Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Luke 23:50-56 50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
At the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis, there is a stairway that is almost hidden from view. Most people coming into the museum would miss it. It is near the back. Narrow. Dimly lit. Nothing invites you to go up that staircase. If you go up, however, you will have a beautiful view.
At the top of the staircase is an art installation. There is nothing beautiful about the piece. It is a cage. Made of wood. Large enough for a human being to stand inside. Yet, you cannot get in. You have to stand on the outside and look. Inside, you see a sheet of metal. Splattered with drops of blood. The piece is called Pieta. It pictures for you, in a contemporary way, the body of Jesus, taken down from the cross and entombed. You can no longer hold Jesus. He is separated from you. Entombed. Encaged. All you can do is watch. And wait.
As you wait, you begin to notice something. The lighting. Spotlights are carefully positioned all around the cage so that wherever you stand, you cannot be outside the light that seems to come from this piece. Shadows of the cage are cast around the room in all directions, and in all directions light comes forth to break apart those shadows and connect you to this piece.
And yes, you are connected to Jesus in his tomb. He is there because of God’s anger at you! If you look at your life, do you see anything worthy of God’s love? No. You see a broken life. A life lived in defiance to God, in defiance to what is good, in defiance to the law, in defiance to the people around you. And for that you are the one who should have been crucified and placed in that tomb, that cage you see standing before you. Jesus died your death, the death and punishment of God you deserve.
In a way, that’s what the Easter Vigil does for us in our lives as Christians. It connects us to Jesus. It connects us to his death and the punishment he received. It calls us to come here, in gathering darkness, and remember that Jesus was placed within a tomb. We could not touch Him. We could not hold Him. We could only stand and look. Luke tells us of that moment in his story of the Passion. Joseph of Arimathea was looking for the kingdom of God. Because he was looking for the kingdom of God, he went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He lifted it down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen shroud, and placed it in a tomb that had been cut into the rock. A stone was placed in front of that tomb, and no one could get in. People could only watch and wait.
Although no one could touch Jesus, that does not mean that Jesus could not touch them. Jesus was touching them. Us. All of humanity in that moment. Jesus was experiencing death. Physical death. For all of us. He had endured the punishment of sin for all people when He died on the cross, and by his suffering and death he paid for our sin and defiance to God and set aside God’s anger against us. He made peace between us and God, and now He passed through death in order that He might be the bearer of life to all. Like a Shepherd, He was leading us through the valley of the shadow of death to life.
But Easter Vigil also connects us to the life of Jesus. He rose from that tomb. And by his resurrection he gives us life. Life in His kingdom. He was and is and always will be the way. The way through the waters, delivering Noah and his family and all the people of God from the flood of God’s wrath. The way through the Red Sea, delivering Moses and the people of Israel from the wrath of their enemies. The way through the valley of dry bones, bringing life in the midst of a nightmare of death, delivering God’s people from the exile and restoring them to their land. The way of life, even among us here tonight. In Baptism, Jesus brings you into His life. He has borne your sin. He has become your Savior. He is the way and the truth and the life.
On the first day of the week, the women come to the tomb bearing spices. The Sabbath is over. The rest has ended, and the day has begun. This time, however, the day began like it never has before. This was the first day of a new creation. Jesus had risen from the dead and was bringing life to the fallen world. His life burst forth from the tomb and began to touch all of creation. This is the beginning, just the very beginning, of the eternal reign of Jesus as our risen Lord and Savior. We watch and we wait for His second coming, but our eyes are open now to the way in which He works, bringing life through His Word and Sacraments in this world.
Remember how I told you where they put that art installation in the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art? All the way at the top of a small, narrow, dimly lit set of stairs. There may be a reason for that. Few people go up those stairs, but those who do have a beautiful view. When you pass the installation of the Pieta, when you stand there with the tomb at your back, surrounded in its light, you are able to look over the balcony and see the whole museum. Every corridor, every alcove, all of those works of art are open to your view. Something similar happens at the Easter Vigil. It is not a service that everyone comes to. Few people decide to venture into the dimly lit sanctuary for the Easter Vigil. But those who do find that they are surrounded by light. Light breaks forth from the tomb and touches everything around them. Having heard all of the readings, having sung all of the hymns, having seen new life come in their midst in the baptismal waters, having prayed all of the prayers, they look and see the work of God in Christ Jesus bringing about a new creation. The whole story of Scripture, from creation to the new creation, is suddenly in view and they sing and celebrate the presence of God in their midst tonight. For “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Alleluia! Amen.