Last night we became intensely aware of darkness, surrounded by the night of grief that is almost insulted by light. As Edwin Arlington Robinson writes in âCredoâ from his book of poems, Children of the Night:
No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The black and awful chaos of the night â¦
The Beloved is dead. There is such a finality in these words. In that first century, to people used to suffering and early death, acceptance of death came quickly. Custom declared that burial must follow immediately. The fate of condemned criminals, especially of those who died in the most shameful manner of all -- crucifixion -- was a burial without honor. But this one, this Beloved, who had had so many followers in his brief public life must not be left dishonored. Yet, where are his friends? Only the women disciples stand from afar, watching. They possess neither the power nor the connections that would allow for proper burial of their beloved rabbi.
Ah, look, here comes a friend! During the months of Jesusâ popularity this man, Joseph of Arimathea, had listened to him and admired him, considering himself a follower but not daring to be open about his devotion. There is one last gift he can offer to the young rabbi who died so unjustly, and Joseph offers it: a new, prepared tomb. He uses all his connections and his prestige to demand the body from Pilate. Together with another secret disciple, Nicodemus, who is horrified by the injustice of the court proceedings and of the violent death of an innocent man, Joseph sees that Jesus is wrapped in linen and laid in a tomb.
They crucified my Lord,
They laid him in a tomb.
We, centuries later, hear the simple lament of the old spiritual. It echoes the cry of the women who loved him, who are watching from afar. They laid him in a tomb.
And now comes the night of waiting, but it does not have within it the joy of anticipation. This is the end. They keep the vigil because they loved him, and this is what women have done through the ages -- they wait near the body of the loved one. Let us join them.
The great vigil has begun. The women, and the men, Joseph and Nicodemus, do not yet know the end of the story; we do. They are they actors in the great drama; we are the audience. They wait; we anticipate. Again, from the poem âCredoâ:
For through it all -- above, beyond it all --
I know the far-sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the Light.
We feel the coming glory of the Light. In our waiting, our anticipation, we hear words of stories past, we remember covenants made by a merciful God, we recite ancient psalms, and all these make the long vigil bearable:
Incline your ear, and come to me,
Listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you
an everlasting covenant ...
We find comfort in these words from Isaiah, even though deathâs finality stares us in the face. We falter. What is it all for? we wonder. Isaiahâs words come back to us again:
... my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways,
says the Lord.
Is it possible that we have totally misunderstood death? The Great Vigil is the time for such questions. There is so much that we left unsaid, so much love we had wanted to show the beloved who is now dead. Is there truly a possibility for second chances? Is anything ever reversed? As it is written in Ezekiel:
âI will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.â
We wait. We anticipate. We tell each other the age-old stories once again. We cling to the promises and to Godâs covenant of love and redemption. Friends, the darkness is not forever. Look, the dawn is breaking. A faint, faint light shows us the horizon.
Let us then go to visit the body of the Beloved. Let us make ready to anoint him for proper burial. Come.