Back when I was teaching high school choir, I used to spend a part of every summer participating in a Bach festival at Westminster Choir College. This festival was a chance for professional and amateur singers to come together to learn a major choral work of Bach – one of the Passions, a grouping of cantatas, or even the B Minor Mass – and then to offer a public performance with a group of top-notch soloists and instrumentalists. These were always wonderful weeks spent with the best people in the world: namely, people who love nothing more than spending 8 hours a day singing Bach. Those of us who were actually being paid to do this enjoyed ourselves so much that we did it for very little money and always ended up helping with administrative duties as well.
One year, the year we were learning the Bach St. John Passion, I ended up proofreading the program, which, if you know me at all, you know is right in my wheelhouse. The program included the entire text of the Passion in both German and English that had been typed in word by word by some poor summer intern in the continuing education department. This was before the days when you could just go online and copy a text like this as a whole, so this poor intern was typing and tabbing, tabbing and typing, German and English, English and German, for pages and pages and pages, which would drive anyone a little bit crazy.
And let me tell you, the proofreading wasn’t particularly fun, either. I ended up proofing for an entire day of rehearsal, looking at a few lines at a time during any free moment, like during someone else’s aria or a longish conversation about Baroque bowing technique. By lunch, my eyes were bleary from passing over the same phrases again and again, passages like this, like a script: Evangelist: Pilate asked, Pilate: Are you the King of the Jews? Evangelist: Jesus answered: Jesus: Is that your own idea, or have others suggested it to you? Evangelist: Pilate answered: Pilate: Am I a Jew? Your own people and their chief priests have handed you over to me.
But then suddenly, unexpectedly, in the middle of my proofreading, there was this: Evangelist: Pilate asked, Pilate: What have you done? Evangelist: Jesus answered: Jesus: HI!! J …printed all in capital letters with two exclamation points and a smiley face. I couldn’t help it – I burst out laughing in the middle of some poor baritone’s solo and completely interrupted the rehearsal. Jesus answered, HI!! J All these years later, I’m still not sure how this HI!! J got in there. I’ve always imagined a poor intern, eyes crossed from typing, stumbling away from her desk in search of strong coffee, and one of her fellow interns tiptoeing over to her terminal to type in a little note to cheer her up. HI!! J But the first intern wasn’t able to find any caffeine or sugar during her sanity break, and when she came back to her computer, she completely missed the message. And so we ended up with Jesus answered, HI!! J Thank God it didn’t make it into the program. The poor bass singing the part of Jesus would never have known why everyone started giggling during his dramatic recitative.
Of course, if that line had made it into the program, people might have thought that they had just been transported ahead three days and into the Gospel of Matthew. Because it’s true that right in the middle of Matthew’s resurrection story, Jesus suddenly and unexpectedly shows up and says, HI!! J, maybe even with two exclamation points and a smiley face. Of course, our translation tonight says “Hail” and some others say “Greetings” or even “Good morning” but the idea is the same – Hey Mary, Hey Mary…HI!! J
This, dare I say, perky greeting is a surprise particularly because Matthew’s resurrection story is surely the most dramatic of them all. There is no peaceful, pre-dawn tomb here. There are no women laden with spices stepping quietly through the garden only to arrive at the tomb to find the stone already rolled away and an angel serenely perched upon it. No, the women in Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, seem to have gone to the tomb to spy, not with spices. They are sneaking about on a covert mission to see how many guards there are and whether or not they seem to be doing their jobs when WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly the earth is roaring and rumbling like thunder, an angel shoots down out of the sky like a bolt of lightning, so bright that it hurts their eyes, and they can barely stand to look at him as he takes the giant stone and hurls it away from the tomb with a heave and a crash and thud. The guards just pass out. The shining angel speaks to the women in a voice that rattles their eardrums, Fear not! he says – an address which always indicates that the addressees must look pretty darn fearful – Fear not! Jesus is risen, look inside the tomb, he is not here, he has gone ahead to Galilee. Go, go tell the disciples what is going on and where to find him! For I have said so. Let it be written, let it be done!
Now somehow, miraculously, the women do not pass out, nor do they just run away screaming like the ladies in the Gospel of Mark. No, they actually have enough presence of mind to do what the angel asked them to do. They scurry along down the road, scouting for some disciples to report in to – Jesus is risen, there’s an angel sitting on the tomb, and everybody needs to get to Galilee. They’re running, panting, blinking and rubbing their eyes, wondering how in the world they’re going to convince Peter that this wasn’t just a vision brought on by lack of sleep when WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly Jesus is standing right in front of them. And Jesus says, HI!! J Two exclamation points and a smiley face.
It is a wonderful, unexpected, gift of a moment. Jesus isn’t supposed to be there at all – the angel said that Jesus was going on ahead of them to Galilee, not sneaking up behind them on the road to Galilee. But there he is, very much in the flesh, popping up just to say hi. It is as if he cannot wait to see them, that he is bubbling over with the joy of the surprise, that he is giddy and breathless with the wonder of it. HI!! J
This is a particularly appropriate reading for the Easter Vigil, because the liturgy tonight has been a lot like this. This is surely the most dramatic service of the entire Church year. We light a big fire in the church, for goodness sake! We sit in red glow of that fire, holding our own tiny flames, and then are plunged into to darkness, where we hear haunting, ancient prayers and words about floods and freedom and dry bones being knit together; we bless water with smoke and breath and plunge a truly giant candle into the depths of the font – it is all swirling darkness and light and mystery and litany and then WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly the lights flash on and Alleluias are sung higher and higher and higher bells ring and the choir sings Glory be to God on high and the rafters seem full of the flapping of angels, too glorious and bright to look at. It is a surprise, a glorious, wondrous surprise, like Jesus just cannot wait any longer to tell us that it is truly Easter and so jumps up behind us with a grin and says HI!! J Two exclamation points and a smiley face.
And do you know the real joy of this? Jesus does this all the time. He is forever popping up in unexpected places in our lives with words of new life, comfort, and joy. The truth is that the risen Christ just cannot get enough of you – he cannot wait for you to make it down the road to find him, because after all sometimes we get lost and sidetracked and find ourselves wandering down side paths where the valleys are not exalted and the rocks and hills not made low and we begin to forget what it is we’re looking for in this valley of darkness when WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly, Jesus is there, meeting us along the way, popping up when we least expect it, just to say HI!! J I am risen, I am here, and I am yours. So go on down the road, for you will surely again see me up ahead. I cannot wait to surprise you again, surprise you with new life, with my love, with my constant presence, with my longing, longing, longing, to surprise you with my joy just in seeing you coming. So HI!! J Happy Easter!! Two exclamation points and a smiley face indeed.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Great Vigil of Easter, 30 March 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia