To preach at the Easter Vigil is to be concerned with the very substance of every Sunday's sermon: asserting hope in the face of despair.
The governing image is Mary's tear-filled sorrow over Jesus' death being turned to joy at his resurrected presence. This is the meat of the gospel each week. The point of preaching is always life abundant in Christ Jesus.
And yet, the Easter Vigil is unlike every Sunday because it is the culminating heart of the church's calendar. The Vigil ends the Three Days, and it does so, in particular, by telling us and showing us who we are more completely than at any other time. The Vigil fills us with stories and images that form and shape our identity. Our identity, in other words--as children of God, as members of the body of Christ, as adopted daughters and sons of the Most High God--is a story. Our identity is, in fact, a very long story.1 It starts before time, when the Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos, and it never ends. It is grounded in history and permeated with images of impossible, merciful things. On the night of the Easter Vigil, we hear all of it.
The Vigil structure has a bearing on the sermon, so to talk about preaching on this night is, necessarily, to talk about the night itself. The structure is simple: First, we light the primal fire outside and carry from it small fires (our little, individual candles) into the sanctuary or church hall where we, then, listen to readings from the Old Testament. There is nothing like it. We hear all twelve readings (or at least four) and after each sing a hymn or have a silence in response and a brief prayer. Along with the children fascinated by fire, I like to sit and look at the flame of my candle as I listen to the story of creation, the flood, Abraham and Isaac, the parting of the Red Sea, salvation for all in Isaiah, God's wisdom, a new heart in Ezekiel, the rattling dry bones, gathering all the people in Zephaniah, Jonah's second chance, being clothed in the garments of salvation, and deliverance from the fiery furnace. These texts are the story of God's liberating power in the lives of God's people. Through them our ancestors give to us their experiences, and we need to hear them -- again and again, year after year. It is liberating again and again to sit together in the deepening night to listen, sing, and pray.
And then we move to the outdoors (if it is warm enough) or to the font in the church entryway or to a nearby lake or running stream to affirm the blessing of baptism, the precious use God has made of the earth's waters which, with God's word, bring healing and wholeness, forgiveness and renewal year after year. If some will be baptized that night, here is when and where the baptism(s) will take place. The long-baptized and the newly-baptized together speak the Apostle's Creed, are washed or sprinkled with drops from a branch, and pray.2
In short, it is quite a simple structure:
God tells us who we are.
God makes us into a new body.
God feeds us with the body and blood of our
savior, Christ Jesus.
We know ourselves as belonging to an all-embracing vision, and we give thanks.
Before the meal, however, there is preaching. The sermon has a wide scope on this night because it has not only the twelve (or four or more) texts from the Old Testament, but every year in the Revised Common Lectionary also Romans 6:3-11 ("you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus") and John 20:1-18 (Mary Magdalene weeping at the empty tomb, the "gardener" speaking her name, and her announcement, "I have seen the Lord"). One way to say what this tells us is that our lack of vision entangles us in sorrow and our sorrow leads to an inability to perceive what is real and true. (Mary's tears obscured her vision.) Yet, in Christ, we live because we are dead. Paradox abounding! This is the final word on our identity.
Just as Jesus called on Lazarus to come out of his tomb, the Risen Christ called on Mary--and by extension, each of us--to come out of our despair. Only by the power of that command, do we find our tears have dried. This is the resurrection proclamation. Even when we cannot see the one who comes in the name of the Lord and do not know who is standing with us, Christ Jesus speaks our names as he spoke Mary's. Our identity has become the same as Mary's: child of God, known by the One who died and rose from the dead because God so loved the world. The preacher would do well to focus on the Gospel story close at hand this night, for although the stories heard are many, they come down to Mary's sermon, the first post-resurrection proclamation: "I have seen the Lord."
1Brian Helge in Sourcebook: Triduum, Gabe Huck, ed. (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1983), 77-78.
2For many options regarding preparing and conducting the Vigil, see Susan Briehl, et al. Worship Guidebook for Lent and the Three Days (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009).