Great Easter Vigil 2023

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Well, what a week.  After the joyful procession of Palm Sunday from Phillips Square on Sunday, it felt like Montreal embraced the spirit of despair of Holy Week as freezing rain turned the early indications of the arrival of spring into a week of darkness and destruction – as we watched with awe trees after trees collapse, damaging buildings and cars, and our favourite parks turned into cemeteries for dead branches.

Hundreds of thousands of Montrealers are still at this point without power, and the effect of this unexpected weather pattern – if it has not turned the thoughts of locals to the events of Holy Week – will have at least reminded all of us on our utter reliance on the greater power of electricity and the ease with which lives can be totally disrupted and put on hold by a few hours of freezing rain.

As someone said on the radio this morning, at a time when we are all encouraged to embrace electricity in order to reduce our impact on climate change, it does not bode well for our systems to be so easily disrupted by those very same weather patterns.

After the devastation of those past days, things are now looking up, and likewise tonight for the disciples of Jesus who were hit by the very unexpected turn of events of earlier in their week which they did not know yet to be Holy.  In their mind, probably anything but.

After seeing Jesus, their friend, mentor, spiritual leader, die on a cross, their morale was at a low ebb.  At a festive supper which should have been simply enjoyable and full of fun, Jesus had made a number of predictions which they did not fully understand, and they all proved to be true in the end.

One of their small group did betray him to the authorities who had long meant to get rid of him, all for thirty pieces of silver.

All of them ended up denying any knowledge of knowing him, after he was arrested, starting with Peter who had categorically said that this would not happen.

And the powers that be, that should have protected an innocent citizen, turned a blind eye and gave in to the pressure of threatened religious authorities and angry crowds in order to keep a semblance of peace.

Arrested, flogged, nailed to a cross, Jesus died a slow, painful death, in plain sight of all, outside the city walls, like a common criminal.

His crime? To have stood for the power of the love of God at work in the world, and to have reminded all people of God’s unconditional love for each and everyone of us.

This was the Way in which he was able to bring wholeness, healing, and reconciliation in the communities he visited. A way through which he also made many powerful enemies in the process, those with a vested interest in keeping people in shackles that ensured their power and financial gain.

And yet tonight – well, early in the morning, the unexpected happened.

As Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, the stone blocking its entrance has been moved, and Jesus’s body is no longer there. Stunned, she goes to tell the disciples, all gathered together, still fearful for their lives and for their future.

Two of them run with her to corroborate what she has seen.  And of course, all is as she has told them – only the linen wrappings are left. And they believed – her or the resurrection? We are not sure.

While the men go back to safety, Mary Magdalene stays around, weeping in grief. Two angels try to console her – and then a conversation with a stranger turns into an encounter with her risen Lord, who gives her a message to take back to the disciples. Love has come again. He is risen.

Mary Magdalene is a figure who has over time excited the imagination of theologians, bible scholars and conspiracy theorists alike, because she appears to have had such a special relationship with Jesus, and here – in the garden, she is the first witness of the event that will transform the world.

But it may not have been the first time that she was present at a resurrection – according to some recent academic research by New Testament scholar Elizabeth Schrader.

In her ground-breaking study of the raising of Lazarus, Schrader noticed that in Papyrus 66, the most ancient version of the Gospel of John, the text had been changed by an overzealous editor. Was he correcting what he thought was a mistake in a story which appeared to have two Marys present, or was he perhaps seeking congruence with the story in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus visits a woman named Mary and her sister Martha? We don’t know yet.

Suffice to say that, in Greek, Mary is written Maria, but to the skilful scribe, the iota for I could easily be changed for the Greek letter theta, turning Maria into Martha. This is what happened, and what Schrader noticed, while looking very closely at the original text.

Her argument is that, at the raising of Lazarus, there were in fact two Marys rather than a Mary and Martha, and it is Maria Magdala – the Aramaic word for a tower – and not Martha who answers Jesus with those words: ‘Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’  The only other person to have recognised Jesus as the Messiah so clearly is Peter, the rock, much later on after the resurrection.

Tonight, it is Mary Magdala who encounters the risen Christ first, because she knew him to be the Messiah, and she could not believe that this was the end.  And it is her who tells the good news ‘I have seen the Lord’ as she had already, and before Peter formally Jesus recognised as the Christ.

We can only imagine how different the church might have been, if Mary Magdala had been allowed to play a more prominent part in its foundation, if Jesus had told her – in the words of Diana Butler Bass – ‘Mary you are the Tower, and by this tower we shall all stand’.

Tonight, we are confronted with the startling mystery of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, a mystery imparted not to those with knowledge or even a long standing friendship hewn in shared experience. Tonight, that experience of resurrection is given to those who recognise Jesus, have faith in his divinity, and love him.

In a moment, we will bring one among us to baptism and confirmation.

With Michael, we will consider again the promises that we made, or that were made on our behalf, at our own baptism, and have an opportunity to reflect on their impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.

For Christians, for all of us, post resurrection life is a reality where we are called to fight the power of darkness, where death loses its grip, and where we strive to follow in the footsteps of the one who – through his willingness to embrace the cross – showed us that even in the bleakest moments of our lives, even when our spirits or our bodies are failing, even when life feels as if it is coming to an end, Jesus is with us sharing our pain.  Our faith in the Risen Christ gives us hope that even after death there is resurrection, for those who will see it.

Christ had died and Mary Magdalene did not know where his body had been taken.  Yet, he appeared to her, the same Christ yet different – and he encouraged her on.

Tonight, we are invited, like Mary Magdalene to experience the resurrection in our own life.  Christ had died.  Now he has risen again, looks lovingly at us, and says our name softly.  And smiles

And he tells us, despite all the odds of our lives, to not cling to him in his bodily form, but to go and tell others what has happened, and how our lives have been and will continue to be transformed by this improbable encounter.


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