I’ve just started a piece and I don’t know what to say. I’m trying to make something up, but it’s not working. It’s Saturday night, the Saturday before Easter, and I just got home from Easter Vigil.
This week we lost Jeff Dinsmore, and I don’t know what to say. He was a singer, a beautiful tenor voice in The Crossing and its co-founder, in fact, who in many ways ran it with director Donald Nally. (Read more about Jeff here.) Every time they sing my music I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be included. Heck, every time they sing someone else’s music I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be included. It feels like innocence restored, like standing in the dark and someone hands you a candle.
The empty furnace
Easter Vigil has lots of readings; one is from the book of Daniel. Babylon did what invaders did back then. Spoils of war. It wrenched the best and brightest out of Israel and took them back to Babylon. Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rose so high that King Nebuchadnezzar had them run parts of his government. But jealous Babylonians dropped the dime on them when they wouldn’t worship a statue.
Nebuchadnezzar told Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that he’d have to execute them by burning them in a furnace if they didn’t change their minds. It was his law, and it was the Chaldean way: this type of execution is mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi.
What Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego then said to Nebuchadnezzar was remarkable. They said that their God could rescue them, but that “even if he does not”—that’s the remarkable part—“we want you to know, o king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
So he threw them into the furnace, but looked and saw them walking around inside the furnace, talking to a fourth person who looked like “a son of the gods.” Nebuchadnezzar called to them to come out. They came out. Their clothes and hair weren’t singed, and—I like this part, I would never have thought of it were I making it up—there was no “smell of fire” on them. So, God had rescued them, and the “even if he does not,” you see, when they got around to writing the story, was unnecessary. But they put it in anyway. That’s the remarkable part.
The empty tomb
If I were to make it up, this isn’t how I’d do it. After his execution, Jesus was dead in the tomb, but women discovered that he wasn’t there anymore. Not the inner circle, not the disciples, not the guys who followed Jesus, the guys who wrote the stories that we now read: They didn’t discover the empty tomb. The women did, ran back, told the disciples, but the disciples didn’t believe them. Then the disciples wrote it all down, just like that, disbelief and all, just like we have it now. I wouldn’t have done it that way, were I making it up.
Christianity inherits the idea from Judaism, as it does many ideas, that the sundown before the next day is the next day. During Saturday’s Easter Vigil, Friday’s crucifixion looms but Sunday’s Easter begins. There is nothing remotely like this service, the Vigil.
The dark nave
A fire is lit, often outside, and is brought into the church by candles. Each person grips a candle and enters the dark nave. Each bright face floats down the center of the struggling-to-be-seen church. “The Light of Christ” is intoned. “Thanks be to God,” answer the faces.
Then someone walks to the lectern. It’s not an important person, in the scheme of things, not a pastor, priest, bishop. Churches with deacons, the lowest-level clerics, give the job of singing this Exsultet—what may be the greatest hymn of praise ever devised in all Christendom—to a deacon.
Our church doesn’t have deacons, but it does have cantors, who are not clerics of any kind, not even deacons. I’m a cantor, so to me falls the job of chanting the Exsultet:
To all angels, rejoice. To every created thing, rejoice. To all around the world, rejoice. To all gathered here, rejoice. This is the night, it says, that we must pass through to rejoice. This is the night, it says, where all sacriﬁce ends. This is the night, it says, that turns clear as day. This is the night, this is the night, this is the night, it says.
It is ancient and mystical, weirdly involving, a rambling chant, not scripture but springing from echoes of scripture. One form praises the candles, “the work of bees and your servants’ hands.” It is strange. You see angels, faces, the children of Israel, wax, all creation reflecting the light while you sing.
I would never have said it this way. I so often don’t know what to say. My older sister, last month. Jeff, this week. Lucky to be included, but always suspended between Friday and Sunday, it seems, in this night, in this Vigil, so often not knowing what to say, with darkness but also with a candle someone handed me. With bright faces surrounding me.
So, with this piece I started, I’ll try not to make things up. I don’t know what to say, anyway. So I’ll tell the truth, “when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human. When all wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away. How holy is this night when innocence is restored to the fallen and joy is given to those downcast.”