In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend in which he described the state of this new nation that he had helped to form just over a decade before. In the letter, he was particularly intent on reporting on how these new United States were faring under their very new Constitution. The upshot, according to Franklin, was so far, so good. The Constitution, he wrote, “has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes. It wasn’t the first time this expression had ever been written, but it was the first time it had been written by someone so famous, and so for all of the intervening years, this quotation has had Franklin’s name all over it. Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.
It’s a rather cynical turn of phrase, don’t you think? Clever, but grim. We use it to try to make ourselves feel better by reminding ourselves that at least we’re all in the same boat, even if that boat is expensive and capsizing. We use it when we don’t get the job we were promised, when our team loses to an underdog, when we get our heart broken by the person we thought was the one. We say it with a sigh and resigned smile. Well, nothing is certain, right?, we shrug. Except DEATH – which is, admittedly, a dark thing to bring up when you’re already feeling pretty discouraged – and taxes – which is the part that’s supposed to make you laugh. Or laugh and wince. Or just wince. As I said, a rather cynical turn of phrase.
It’s a turn of phrase that I imagine has been uttered for a lot longer than two hundred and some odd years. I mean, really, how could this phrase not have been originally coined by some ancient Judean who was feeling a little salty about the Roman occupation? Can’t you just picture a particularly cantankerous native of Galilee, shrugging and shaking his head while talking to a neighbor who’s a bit down on his luck? So, my friend, that wonderful wine you were hoping to make, from the vineyard that you had prepared so carefully with the perfectly cleared ground and the grand shady trees and the brand-new watchtower – you say that instead of being wonderful the wine turned out to be as sour as vinegar? Well, you know what they say, the crusty Galilean would say, throwing a glance over his shoulder to the Roman soldier loitering behind him, nothing is certain except death and taxes.
For the women who arrived at the tomb in those grey grainy hours just before dawn, nothing was certain except death. Just a few days before, they had known, deep in their hearts, that the man they had followed was the Messiah. They had been absolutely sure of it. They wouldn’t have followed him if they hadn’t known that the words he spoke were the truth, that he was the one of whom prophets had spoken. He was the one they had been waiting for, since the Garden and the Red Sea, through the wilderness and the exile, in their hunger and their thirst, in their joy and in their pain. He was the one, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. They had been so certain.
But then they saw him arrested and tried. They watched him beaten and nailed to the cross. They heard his last words and his last breath; they witnessed his death. And in that moment, everything they had thought was solid and true simply crumbled away like the ground beneath their feet. Nothing was certain anymore. Nothing except death.
And perhaps taxes, too. I can imagine the women on their way to the tomb, clucking together over the irony that at least they wouldn’t have to worry about coming to harm in the early morning darkness. After all, the Romans had made sure to station a couple of guards at Jesus’ tomb for the duration of the Sabbath. So good to see their taxes put to such good use, Mary Magdalene would say, with an epic eye roll. Death and taxes, the other Mary would say. Death and taxes. Nothing is certain but death and taxes.
But then…well, you know the story. The earthquake and the rolling stone, the angel and the lightning, those resented Roman guards collapsing in fear and the unexpected voice telling them not to be afraid, and finally the sight they could never have imagined even in the most desperate dark hours of the past three days – their Lord, standing before them, alive, and well, and telling them to go tell the others to go into Galilee where they, too, would meet him. In the face of this astounding new truth, what else was there to do but fall down and worship? What else was there to do but to smile and laugh and shake their heads and hold on to his blessed wounded feet and know that once they had been in the darkness but now they had seen the light. Their Lord, who was dead, was now alive. Of this they were certain.
And on this night, we too proclaim this great good news. We were once in the darkness, but now we see the light. Christ, who was dead, is now alive. Nothing is certain but death and taxes? Bah, humbug! Here we are, on April 15, 2017, and it seems that death and taxes are both on hold! Oh death, where is your sting, oh taxes, where is your victory? Well, your taxes are actually due on Tuesday, but death – ? Death is conquered, we are free. Of course death still is, and death with a little “d” will come for each of us, but tonight we proclaim with certainty that this is no longer anything to fear. Death no longer has the last word. Because Death with a capital “d” is no more.
This is why, tonight, when we’re presented with a grim turn of phrase like Did you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death, our response is simply Hallelujah! And when we hear that we have been united with him in a death like his we say Hallelujah! And when we hear that we – and Phoebe and Joshua – have been buried with him by baptism into death, we say Hallelujah! Because this night confirms for us that these turns of phrase are not grim at all. There is no room for grimness or hopelessness or cynicism after this night. For we no longer have anything to fear, not even death. When we are baptized with Christ into a death like his, we will also walk with him in his resurrection. We know this. We proclaim it. We celebrate it. The life Christ lives is for all of us, and Death has no more dominion. Nothing is certain except Death is dead.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Because there is something else that is absolutely certain. And I don’t mean your taxes. Yes, we do have to render unto Caesar on Tuesday, but I’m talking about something else, something much more. There is one other certainty in what we proclaim this night. And that certainty is love. What is most certain, what we know is most true, deep in our hearts, is that all of this was done for love. This death was for love. This resurrection was for love. This appearance to these wonderful women, this instruction to go into Galilee, this promise that he would appear again, was for love. The holiness of this fire, this water, this baptism, these new Christians – all for love. All was and is and will forever be for love. Hallelujah.
So, you holy people on this holy night, do not fear. This night truly “has an appearance that promises permanency,” the permanency of eternal life in the glory of God the Father. And on this night, this can be said to be certain: death is no more, Christ is risen, and all, for certain, for love.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Great Vigil of Easter, 15 April 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia