A great hoax of the modern era foisted on twentieth century is the assertion of progress, the idea that humankind could make any real, permanent moral gains.
Four months and six days before the beginning of this century, Friedrich Nietzche wrote: “There will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth. Much of that violence and destruction will be motivated by racial and ethnic hatred.”
In the middle of this century, President Harry Truman rode through the bombed-out streets of Berlin, after the Germans had surrendered but before the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and wrote in his diary that night: “It is obvious that the machines we can invent are now ahead of our moral wisdom.”
And now here we are tonight, at the end of the twentieth century. Once again, the brutal knock at the front door comes in the middle of the night, the men disappear and the women, children and elderly are jammed into train cars and carried away.
In our own nation, hatred turns to violence, even death, based on gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. The most horrific incidents attract the media.
But the quiet, respectable, insidious silence of good people contributes to unseen, unheard suffering, too. We have had the capacity since the 1960’s to feed the world’s entire population, but as of this year, more families in Africa are in deeper poverty and starving.
Tonight we hit the bottom, the bottom of hell. In an ancient fourth century sermon, preached on this night, the night of the Great Vigil, another preacher began his sermon: Tonight there is a great silence on earth—a great silence and a great stillness. There is a great silence because God has fallen asleep in the flesh…. God has appeared in the flesh and hell has swallowed him….”
This night, we face fully the horror of human evil. A good man, an innocent man, was betrayed, abandoned, ridiculed, tortured and executed. In this suffering and death of an innocent man at the hands of his friends and the religious and governmental institutions, we see the raw power of evil of which we are capable. In his suffering and death, we see the suffering and death of all innocent victims.
By three-quarter’s through this century, in his 1978 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, one of Milan Kundera’s characters could reach this conclusion: “The good of the world…implies that angels have advantage over devils (as I believed as a child), but [now I know] that the power of the two sides [good and evil] are nearly in equilibrium.”
This ancient liturgy of the Church is sharply divided into two distinctive parts. It always begins in the darkness, the extended darkness of Good Friday. We light the new fire and candles in that deep darkness. We read the stories of how in the past, in other dark times, God acted and rescued his people from the consequences of their own evil and indifference. And then at the great Easter proclamation, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” the bells sound and “alleluia” is sung for the first time in forty-six days, the organ sounds for the first time since Good Friday, this place is flooded in the brightest light this great Cathedral has. Through these sensual acts, we try to mark that great unseen action of God, who, in the middle of this night—no one saw it or heard it—he reached down into the bottom of hell and raised Christ, once again rescuing us from the consequences of our own evil and indifference.
So where do we live? Do we live our lives on the dark side of this night or the side of light; on the side of evil or the side of good, the side of suffering and death or the side of life, the side of resignation or the side of action to prevent or at least ameliorate the suffering of others?
The truth is, we live right on the edge between the two. And the further truth is that we can go either way so easily. And the unavoidable truth of our time is that there is no real, permanent moral human progress; there is always a contest in the collective soul of humankind as there is a struggle always underway in your soul and mine between the two. That is where we live, right there on that razor’s edge that splits this liturgy into two separate, distinct parts, the edge between dark and light, death and life, good and evil.
By the most ancient tradition, at least as early as the second century, this is the pre-eminent night for baptism. In those ancient days, women and men and children who were baptized knew that they were risking there lives by being baptized. Just before they stepped into the water of baptism on this night they turned west, toward the direction of the setting sun, the direction of darkness, and renounced Satan and all his evil ways, then they turned east, toward the rising sun, toward light, and they declared their loyalty to Christ and his ways. That venerable tradition continues all the way down to this, the last Easter Eve of the twentieth century, to you and me here in this vast place tonight when we renewed our baptismal vows.
Understand what you have done tonight when you renewed your baptismal vows. You have acknowledged that there is an ongoing struggle between good and evil in your own soul and in all persons. And you have declared for one side over the other, the side that respects the dignity of all persons and works for justice and peace.
We also acknowledge tonight that we believe one day this struggle will be over and God will rescue us one final time, when we die or Christ returns, whichever happens first. But in the meantime, we understand that we live daily on the edge between good and evil and by the vows we take and the daily decisions we make we demonstrate our real loyalties.
Is it not ironic that we at the end of the twentieth century we live with the same realities, the same choices as did those who intuitively crafted this ancient liturgy to give shape and substance to these fundamental, timeless existential realities?
And so I am able to conclude with another excerpt of that fourth century sermon from which I quoted earlier; the preacher’s words are as relevant tonight as then: “I order you, o sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise form the dead, for I am the life….”