Vigil, Notre Dame, and the First Law of Thermodynamics

Alleluia, Christ is risen! It feels so good to say that!

One of the things I love about Easter is that we say alleluia and mean it.

We mean it even when there are some parts of our lives that don’t feel very “alleluia-like” at all.

All of us in this nave have brought different things on our hearts to this liturgy tonight.

Some of us carry griefs and burdens that weigh us down.

Some of us are joyful about new possibilities awakening in our lives.

All of us carry hopes for this beautiful father-daughter pair who are being baptized tonight, hopes for how we may best love and support them on their voyage of faith.

Easter Vigil is a unique and sometimes overlooked moment in our Holy Week journey.

It is the hinge point between darkness and light. It is the pivot point.

It is the meeting of life and death in an explosion of resurrection.

We have prayed for the courage all week to face the darkness in our path through the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, and the awful echoing silence of Holy Saturday.

Tomorrow will dawn bright and beautiful and we will be bathed in the unfettered joy of Easter Day.

But tonight is when the grief and the radiance, the pain and the jubilation, come together.

To experience this viscerally, we need look no further than the haunting beauty of the small flame of the Paschal candle advancing bravely through the cavernous darkness of the nave.

This liturgy, with its marriage of death and life, makes me think of the First Law of Thermodynamics.

For those of you for whom high school physics class was some years ago, this law states that “the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.”

I realized some years ago that we have the First Law of Thermodynamics in our very own Book of Common Prayer, although the language may not be quite so scientific.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, toward the beginning the priest prays what’s called a preface. Most of the time it’s a seasonal preface—Easter, Lent, etc.

But at funerals, we pray a Burial preface, and it says this: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord; who rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”

“For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” That’s the First Law of Thermodynamics.

Matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed.

Christians had this intuition of how the universe works long before scientists articulated it in the 1850s.

The resurrection revealed much more than the body of one man from Nazareth rising to life again.

It showed us how the very fabric of life and death is sewn together in God’s beautiful creation.

And what matters most to us, what the central purpose of this liturgy is, is to take into ourselves at the deepest possible level that we are participants in this reality.

That matter is neither created nor destroyed, that life is changed, not ended, is the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And the bedrock truth that new life lies beyond death, that the Cross leads inexorably toward the empty tomb, matters for far more than our own personal lives and afterlives.

Life to death to life is the very means by which God leads forward the continuing evolution of the universe.

When we stand in this space tonight and watch this child and this man plunge into the death of the water of baptism and rise up to new life, we say yes to living out this truth.

When we renew our baptismal covenant tonight, we proclaim our readiness to make resurrected life for ourselves and others real in the most concrete possible terms.

This is sacrament—the physical matter of the universe manifesting the energy of God.

The scientific term “thermodynamics” and the spiritual term “conversion” express one and the same process, all created and infused by the grace of God so that we, and our world, might be transformed.

Paul sums it up for us in our lesson from Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

“For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.”

“Matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only changed into one another.”

These ideas took on added resonance for me this week as I watched the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burn.

I joined people mourning around the world as we grieved the loss of this offering to God’s glory, built over hundreds of years by scores of people who poured their hearts into their work, knowing they would never live to see it completed.

Tears came to my eyes as I watched this site of pilgrimage go up in flames, where generations of the faithful had brought their deepest pains and most secret hopes before the throne of God in prayer.

But even as I mourned, the words returned to me: “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.”

The pain of watching the cathedral burn can make us forget that the empty tomb waits beyond the Cross.

But that is as true for the physical locations that speak to our faith as it is for our mortal bodies and even our beloved communities.

When we’re struggling, we believe that we and the things we love can be destroyed.

We don’t realize that they cannot die forever, they can only be transformed, transmuted into energy and perhaps rising to life in a new and different way.

That’s what will happen to Notre Dame, that’s what’s happening to Joel and Piper in their baptism, and that’s what happens to us if we open ourselves fully to the beautiful convergence of life and death that is the Easter Vigil.

When I struggled through my science classes in high school, I had no idea that a law of physics would one day make me say, “Alleluia!” But I’m so grateful that tonight it does.

“Life is changed, not ended.”

Let’s say yes to the change, and watch the new day dawn.

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