Night vigil, Easter Saturday 3 April 2021 | Revd Phil Austin
Have you ever found yourself in complete, total darkness? The kind where you can’t see your hand in front of your face? It can be a terrifying place.
As a child, I can remember the most terrifying place on the planet – “the cupboard under the stairs”. As a child playing hide and seek, I thought that this was the place to hide, so I climbed in amongst musty old coats and gumboots. Nobody could find me; trouble was, I couldn’t find the door. Somebody did let me out in due time, though my Dad said, “we could just pass food to him in there every now and again”; however I did not hide in there again.
Have you ever been in a place like that? We all have. Maybe you haven’t been stuck in a small storage cupboard, but sometimes it sure can feel like it. It is the darkness of the loss of someone dear to us, whose absence we fear we will never be able to deal with. The darkness of a terrifying diagnosis, of Covid-19. The darkness of not knowing where a child of ours is. The darkness of a shattering reality that we had no idea was coming our way.
The Easter Vigil service begins in darkness – at least it’s supposed to. It is the darkness of the closed-up tomb where Jesus’ body lay on Holy Saturday. The stone has been rolled in front of it. No light enters. It is utterly dark. Jesus’ torn and beaten body is already beginning to decay – the women are planning to bring spices to help preserve his body in the morning. But now, it is Saturday, in the dark, airless, deathly-still tomb. It is not a pleasant place to be.
Unlike the hosannas of Palm Sunday and the glory of Easter Day that we yearn for, this day in Holy Week – Holy Saturday – speaks most directly to the daily reality of our lives. After the shock of death or words that bring despair – words like cancer, divorce, terminal, downsizing, de-established – we find ourselves living with the “what next” of life, and we enter the dark void of unknowing.
This is where many of us live, from time to time. Yes, there are times when we experience the stark, gut-wrenching pain of Good Friday, and there are times when we know the jubilation of Easter. But this night, Holy Saturday, is the time in between death and resurrection. It is the valley of grief and unknowing-for us as well as for the first disciples. On Holy Saturday we, and they, don’t know what the future will bring.
I can recommend books by the Rev Barbara Brown Taylor, particularly “Learning to Walk in the Dark” In it she writes, “Darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love. At least I think I would.”
“The problem is this,” she writes, “when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life, plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light – things that have saved my life over and over again. So that there is really only one logical conclusion: I need darkness as much as I need light.”
In her book, Barbara guides us on a journey to understanding darkness – and it’s a journey that takes her spelunking in totally dark caves, learning to eat and cross the street as a blind person, and rereading scripture to see all the times God shows up at night. Because that’s what God does.
It is so hard to keep still in the fearful dark, isn’t it? It is so hard to trust that the wind of God’s spirit will, finally, blow on the dim embers of our cooling faith. “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”
Even in the darkness of our lives – darkness that comes and goes like the night – we are reconciled to God. Our baptism is the sign of this reconciliation, when we are marked as Christ’s own forever.
So hear the invitation of God through the prophet Isaiah, with these words: “Ho, everyone who thirsts” – for hope, for joy, for light, for reconciliation – everyone who thirsts, “come to the waters”. We may find ourselves in darkness now, but just wait. Wait for the dawn of hope and resurrection.
“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”