Not long ago, when Jesus’ spoke about this very point of time…the time of his suffering, death and resurrection, Peter responded, “God forbid it Lord. That must never happen to you” (Mtt.16.22). Peter knew very well, that Jesus was truly and verily God, therefore subject to no pain, no suffering, and no death.
However, drawing on a very recent event – the Palm Sunday at the beginning of the week, we heard the song of praise glory as Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly. “Glory! Hosana! Hosana! Hosana! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord”. The very people with Jesus on this road that very day were convinced, that Jesus was the king, the Son of God who would conquer the enemy world with spears and swords. There was to be a military victory awaiting them in Jerusalem. On the contrary, they failed still to believe, that there was in waiting in Jerusalem a court case for Jesus, in which he was to be sentenced. Jesus was then sentenced to the Cross for merely three hours of the most painful and terrible moments of his life, but one that completely fulfilled God’s purpose of salvation, affirmed through his first prayer on the Cross for the world, “Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23: 32-34), and finally when he affirmed the completeness of the mission, affirmed through his sixth prayer, “It is finished” (Jn. 19: 29-30).
Immediately after the Upper Room, few things happened. In Gethsemane was the betrayal kiss of Judas, following the rattling of the thirty silver coins in exchange for the life of Jesus. At the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, there was the crow of a rooster after Peter denied Jesus for the third time, that he did not know Jesus. At the judgement hall, there was the splash of water used by Pilate for the washing of his hands, pretending his innocence. At the Cross, was the hammering of the nails through Jesus hands and feet, while at the foot of it, there was the rattling of the dice for determining who would take Jesus clothes.
Jesus was suffering. Jesus was thirsty. Jesus was crying. The beautiful Jesus was now ugly. That left the disciples and followers of Jesus in that point of time hopeless, helpless and lonely. How can God who is a God of power be now powerless? How can God who is the alpha and omega, everlasting and eternal be now dead? How can a God of miraculous power could not miraculously free himself from the pain of the Cross? No wonder there were shouts from the crowd, “Save yourself if you are the Son of God! Come on down from the Cross” (Mtt.27:40). Likewise one of the criminals hanging besides Jesus said, “Are you not the Messiah…Save yourself and us” (Lk.23:39). Again the crowd and the criminal were not wrong, knowing, seen and heard the Jesus of many wonders, even restoring the dead.
Under these circumstances - the rattling of the thirty silver coins, the crow of the kokarako, the banging of hammer, and the splashing of water, and the rattling of dice; and of course the Empty Tomb, prompted the church to provide a liturgical meaning to what we now call the Easter Vigil.
The Easter Vigil liturgical service have four part - the service of light; the service of the Gospel; the service of Baptism; and the service of Eucharist. These services are unitedly held after the sunset of what we term as Holy Saturday and before the sunrise of Holy Easter, meaning that it must be held at night.
The importance of the four parts of the service points to the very central Christian historical concept of God’s salvation work through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Easter Vigil night service therefore help us put together what happened to Jesus this week, i.e. his suffering and death, and with what is to happen on Easter morning - the resurrection. This will then help us see the journey of Jesus from darkness to light, corresponding to what it means to see Jesus as the light. It is the story of this light that the Easter Vigil service emphasises, fully accorded to Jesus as the Gospel.
The service of the light is represented by the lighting of the Paschal candle with the words “The light of Christ.” In John’s gospel Jesus said, “He is the light of the world”, best illustrated through his healing ministry of the blind. Jesus had been a source of light, transforming darkness into light. Jesus had defeated death creating new life.
However, not all of us are physically blind, but there is one thing common to all of us. We fall short of God’s glory because of our sins, leading us to our spiritual blindness. Spiritual blindness in this context, encompasses our spiritual mischiefs, vulnerable to spiritual death. Our spiritual mischiefs that we are powerless to cure ourselves, nor by others. Jesus is the only person who can because he is the light.
