Sermon preached at the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Stephen's Church, March 30, 2013
Here’s a bit of trivia. English and German are the only major languages that call this holy day we are beginning to celebrate tonight by a name other than the name that is derived from the Hebrew word for “Passover.”
Passover in Hebrew is Pesach. Greek and Latin writers in the early Church called what we now celebrate, Pascha. In Spanish it is Pascua, French: Pâques, Russian: Paskha, Dutch, Pasen, and on and on. So where does “Easter” come from? Éostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn. Her name came to be that of a month in the spring in German.
Now I know I may have already lost some of you, but hold on. Why is this important? Because in the English-speaking world we have forgotten what this night was all about because we lost the name that described it.
Tonight is the Christian Pesach. Tonight is the Christian Passover. I sang about it in the Exsultet awhile back:
…for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people. … This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
And the song goes on and on, describing this “Passover” in many images. This is the night:
· when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grace
· when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away
· which restores innocence to the fallen
· joy to those who mourn
· that casts out pride and hatred and brings peace and concord.
We are stuck with the word “Easter,” which says nothing to us about what is actually going on here. This is the Christian Passover. What was once (and still is, as it is to be honored) a celebration of how God liberated a chosen people who had lived in bondage to another people, is now a celebration of how God has liberated everyone from everything to which we live in bondage.
United as we are with Jesus’ Passover from death to life we have the capacity as individuals and as a people to Passover anything that enslaves us.
Things like sin, of course. But also things like pride and prejudice. And things like anxiety and despair, or your inability to forgive your brother, or your boss, your anger at something cruel your parents did to you when you were a kid, the injustice of not making enough money to live basically well, or of the racial divisions that stubbornly impede equality—you and I could sit here and name a thousand things together.
And the one thing all those things have in common is that they all passed over with Jesus. Every last one of them, for all time and eternity, whether you or me wanted them to or not. The other side of all those things already exists in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
No more, can anyone, at least anyone who believes this story is true, say, “I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am,” or, “It’s just the way I was raised.” Bull*&$%! Because of this one word, “pesach,” “Passover,” there is no one who cannot change. There is no one who cannot change their mind. There is no one who is stuck in the rut of loneliness and despair. There is no one who is fated to remain prejudiced or mean or cranky or unjust. There is no one who cannot be free of anything that binds them.
Because it all passed over with Jesus. Now I am not saying that letting go of any of these things is easy. Letting go of any of these things can be as hard as letting go of an addiction, and that’s because most of the sin that enslaves is, in fact, an addiction. An addiction to pride can be just as death-dealing as an addiction to alcohol. And it takes the same steps to get rid of both, and the first two are the most important.
To say with all one’s heart and mind and soul and strength, “I am powerless.” And, for a Christian, to say, I need to give this to Jesus and let him help me pass over it to the other side.
It is not just a nice and hopeful story we are celebrating tonight. It is the ultimate and absolute victory over death and sin and judgment and bondage that we are celebrating tonight. To call this great celebration “Passover” is to say that it has not ended, and it never will. Jesus is “passing over” through all time and space and offering us to Passover with him.
Easter, as we unfortunately call it, is not a story about the past—something that happened in history. Nor is it a story about the future—what will happen to us, our own resurrection to live in heaven. Easter is about now. Easter is about the ability to pass over anything that threatens our freedom, either from without or from within. We do not have to be slaves to any one or any thing. We are free! Jesus has passed over to freedom, and he has taken us—all of us—with him!