The art of storytelling has been on my mind a lot recently. I think it’s because I just finished journeying through a five-week Lenten series led by Mother Johnson on digital storytelling. Some of you in this church tonight were a part of those classes as well. And even though Father Mullen assured all of us from the first class that the digital storytelling project was a competition that he would undoubtedly win, I still soldiered on and created my own story to tell, knowing that I would nevertheless be defeated on all levels by his creative genius.
Now, of course, I could have created a digital story on my own, apart from a Lenten class. But the narrative I chose to tell using images, audio, and music was enhanced precisely because it was shared in community where I also heard the stories of others. My story somehow became intertwined with everyone else’s. And at the end of those five weeks, I couldn’t look at my own story in the same way again.
While musing on the telling of stories in the past week, I also came upon some research by anthropologist Polly Wiessner. She has spent 174 days living with the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, observing dozens of their conversations in the course of everyday life. The observations from her time among the Bushmen are fascinating. She found that in their hunter-gatherer society, most of their verbal exchanges during the daytime hours were related to work and other utilitarian matters of human existence. But at night, around the campfire, things changed. Surprising dimensions of dialogue opened up. The days’ labor being finished and darkness having settled in, the Bushmen seemed free to revel in imaginative storytelling. They told accounts about their ancestors. They ventured into tales of the supernatural. They took their time interpreting the past, looking at the present, and speculating on the future.
The flickering flames of the campfires created a certain mystique that added to the drama of these oral quests to interpret life. As Wiessner claims in her study, the gathering of humans around campfires can be traced back at least 400,000 years. And in her research among the Kalahari Bushmen, Wiessner noticed the evolution of the cognitive and social development of storytelling from pre-industrial times to the more modern technological age. In the early social huddles of human existence, in the dreamy and even spooky firelight, human culture and social interaction were formed.
But I’m especially intrigued by one observation that Wiessner made in her research. In speaking about the Kalahari Bushmen, Wiessner suggested that those who live in hunter-gatherer societies “make use of daytime efficiently and nighttime effectively.” At the end of the day when there is no pressing work to be done, the quotidian randomness of the everyday is shaped and finds coherence through the telling of stories. In the mysterious light of a campfire, human community draws meaning out of memory.
There is, I think, some parallel between the campfire interactions of the Kalahari Bushmen and our assembly as a Christian community for this Great Vigil of Easter. We began the liturgy in the dark, which then was illuminated by the kindling of the new fire. And as flickers of light spread throughout this church, we began to tell our stories. These are complex and sometimes confusing stories of our sacred heritage, and they are heard in the newly kindled light of Christ. And if you’re like me, I wonder if you also comprehend them in fresh ways upon each hearing, because the last time we read or listened to them, whether yesterday or at last year’s Easter Vigil, we were different people.
But as followers of Christ who have just journeyed through the emotional drama of Christ’s passion and death in the liturgies of Holy Week, don’t we also hear the Old Testament prophecies as tinged with the hope of resurrection glory, where the former creation becomes new in a profoundly unique way?
On this very night, like the Kalahari Bushmen clustered around campfires, we suspend our work and bask in time suspended. We pause the clamor of daytime’s efficiency, and we “make use of nighttime effectively.” We enter into God’s time, where past, present, and future mesh and become God’s reality for us, now.
In the effectiveness of this nighttime hour, we can speak of our deliverance from captivity to freedom through the waters of baptism, the waters parted for us by a God who desperately longs to liberate us from sin and death. In the waters of the Red Sea, in the waters of Christ’s own baptism, this night, our sister in Christ has been baptized, and her story has been melded with our own stories of new birth in Christ. This night, this very night, is indeed the night when Christ broke the bonds of death. Were you there when Christ rose up from the grave? Yes, you were there! Yes, we are there, right now!
And we were there—we are there, too—in the sleepy hours of that first day of the week, when those incredibly faithful and brave women arrive at the tomb in which Jesus has been laid, ready to anoint his body with spices. And we are among them, too, in the confusing haze of discovering an empty tomb with no explanation of how our Lord’s body has disappeared. It’s true that when we attempt to find existential meaning around campfires in the night, we often fumble in the dark, reckoning with loss and despair.
In your more skeptical moments, are you confounded by the existence of darkness—I mean, real darkness in the world—in the aftermath of Christ’s resurrection? Like the male apostles who disbelieved the women’s report of the empty tomb, have you ever wondered if it’s all just an idle tale? For how can we reconcile the tragic losses of life and the sorrow we experience with the victorious vanquish of death? How is it that someone we love can suffer with a debilitating disease for years and never find healing? How is it that we look around us and see so much lying and hating and killing, even on this side of the resurrection?
I would venture to say that a great deal of ordinary human existence has the hollow feeling of looking into an empty tomb. With heavy hearts and discombobulated minds, we stare into a void before us with more questions than answers. Perhaps around our campfires of cultural interpretation, we even cave to the fear of shadows flickering on the angry, suspicious faces of those around us.
But let’s return for a moment to those women at the empty tomb. They are perplexed because their plans to anoint Jesus’s body have now been dashed to the ground. Soon, though, the obscurity of the early morning hours of the first day of the week is illuminated by an addition to this small community gathering around an empty tomb. Suddenly, the faithful women’s consternation turns to joy with an incisive reminder from two men in shining clothes. “Remember! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And in that marvelous epiphany, those women did remember! And with that remembrance, everything changed. Their stories could never be the same again. And neither can ours.
It is as if the tomb itself becomes the sacred campfire of redeemed humanity, as on this night, we gather with those devoted women in the confusion of our own lives to recall the good news of Christ and tell our stories. The empty tomb filters all the anecdotes we tell, in their anguish and in their rejoicing.
The losses we experience are no less losses and no less painful. But they are not the final word. When we feel the deepest sense of God’s absence, like the women bereft of their friend Jesus, we remember this: that exactly because a body was absent from a tomb, God’s saving power is most fully known. God has not abandoned us.
And if you but share your tale in a community, whether around a campfire or in a digital storytelling class or over coffee, you will find new dimensions in your story, because your pain and loss have also become someone else’s pain and loss. Your questions have also become someone else’s questions. And in the intersection of stories, you might perceive that God has indeed been there all along, active in your life, healing and saving, even when darkness has seemed your only companion.
My brothers and sisters, that tomb was empty on the first day of the week. And so we can no longer look for the living among the dead or see death as the victor in our struggles. Life has been objectively changed forever by Christ’s resurrection. And it now has potentiality for redemption, for re-creation, and for hope to triumph over despair, even when we don’t know what the specific outcome will be or how it will be accomplished.
The night draws on, and daybreak draws near. Let us make use of nighttime effectively in the light of Christ’s resurrection. This is the night where past, present, and future converge. We assemble around our campfire, set before an empty tomb, and we tell our stories, tragic, poignant, hopeful, and exuberant. All of them intermingle and find their significance in gathered Christian community.
So, hear the voices of those men in shining clothes standing at the tomb with us. Hear their questions to us. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember: he is not here, he is risen!
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
The Great Vigil of Easter 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia