On the Inadequacy of Words in the Face of the Resurrection Experience | A Sermon Preached at the Great Vigil of Easter
Below is the text of the sermon I preached for the Great Vigil of Easter at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia, on March 31, 2018.
Tonight I want to speak to you about words. How they are limited and, ultimately, how they fail us.
It pains me to speak of words in this way. I am a lover of words. A lover of language. Of literature and poetry and well-crafted sentences. Someone who believes mightily in the power of the pen and is moved to tears often and without shame by words.
Yet, here I find myself preaching Easter Vigil very aware that this night is a night that begs my silence. Because, words fail it. Words will always fail it. So, what is a preacher to do on a night like this one?
After all, this is the night where our Lord Jesus Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave. The reality of this - of the resurrection - is just not something that words can get at. There is more to it than what we can say with our finite and fragile language. And yet, here I am. And, there you are. And, words of some sort are meant to stretch between us.
Why, then, do I preach? This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Why do I feel compelled to put words to the Eternal, the Transcendent, to the great mystery of God-Almighty? Because the Eternal, the Transcendent, the great mystery that is God-Almighty was made man and walked among us, blessing human flesh as he went. Talking. Eating. Drinking. Spitting. Touching and being touched. Jesus compels my words, fragile and futile as they are, because Jesus blessed my human language in the sharing of it. This is the paradox. Jesus made God, the unknowable, known to us, just as the bread and the wine at this table make Jesus known to us. Jesus, finite and fragile in human flesh, was broken open for us. Just as we break the finite and fragile flesh of bread at this table. The things of this earth matter. Bread and wine matter. Words matter. We matter. Finite and Fragile. Eternal and Transcendent. We participate in all of it, all at once. This is the paradox. This is the Paschal Mystery.
On this most Holy Night, we utter the profound (yet woefully inadequate) words: The Lord has risen indeed. Alleluia. The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the glory which shines this night and all nights across time and space into Eternity. We put words to this event, the Resurrection of Christ, and yet it is an event that is unknowable. It is, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “a miracle of another order. . . . nothing that any of us has ever seen or experienced for ourselves.
None of us knows firsthand what it is like to be resurrected from the dead. According to the Bible, God set it up that way. Hundreds witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, but not one living soul was there when he was raised. The women saw him afterward, when he was back on his feet, and his disciples saw him after that, although not for long, but no one was allowed the privilege of seeing him come back to life.”
No, the event that was and is the Resurrection of Our Lord is not knowable, it is not explainable, it is not reducible to words, it is not ours to claim. We cannot know it, yet somehow we do. Somehow it is in us. It is in us.
Brother Keith Nelson of the Society of St. John the Evangelist remarks that “each of us has undergone, and will yet undergo, countless passions, deaths and resurrections - in churches, yes, but also in hospitals, office buildings, by bedsides and firesides, under the open sky and around kitchen tables. This is the paschal mystery writ small, in lowercase letters, across the individual history of every child of God.”
This is why I preach. Even on this night. Especially on this night. I preach because I have experienced the reality of death and resurrection. The pain of it and the joy of it is written on my life.
You see, it wasn’t that long ago that I stepped into a waiting room at Children’s National Medical Center and received news that would break me. That would break many of us. Millie, the infant daughter of my friends, was a dream that contained multitudes. She was alive, truly, in a way that only the youngest amongst us can be. And, at just six months old, she was taken from us - tragically and too soon. I was broken. Some of you were as well. Days later, we would cry together at this table. The chalice I held there for some of you never felt heavier.
It would be six months before I could serve again at this table - at any table. The cup was too heavy. Too full of her. Because, the truth will not be ignored here: it professes reality: she was and is still alive. And, that is heartbreaking. She is alive and yet gone from us. The life she lives now is not knowable, explainable or reducible to words. I cannot know it. And, yet, it is in me. She is in me. She speaks through me now.
Words fail us. Yes. But, they themselves are a type of resurrection. A hope-filled hallelujah out of our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. The words we hear and speak tonight are mere words - nothing at all. And, yet, they are also the language of our Christ. And, thus, are everything. Because, at their heart is the truth of our Christian experience. A truth, once realized, that begs to be spoken. That must be spoken. A necessary paradox.
Death and Resurrection. Writ small and writ large. It verses you in a language that cannot be learned, but can only be experienced. I speak that language now. The joy that I feel is deeper, more fragile and Holy than in the past. The anger that I feel is more seductive, more passionate. My very bones feel different. Can these bones live? O Lord God you know. I serve the cup and it means something more than it once did. The comfortable weight of it in my hands reminds me that we are alive. That we will die. That tragedy will befall us. But, that joy will too. And, that all of it, all of it, is contained within the One who created us. The Lord has Risen indeed. Alleluia.
Man is made from dust. He has risen. Children meet violent ends. He has risen. Israel is delivered out of Egypt. He is risen. Hatred exists. He is risen. Love is stronger. He is risen. Bones are dry. He is risen. But then they live. He is risen. She lives, even now. They all do. We all do. He is risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.