Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
Every year when I say this ancient prayer that begins the Easter Vigil something stirs deep within me. Part of it, I think, is that this prayer and the liturgy it begins are so ancient, that in them we are joined with Christians throughout time and history in celebrating the wondrous event of the resurrection.
In fact, the Easter Vigil is the oldest known liturgy of the Christian Church, going back to the second century. In those early days of Christianity, this service truly was a vigil. It began shortly after sunset, when darkness had settled in, and continued until sunrise Easter morning.
In those days, the service included 12 long readings from the Old Testament, with a psalm in between each one, in addition to readings from the New Testament. The purpose of all those scripture lessons was, as one historian writes, “to give a panoramic view of the trajectory of salvation history from creation to the resurrection.”
This was also the service at which adults were admitted into the Christian faith through baptism, after three years of preparation.
And, of course, it was the first Easter proclamation of the resurrection each year, ending the long Lenten fast.
No wonder the Easter Vigil has been called “the most important service of public worship of the liturgical year.”
Today I doubt that even the heartiest among us would relish the thought of an all-night vigil. But although the modern-day vigil may be a condensed version of the original, it still follows the same form and serves the same purpose. And I would say it is still the most important, and most moving worship service of the year.
We still begin in the evening, close to sunset, with the kindling of the fire and the lighting of the Paschal candle, which will burn throughout the Easter season and at every baptism and funeral for the next year.
We still follow that light of Christ into the darkened church and hear the powerful words of the Exultet, sung so beautifully by Steven Schneider this year, telling the story of the blessedness of this holy night.
We don’t hear 14 or 15 scripture readings, but we do get a taste of the panoramic scope of God’s saving work in human history, from God’s first covenant with creation after the flood, to moving from oppression to liberation in the Exodus, bringing death to life in the valley of dry bones, and finally conquering death forever with the resurrection of Jesus.
We still proclaim that Lent is over and Christ is risen.
And, I am especially glad that this night we will have a baptism, welcoming Robert Michael Wolfson into this community of faith.
We don’t spend three years preparing adults for baptism anymore. In fact, three years of preparation is what is required for ordination now.
In those early days of Christianity, when the followers of Jesus were subject to persecution and sometimes death for their beliefs, the decision to be baptized was not one to be taken lightly. It was a decision for adults alone, not children.
The three years of preparation helped to ensure that the person making the commitment was truly ready, and that the church could be assured that this person coming into the fold was truly dedicated to being a follower of Christ.
Today, at least in this part of the world, Christians do not have to fear persecution and death because of their beliefs. But baptism, whether of adults or children, is still a sacrament that should not be taken lightly.
It is a joy to be here this night with Bob, who understands both the seriousness and the joy of this sacrament.
I’d like to share a little bit about how Bob came to this place in his life.
One morning a couple of years ago I got a phone call from a movie location scout, who was interested in using our parking lot and building for a film being shot in the area. He said he would come by to talk that afternoon.
So later that day when a guy showed up in a baseball cap checking out the building I thought it was the movie scout.
I was wrong. It was Bob.
He came into my office to ask a question. He was Jewish, he said, but he felt himself being drawn to the church. His wife, Mary Kathryn, was Episcopalian.
Would it be okay if they came here to worship? Or more importantly, would if be okay for a Jewish man to attend church here? Would they be welcome?
The location scout never showed up. But Bob and Mary Kathryn have been constant in their worship here ever since.
Actually they have done much more than that. They have become fully immersed into the life of this parish. Bob is an usher; he helps with Family Promise and Holy Comforter.
He regularly attends Sunday School and confirmation classes. He has read tirelessly, learning all he could about the Christian faith.
Periodically we have talked, and I have repeated to him what I said in that first talk years ago – You are welcome to worship here and to participate in the life of this congregation. I have no need to convert you. If you ever want to talk about baptism I’m happy to discuss it with you – but it needs to be at your initiation.
After church one Sunday a couple of months ago, Bob told me he was ready.
It seems especially appropriate for Bob to be baptized at this service. The Easter Vigil shows us that the story of God’s saving work through human history is one continuous story – from creation to the Exodus to the resurrection to today.
The step Bob is taking tonight is not a repudiation of his past. The stories we heard tonight are all the stories of Bob’s faith, as they are the stories of Jesus’ faith. He does not have to repudiate any of them.
I see tonight as more of a continuation for Bob than a conversion, a desire to take a step into a new chapter of faith that has its firm roots and foundation in the faith in which he was born and raised.
For Bob the teachings of Jesus, the love and kindess at the heart of the gospel, and the love and kindness he has experienced in this community, have brought him to this point.
And so in a few minutes, Bob will take his place in the long line of Christians who have been baptized on this most holy night. We will pour water on him, baptizing him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And we will anoint his forehead with oil, marking him as Christ’s own forever.
The oil that we use for anointing was blessed by Bishop Wright. The prayer that is said as the oil is blessed is beautiful and I’d like to share it with you tonight.
“Blessed are you, sovereign God, gentle and merciful, who by grace upholds all who hear your call…Send now we pray your Holy Spirit upon this oil and fill it with the power of your resurrection.
“Let those who are anointed with this oil find in it a sign of joy and gladness, and may we see in their lives a glimpse of the risen life you promise to all in Jesus Christ.”
May this be our prayer for Bob this evening as we rejoice in the resurrection and in the new life in our midst.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!