But Jesus cannot be the light without taking the hard way. In fact three years earlier, in the beginning of his work of salvation, he would have willingly taken the easy way by turning stone into bread; by falling from the pinnacle and still can be upheld by angels, and by admiring and worshipping the world rather than God. Jesus rebuked all these (Mt. 4:1-11; Lk.4:1-13). If Jesus is to be the light, he must take on himself sacrifice and pain. He must be willing to be crowned with thorns. He must be willing to be nailed. He must welcome even death. Jesus had proved then, that he is the absolute light of this world, penetrating and giving light even to the darkest corners of our beings, when he said to his killers at the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk.23:34); and to the criminal hanging besides him, “I promise you that today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk.23:43). These are the greatest words Jesus uttered to unwrap God’s very heart of God’s greatest gift of love and forgiveness for humankind. Saying these words in the midst of bitter agony, speaks loud of Jesus’ greatest undertaking for human sake. The reality is that, no sin is greater to be absolved by the light of Christ, nor there is an empty tomb remain darkened through the power of Jesus - the light in his resurrection. In other words, the light that was overshadowed by the darkness of the Cross had now been overpowered by the light of the empty tomb. Hopelessness had been transformed into new hope, death into new life and sin into grace.
Realising and believing the Gospel then that, we can be ordained through the sacrament of baptism to become members of Christ’s family. There are few very important affirmations and vows that we take at baptism, inclusively important that we believe and trust in the Trinity God. Only when we make that affirmation that we become members of Christ’s family, confirmed by the words of the church at baptism, “we welcome this person into the family of the church…” However, our being welcomed into Christ’s family the church, demands a life of prayer, so that we become Christ-like. To be Christ-like is then, “to grow in the faith of Christ crucified, and be always bold to fight against self, sin and Satan, so that at the end of our lives, we may be faithful servants of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This is also part of a simple prayer in the Baptism rites, but one that can be taken as a summary of what baptism means. The sacrament of baptism therefore, is not only the realisation of the Salvation work of God, but it is a deed through faith that we die to sin with Christ and reborn again to new life. In that, we become God’s children inheriting the God’s Kingdom.
Our becoming member of Christ’s family then qualifies us to be partakers of the Body and Blood of Jesus through the sacrament of Eucharist. The wounded, bloody and ugly Jesus becomes a reality to us in the Eucharist.
Likewise the sacrament of Eucharist reflects the promise of glory that we hope to share with the Risen Lord. No longer are we people of the dark. No longer are we people of hopelessness. No longer are we people of death rotting away in the grave. Through the Eucharist we are sharing in the Body of Christ, and that sharing is eternal everlasting. In other words, sharing in the Eucharist is sharing with Christ, not only in his banquet/feast but in his holy fellowship, so that no longer we are darkened, disfigured and made ugly by sinfulness. The Eucharist is no longer a mere re-enactment of the past Upper Room but it is life, it is Salvation.
In summary, this is the Gospel. The gospel simply is the story of the Salvation act of God through Jesus his Son. There have been people who in the history have attempted to take on the role of Jesus and their mission failed. And some even have died. If then Jesus is the gospel, what part of the story of Jesus is the gospel? The simplest answer is, the whole story of Jesus is climaxed in the story of the darkness of Cross, but forfeited by the empty tomb that created a new beginning of hope and life. The Jesus of light therefore can be perceived and glorified through baptism and the Eucharist. The rugged Cross on Calvary on Good Friday, and the Empty Tomb on Easter morning are both mysterious and holy. Likewise, baptism and the Eucharist are also mysterious and holy, only to be meaningful and purposeful in Christian life through faith. This is the gospel that we are warned of by St. Paul, not be like the Greeks who thought of the gospel as foolish, because they depend on wisdom and not faith. And not to be like the Jews because they depend on the law rather than faith (1Cor.1:18-24).
By Rev’d Dr. Atkin Zaku