Welcome to the circus! Yes, that’s what I said: welcome to the circus. Tonight this place of worship becomes the big top, the circus, the greatest show on earth.
For consider: What makes a circus? According to theologian and attorney William Stringfellow, the circus is a parable of God’s purpose, because in it “human beings are represented as freed from consignment to death.”
This freedom from consignment to death is represented at the circus in many suspenseful, delightful ways:
One person walks a wire fifty feet above the ground.
Another stands upside down on a forefinger.
Another juggles a dozen disparate balls simultaneously.
Another hangs in the air by the heels.
One upholds twelve in a human pyramid.
Another is shot from a cannon.
In each case, according to Stringfellow, the circus performer is presented as “emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, militant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death anymore.”
The circus performer is presented as someone who has moved out beyond the shadow of death. The ringmaster loudly heralds these events as what they are: DEATH-DEFYING! The power of death is exposed by the performer, and it is transcended. This is the fun, the joy of the circus.
The Old Testament readings we heard tonight function in the same way. They represent people as freed from consignment to death.
Let us consider briefly each of these passages in turn.
The first one, the story of creation, which opens the Bible, features a new universe replete with life, summoned out of nothing by the commands of God. This stunning array of living creatures constitute a wholesale defiance of death.
When the earth is covered by the waters of a flood, humans and animals enough for a new beginning, travel safely in Noah’s ark until dry ground becomes visible. Then God establishes a rainbow covenant with creation, promising not to flood the earth again and not to despair of human sin.
The Lord then alternately commands and forbids the sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father. The divine voice interrupts at the last moment, with the audience on the edge of their seats. Any justification for human sacrifice disappears. Isaac is not consigned to destruction; instead, the Lord provides.
In the Exodus story, the Lord leads his people out from the land of bondage and toward a new land of freedom. At the Red Sea an unexpected deliverance occurs, this time of an entire nation, a mass victory over the powers of death.
Lines from the Book of Isaiah promise abundant food and drink, and all for free! There will be no empty, bitter harvest, but the divine Word will bear fruit. The seed yields the desired crop in abundance, the hungry receive a generous welcome, yet again life prevails against death.
The Book of Baruch summons us to leave the abode of despair, to seek instead the place where wisdom dwells. God’s promise – and our hope – is that all who cling to wisdom will live. We walk toward wisdom’s light; thus we forsake death.
Persist in listening, my friends! Still the circus continues, one act after another. The show must go on, this defiance of death!
Lady Wisdom takes her stand in public places, where she calls on the simple-minded to learn prudence. She freely endows with wealth all who love her; she beckons everyone, even the senseless, to take their places at her feasting table. “Eat my bread, drink my wine,” she invites us. Lay aside immaturity, that you may not die, but live.
We hear of God’s people summoned home again from every place of exile. They will undergo radical surgery: in place of stone hearts they will receive hearts of vital, feeling flesh. On their ancestral lands they will live, truly live.
The prophet Ezekiel is brought by God’s Spirit to a valley full of dry bones, the whole house of Israel. Told to prophesy to the bones, he watches as bodies are reconstituted, reanimated, made alive and breathing once again. The Lord promises to open graves, bring his people home, and place them alive again upon their own soil.
Rejoicing with voice and movement, Zephaniah demands that Jerusalem shout, dance the divine victory, trust the promises of God. The Lord himself appears on the scene, chief carouser at the wedding banquet of life, who defies death by pure celebration.
These readings leave us overwhelmed. We experience wonder and delight. This wonder and delight is sublime. Through these passages, these instances where death is defied, we acquire a new way of seeing. Our eyes are opened.
And what is it we see? Truly, the greatest show on earth: God’s kingdom, God’s reign manifest among us. When we look wide-eyed, with this new vision, what we see is death dying among us that life may reign, life at its most abundant – and then some. Tonight’s circus is sublime, for when we gaze with the eyes of faith, we see not only divine promise, but its irresistible fulfillment.
John Dear, Christian pacifist and author, tells of a class of teenagers in a remote parish in New Mexico. He asked them about the kingdom of God presented in the gospels. One student impatiently responded, “The kingdom of God is life.”
So the circus is where death-defying deeds occur, where “humans are represented as freed from consignment to death.”
And the Easter Vigil is a circus, where through scripture readings we encounter death-defying deeds, a circus put on by the God of life, life simple, abundant, unending.
But something more must be said about tonight’s performance. This is a strange circus indeed, for the Easter Vigil is a circus with no audience. There are only performers.
Everyone is invited to step into the center ring and take a turn at the defiance of death. We are invited into a playfulness that turns the world upside down.
Jesus is already there, making light of the disgrace that comes from the cross. He defies death and leaves behind an empty tomb, which shocks both friend and foe. Jesus addresses the stands, inviting us, one and all, out of death’s dark shadow, out of its deep valley, and into the glare of the circus spotlight.
The death-defying deeds we perform are spectacular, ordinary decisions on behalf of faith and hope and love. These deeds done in obedience to our covenant of baptism are threatening, not simply because they involve risk, but because our performance of them empowered by the Holy Spirit threatens with resurrection every moment in which we exist, whatever the place and circumstance and relationship where we find ourselves.
The tomb is empty. The angel speaks the message. The women run, their hearts pounding. They were accustomed to a world where death is in control. But they have instantly overdosed on a new and exhilarating freedom. Jesus is alive; he goes ahead into Galilee. The final cosmic joke is this: Death has died.
Have you ever wanted to run away and join the circus? By faith you have done so already.
Easter means that the circus comes true, in our lives and every life, now and forever.
To be a Christian means coming under the big top and entering the center ring.
A Christian ridicules death by living a life of delightful defiance. Let us laugh in the face of death, for Easter is a feast of defiance, the hope of the circus parable made real forever.
Enter the cage with lions and tigers. Dance along the high wire. Climb into the cannon. The show is life, the circus master is Jesus alive again, and the show must go on!