The Easter Vigil
[Scripture Readings: Ez 36:16-28; Rom 6:3-11; Lk 24:1-12]
“It was round midday and darkness came over the whole land,”. This is how Luke describes the scene just before Jesus dies on the cross. We know that Luke and the other Evangelist were not journalists, they were theologians revealing the true meaning of historical events. Darkness at midday is an ominous sign for sure. The darkness Luke describes is more than a nighttime darkness. Darkness at noon must be a symbol of moral blindness, of ignorance, of out and out evil. Darkness overcoming high noon is a powerful, powerful sign. Jesus died on the cross and for all appearances death conquered life, evil overcame good. As we look at our world from a global perspective we might come to the same conclusion. But we know this is not true. In fact, we rose in the middle of the night to proclaim just the opposite: life conquers death. In fact we sing of this night as a special type of transformation. The Exultet we heard earlier this evening sang of “the night of my illumination and delight.” Many of the saints sang of this nocturnal illumination. Our outer self may be in the dark but our inner self is illumined by Divine Grace.
Toward the end of his life St. Benedict experienced the night of illumination. We read, “In the dead of night he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun and with it every trace of darkness cleared away.” In this illumination the whole world was gathered up before Benedict’s eyes “as in a single ray of light.” When asked how anyone could see the whole world in a glance, St. Gregory uses the example of a person on a high mountain viewing all the planes below. It is about the best Gregory can do in trying to explain that for an instance Benedict saw the world the way God sees it.
So let us try it! Imagine yourself on a very high place and being able to view the whole world. Not just the present time but all time and all history. What would you see if the centuries were paraded before you? (This has the makings of a very long homily!) Since this is not a supernatural vision but a natural one and by nature we are prone to look at the dark side, we would see millions of children denied life, we would see 800,000 killed in Rwanda . We would see the slaughter of WWII, of WWI, of the Civil War. We would see millions killed by AIDS. We would see the famine in Ireland. Going back further we would see the Black Death, the plagues and famines of the Dark Ages. We would see, in a word, the breaking of the seven seals, the blast of the seven trumpets and the pouring out of the seven bowls of suffering from the angels of the Apocalypse. Famine, plagues, pestilence — wars over all the earth. Is not the Apocalypse played out in every generation? We need not look for a future period of trial, it is right now.
As the dark centuries pass before our eyes we would come to a single man dying on a cross and crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This man has taken the sufferings of all the centuries into his heart. His cry is the cry of all the earth. The cry of all who feel the absence of God in the face of overwhelming suffering.
Then not far from the cross our gaze rests on a tomb and from the tomb comes a great and tremendous light-a blinding light, seven times brighter than the sun. Jesus rising from the dead. Jesus present in his glorified body. Now our eyes witness a new springtime, the greening of the earth. Grace transforming the inner heart of all the Baptized. We see in century after century the Body of Christ, the Church, carrying on the mission of Jesus. The gates of hell shall not prevail against this mission. Where sin abounded grace superabounds. Death is swallowed up in His victory.
Because of the Resurrection all the darkness of time, all the suffering from evil will be conquered. All the injustice of the centuries will be set right. Not one act of kindness will be forgotten, not one cup of cold water given will be lost. All the small forgotten acts of charity will be remembered because in Jesus everything is redeemed.
This evening we rose in the dead of night to proclaim our belief in the true and everlasting light of Christ. We rose to proclaim our hope in a world of despair, our love in a world of violence, our faith in a world of unbelief and indifference.
Our Paschal candle will remind us for the next fifty days not to give in to temptation. Justice will prevail. The battle has been won by Christ. It reminds us that we are keepers of the sacred flame that burns in the heart of all made in the image and likeness of God. The flame reminds us that each person is a temple of God’s holy presence.
We started in the night but ended in the bright day of unending light. This is the story of our journey through life. On the way we can pause in prayer and go with the angel of the apocalypse who gives us a vision. “In the spirit he carried me to the top of a very high mountain and showed me Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God. It had all the glory of God and glittered like some precious jewel of crystal clear diamond,”. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city … they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And night will be abolished … because the Lord God will be shining on them. They will reign for ever and ever, .
The Easter Vigil
[Scripture Readings: Gen. 1:1-2:2; Rom 6:3-11; Mk 16:1-8 ]
I love to begin our Vigil in the quadrangle by the fountain, but I would gladly give that up for a much-needed rain. Our farm manager, Dave Ruden tells me the oats have been planted but need a warm spring rain. Without that, nothing will happen. Maybe this is why T.S. Eliot calls April the cruelest month. Is it winter or is it spring? Will the rains come or not? April keeps us guessing. On the other hand St. Macarius says, “To each Christian there comes an April when the light in their heart will shine.”Which is it? Is April the cruelest month or the finest month? I suppose it depends on which end you look at. T.S. Eliot sees the beginning of April where there is some winter left. Macarius is looking at the end of April when the flowers are blooming. April is when spring pulls away from winter – a transforming month, a month of struggle. It is indeed fitting that the Church usually celebrates the Resurrection in April.
Tonight we take the first steps in our fifty days of Eastertime. We are an Easter people, says. St. Augustine. During this time, we will visit the empty tomb with the women, walk with the disciples to Emmaus, kneel and adore with Thomas. We will see the Glorified Lord appear as a gardener, a traveler, even a ghost who walks through doors. We will hear Jesus say to Mary Madeline and to us, “What are you looking for“. A good question, “What are you looking for“? Ask yourself this question. What are you looking for from this Vigil, from the Church, from your life? I think we are looking for something to happen. Life is going on – there is plenty going on, maybe too much. But what is happening? We are like the oat seeds waiting to sprout. Without God’s grace, nothing will happen.
We began our readings tonight with the account of creation. “God saw all that he made and indeed it was very good.” However, read on. A few verses later God is putting a curse on Adam and Eve and by the time we come to Noah, five chapters later, God regrets having created the human race at all!
To verify this story just look around. Evil overwhelms us on every side. As we heard from the prophet, “God’s holy name is profaned among the nations.” However, where sin abounds grace super abounds. This is what we are celebrating tonight. The super abundance of God’s love and grace. We do not ignore sin and evil- that would be the worst thing we could do – but we do not fear it either. We rose at midnight for a reason. When people ask me why the monks get up at 3:15 I tell them it is because we are soft. Our predecessors rose at midnight. Midnight is the darkest hour, the cruelest hour, the hour of evil. Monks rise to pray that evil will not prevail, that goodness will win out, and that God’s light will shrine through the dark and bring healing to the world.
The first thing we did after gathering in the quadrangle was to strike fire from the rock. The rock had to be hard – a soft rock will not give fire. The tiny spark from the flint rock produced a raging fire. That spark was a sign of hope. Hope that overcomes despair just as fire overcomes darkness. Our liturgy proceeded with readings and songs and candles and processions and water – all telling us one thing: in the cruelness of life, there is hope. Just as the rock hard earth softens with the spring showers, just so will Jesus dead in the tomb rise to new life. Where sin abounded grace has super abounded. Hope flows like a river courses through our life. It waters the Garden of Eden, it flows from the rock in the desert, it parts at the Red Sea, and it is the fountain Isaiah tells us waters the earth. It is the pure, clean water poured over us giving us a new heart, a new spirit.
Macarius had it right. To each Christian there comes an April. As winter is transformed into spring, the trees, plants, and flowers take on new life. Leaves, flowers, fruit blossom and flourish. The earth is clothed in splendor, radiant with beauty. Now Jesus is waiting to rise in our life, the April of our interior life. We too will be clothed with the merits of his Resurrection. The transformation of the earth each spring should remind us of the transformation that is happening in our inner soul as we are baptized into Jesus. St. Paul told us this very night, ” … as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glorious power, we too should begin living a new life. If we have been joined to him by dying a death like his, so we shall be joined to him by a resurrection like his; realizing that our former self was crucified with him, so that the self which belonged to sin should be destroyed and we should be freed…” This is the freedom we sing of, this is the self we want to happen. The self that belongs to God. The self clothed in Christ.
May this be true for you: to each Christian there comes an April when the light in their heart will shine.
The Easter Vigil
[Scripture Readings: Gen 1:1-2:2, Ex 14:15-15:1; Is 55:1-11; Ez 36:16-28; Rom 6:3-11; Mt 28:1-10]
Here in the monastery for the last three days of Holy Week we replace the bells that call us to prayer with a wooden clapper. The wooden clapper makes a strident sound, grating on the ears and irritating to the nerves. Br. Bellringer seems to enjoy using this clapper which makes it worse!
Why the clapper? One of the readings for Holy Saturday begins with the words, “Something strange is happening…” Evil is afoot. Jesus said as much in the garden of Gethsemane just after Judas betrayed him: “This is the reign of darkness” (Lk 22:53). Darkness and sin intrude into our life like the wooden clapper. In fact the clapper tells us something strange is happening.
Someone said sin is the hardest thing to explain but the easiest to demonstrate. Sin is the rejection of God. it destroys the bonds between people. Hard to explain, easy to demonstrate. Think of the World Trade Center, the suicide bombings in Israel, the sex scandal in the Church right now. Truthfully it has been a hard six months for all of us living in a world grown old in sin. Our human family is hurting, the bonds of trust have been broken. God has been rejected. Why too do we feel so wounded by all this? Because we are part of the family we share the suffering and the guilt.
I doubt if any of us knows how to deal with the guilt of original sin. Either we try to forget it or we become so guilt ridden that we are overwhelmed. The journey of Lent helps us deal honestly with our guilt. We began with ashes and the lamentation psalms. We journeyed from darkness to light much like the journey we made this evening from outside the church following the light of the paschal candle. It is a symbolic journey from slavery to freedom. The same one the Hebrews made from Egypt.
Jesus made this journey possible by making it before us and starting from the lowest possible point. He was crucified as a criminal, hung on a cross, a most disgraceful death. Now no one no matter how shameful is eliminated from his mercy. I found myself making some strange comparisons this Lent with the liturgical readings. Last week we had a reading from John that said Jesus no longer went about openly among the Jews. He had to go into hiding like a hunted man. For some reason I thought of Ben Laden. Then it dawned on me Jesus bore his sin and guilt too. On Good Friday we had the passage about the suffering servant bearing our sins: He was despised, the lowest of men, one from whom we avert our gaze, for whom we have no regard. I thought of the pedophilic priest who are so despised. Jesus bore their shame and guilt. Scripture says he became sin to save sinners. His death conquered death.
Something strange is happening. One man’s death saves us all. No matter how we stumble along the path of life, no matter how much we veer from the path Jesus has been there before us and overcame sin. The next fifty days we will be celebrating his and our victory. We began with ashes and we end with the song of victory, the alleluia. I love the phrase from Isaiah, “…instead of ashes a diadem” (Is 61:3).
Jesus has risen from the dead. The first one to pass through death and make it work! The first one who did not stop at death but passed through to a new life. Because he is one of us we are all part of this victory. One of the early Christian writers has Jesus say to the lost souls, “Rise up, work of my hands you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated” (Lauds, Holy Saturday).
In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. This and the Eucharist we are about to celebrate are the real reason we are one person with the risen Lord. “So by our Baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s power we too should begin living a new life. If we have been joined to him by dying a death like his, so we shall be united to him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4-5).
There is going to be a sunrise this morning reminding us that no matter how dark things get we have a redeemer rising out of the ashes of this life transforming our darkest hours into his redemptive suffering, recreating us into newness of life with Him in glory.