filled with pleasantries, that all bills will be paid, that we’ll never get sick, that our spouse will always understand us, or that we will never experience doubt, anxiety, or sadness. If that were the good news of the gospel, then Christianity would have died out a long time ago, because we all know that the difficulties of life remain very real.
On the other hand, the promise of Christ’s resurrection is not that one day we’ll be in heaven, where everything will better, and until then we’re simply left to our own devices. Rather, the promise of Christ’s resurrection is that we are now able to say, in the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b). This means our experience of living in the world has been transformed. It means that even in our darkest moments, Christ is there with us. It means that, from time to time, we may find ourselves surprised by God’s life-giving activity just when we thought all was lost. But no matter what, it means that Christ is there with us, taking up our pain, making it his own, and setting us on the path toward unending life in him. Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the death that grips our everyday lives.
The promise of the resurrection flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It flies in the face of the platitudes we often tell ourselves to make things seem better than they really are. I remember one time when I was perusing my Facebook news feed, I noticed that someone had posted a quote from Conan O’Brien, the late-night talk show host. It could have been uttered by anyone, really. He said, “If you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” That sounds harmless enough.
But another friend commented in reply: “In reality, if you work hard and you’re kind, you’ll likely just become exhausted and tired of being taken advantage of.” This response is probably correct. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work hard or be kind to people. But I think many of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, often believe the lie that if we just try a little harder, then life will finally turn the corner and we’ll be happy. We’re just waiting for that bit of inspiration, or a promotion, or that special someone to come along and kick us into gear and give our life meaning. “Be nice and work hard.” That’s the recipe for the American dream.
But deep down, we know it’s not true. Jesus knew it isn’t true. Jesus worked hard, and he was kind, but he was far more complicated than that. He was so complicated, in fact, that no one knew what to do with him, so they had him killed. After all, no one was ever crucified for kindness. Jesus was not given a violent and painful death sentence because of his good deeds. If Jesus is just a remarkably good person whose example we ought to follow, then why would we need to be baptized into his death and remade into a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17)?
Christianity is not a religion that merely lays upon us the hopeless task of living an impossibly good life, helped only by the example of a man who lived a perfect life 2,000 years ago. Christianity is a relationship with the risen Christ, who communicates to us his own strength and wisdom, which enables us to live life without fear of death. We reproduce, in our everyday lives, the life of Jesus, enabled by his victory, poured into our hearts (paraphrased from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, 352).
This is where we get the connection between Easter and baptism, and it’s why we have baptisms during the Easter Vigil. It is through baptism, our dying with Christ and rising again, that the power of the Resurrection is made manifest in the here and now. God’s new humanity begins here, in the Church. It begins on this night: in the words of the Exsultet, “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God” (BCP, p. 287). It begins now, on this day: the Feast of the Resurrection is known as the “Queen of Festivals.” It is the pattern, the archetype of what we do when gather every single Sunday of the year. This is where Christians are created, being baptized and confirmed, being nourished by Christ’s body and blood, and going out into the world to share God’s love. God’s new humanity starts here in the Church and grows outwardly into the world.
This does not mean the Church is full of perfect people who go around spreading good everywhere they go, making everything better, like King Midas turning everything into gold. If you think the Church is full of perfect people, then you haven’t spent very much time in Church. Nor does this mean that there is no truth or goodness to be found outside the Church. What it does mean is that God has entrusted his people with the Truth: Christ himself. He has gathered us together, crucified us with Christ, and through the baptismal waters brought us back to life as God’s remade humanity.
This is a lot to take in at once. It can also be a little disconcerting. The joyful proclamation of Easter comes with the somewhat frightening claim that we must first die with Christ before being raised with him. St. Matthew’s gospel tells us that the women who came to see Jesus’ body left the tomb “with fear and great joy” (Matt. 28:8) as they ran to tell the disciples what they had witnessed. This little observation is unique to St. Matthew’s gospel, and it’s an apt description, I think, of what it means to live as a Christian. It may not always be clear what God is doing in our lives, and there will be moments when we cry out with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). But our joy is ultimately found in God’s final answer: death has been defeated. We have been set free from sin so that we can live in his new creation.
This is the story of Easter. And that story — Christ’s victory over sin and death — continues God continues to recreate human beings by baptizing them into Christ’s death and resurrection. I invite you to make that story your story, no matter where life finds you at the moment. This is what we’re trying to do: we’re learning to live together in light of the Resurrection, to be the people God has recreated. We are human and we make mistakes, but we keep coming back, week after week, Sunday after Sunday. Like the women at the tomb, we seek the risen Lord, and we run after him with fear and great joy.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology and priest associate at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael & St. George, St. Louis, Missouri.