A Sermon for the Great Easter Vigil

By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate

Those women were busy – the ones we just heard about in Luke’s gospel. But maybe they needed to be busy so they wouldn’t have to stop and think about the awful events of the last couple of days. Maybe they weren’t ready to give into their grief and needed a job to do just to keep putting one foot in front of the other – just to keep moving forward.

It was a little before dawn on a Sunday morning when they awoke and gathered up their spices and hurried off to meet up with each other. There was no doubt in their mind about their mission. They would all walk over together to the tomb where Jesus was buried and they would use their spices to anoint the body of their friend, their teacher, their lord. It would be a way to honor him, to remember him and to give expression to their grief.

It’s not unusual to hear about the men who followed Jesus around, but Luke made a point of specifically mentioning some women by name. Mary Magdalene became known to us earlier in Luke’s gospel as a woman whom Jesus had cured of evil spirits that had humiliated and shamed her for years.

We know less about Joanna. Supposedly her husband worked for Herod which meant that he probably didn’t like that his wife was heading out to visit Jesus’ tomb. But he also probably knew better than to try to stop her.

And we know even less about the other woman named Mary. She was thought to be the mother of James, one of Jesus’ disciples. But Mary was such a popular name that it’s hard to keep them all straight!

Something that’s important to know about all of them is that they were women of means and they used those means to support Jesus’ ministry. They were there for Jesus personally, financially and emotionally. They were all in.

Mark wrote in his gospel that the women were worried about how they would remove the big stone at the entrance of that tomb and discussed it at length as they were approaching the burial place.

In Luke’s gospel, that wasn’t a problem because as the women saw soon after they got to the tomb, the stone had already been rolled away leaving the entrance open and exposed. And not only was there no stone, there was no body to take care of.

Something was terribly wrong. This was not at all what they were expecting. Luke wrote that they were perplexed, but I think that was putting it mildly. Their minds must have been racing to make sense of what they saw or perhaps what they didn’t see and their hearts were beating in fear of what they couldn’t understand.

At the sight of those two strange men in dazzling clothes, the women fell to their knees, bowing their faces to the ground. Maybe if they could just blink hard enough they could see something that looked normal again.

One of the two men asked the women why they were seeking the living among the dead which made no sense since they were clearly seeking the dead among the dead. They knew what a tomb was; they knew the burial rites and they knew that a body was supposed to be there. So, where was it?

The angels confirmed that Jesus wasn’t there and went on to say that he had risen. If the women actually heard the words “he had risen”, I’m guessing that they weren’t able to process what that meant. It took the mention of another word to help them do that.

“Remember” the men said. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified and on the third day rise again.”
When the women did remember, something clicked. The words “He has risen” began to sink in. And that empty tomb was beginning to confirm something stirring in their hearts.

Remember is a powerful word in scripture. It’s more than an activity of the mind. It’s a call to action. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were supposed to keep remembering how God had intervened in their lives, and had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. But mostly through prophets, they had to be reminded to remember and their call to action would be to change the dreadful way they were behaving. The Jewish celebration of Passover is heavily steeped in this remembrance.

Many of Jesus’ followers had a hard time remembering what he said because they had no context for understanding it. It’s hard to remember what you don’t understand. And maybe they didn’t want to understand it when Jesus talked about his own suffering, death and resurrection. Who can blame them for that?

Yet the women did seem to understand because when they remembered, they were called to action. At the sound of the word “remember”, they gathered up their spices and hurried back home to let the disciples and the others know what had happened. They couldn’t wait to tell them.

But when they did, all the disciples heard were idle words and stories. They were used to not listening since women in general were thought to be too emotional to be reliable witnesses. The excitement in their voices only served to discredit what these women had to say.

But some of the disciples were at least curious. And that’s what sent Peter tearing off to the tomb. He had to see for himself what was going on. But when he got there, he was alone. The angels in dazzling clothes had left. There was no one to ask where Jesus was or to help Peter remember what Jesus had said. All he saw were some linen cloths.

But maybe that was enough to spark a memory – maybe the memory of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Whether he remembered that or something else significant, Luke wrote that “Peter became amazed.” Memory must have combined with a strong emotion to have caused that amazement. It certainly did that for the women; and it can do that for us.

This Easter Vigil is one of the most solemn of Christian services and is full of opportunities to remember. During the first part of the service, we lit the Paschal candle and remembered that Jesus is the light of life, a light that dispels all darkness. It will remind us of that throughout Easter and during special occasions such as baptisms and funerals throughout the year.

During the Liturgy of the Word we remembered how God intervened to create us and save us. Throughout the Renewal of our Baptismal Vows we remembered how we are “buried with Christ by Baptism and raised with him to newness of life”.

Soon we will prepare to take communion – the very first communion of Easter – and we will be asked by Jesus to Remember. Take my body in remembrance of me. Take my blood in remembrance of me.

When the women at the empty tomb remembered what Jesus had told them, they were called to action. They were the first to carry the gospel beyond the grave. They were the first understand, then to believe and then to proclaim the good news of Easter. It’s up to us to do so, now. It’s time for us to be called to action to proclaim with joy and awe: He is risen, the Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah!