Fire and water, darkness and light.
Last night I was privileged to serve as principal celebrant and homilist at the Easter Vigil at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in the Streetsville neighbourhood of Mississauga, Ontario. I'm grateful to the pastor, Father Marc-André Campbell, for giving me the opportunity to celebrate the Mass, which included six baptisms and ten confirmations (which were, respectively, the first baptisms and first confirmations I've ever performed). For those who may derive edification from my humble efforts at preaching, the text of my homily follows.
Tonight we're celebrating the Easter Vigil, which the Roman Missal describes as "the greatest and most noble of all solemnities," the summit of the liturgical year. At the start of tonight's liturgy, while preparing to bless the fire and to prepare the Paschal Candle that we now see in the sanctuary, I recited a prayer which speaks of the Easter Vigil as "this most sacred night, in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life." The same opening prayer also promises all of us that "[i]f we keep the memorial of the Lord’s paschal solemnity in this way, listening to his word and celebrating his mysteries, then we shall have the sure hope of sharing his triumph over death and living with him in God."
I. An Invitation to Mystery
The liturgy of the Easter Vigil is tremendously rich, and there is more going on here than I can hope to articulate in a few minutes. From the blessing of the new fire and the procession of the Paschal Candle to the baptismal rites which we will soon celebrate, from the singing of the Exsultet to the Gloria and the Alleluia and the stirring Easter hymns we sing on this night, from the creation account in Genesis and the story of the Exodus to the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospel, this liturgy offers a feast for the senses, a series of vivid reminders in word and image and symbol that Christ has overcome the power of death and shown us the way to eternal life. To try to capture the full meaning of the mystery we celebrate tonight would be impossible, and yet through this mystery we find ourselves invited to share in the very life of God. A Russian theologian of the last century named Sergius Bulgakov expressed this point very well when he wrote about the Easter Vigil. As Bulgakov put it, "In the Paschal night we are offered a foretaste of the age to come, the possibility of entering the kingdom of glory, the kingdom of God. The language of our world has no words to express this revelation of the Paschal night, its perfect joy." We have no words to sum up this mystery, and yet, as Bulgakov goes on to write, Easter "is life eternal, consisting in being led by God and communion with him."
II. Fire and Water
To reflect on what it means for us to be led by God and to share communion with him, I'd like to look briefly at two pairs of symbols that play an important role in the Easter Vigil. The first pair of symbols is found in the elements of fire and water. We began this liturgy with the blessing of the new fire, and soon we will bless the water with which our catechumens will be baptized. The prayer for the blessing of the fire reminds us that, through Jesus Christ, God "bestowed upon the faithful the fire of [his] glory," expressing the hope that through our celebration of Easter "we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires, that with minds made pure we may attain festivities of unending splendour." The great Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, calls on all the earth to "be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King." On this most sacred night, we pray that the love of God may so enflame our hearts that we can share his love with the world – and that we can live with such zeal and dedication that we can someday share in the gift of eternal communion with God, the "festivities of unending splendour" that the saints enjoy in heaven. We pray that the experience of this liturgy may help us to become like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them as they encountered the Risen Lord (Lk 24:32). In sharing our love of God with others, we can become more like the God we follow – a God whose love for humanity burned so intensely that he chose to become like us in all ways but sin, taking on the frailty of the human condition, and suffering death on our behalf so that he could rise again and rescue us from the death of sin, giving us the ability to live with him forever.
As I noted already, tonight's liturgy also makes much of the role of water. This comes out strongly in the blessing over the baptismal water which I will impart in a few minutes, which reminds us that water has played a part in salvation history, from the account of the creation of the world that we heard in the first reading (Gen 1:1-2:2), to the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt through the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14:15-5:1), to the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, to the baptism which our catechumens will shortly receive. The prayers of this baptismal liturgy remind us that through baptism God "has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit," forgiving our sins and restoring our human nature to its original image. As the Apostle Paul tells us in tonight’s epistle, "we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).
Water is a powerful symbol of our spiritual rebirth, our regeneration in Christ. Water can also be seen as a symbol of the way in which God works in each of our lives. There may be times when God touches our lives in dramatic ways, bestowing on us "the fire of [his] glory," to borrow from one of the prayers of this Mass. At other times, though, God works quietly and slowly, so much so that it may take us a while to perceive the presence of the God who has been gently working in our lives to draw us closer to him. God often speaks to us in very subtle ways, not only through prayer but through the experiences of our lives – through conversations with others, through relationships, through the many sights and sounds that we see each day. Rather than entering in a blaze of glory, God sometimes enters our lives through many small experiences of grace, experiences which may seem like tiny drops of water – when God comes to us this way, it may take us a while to see how much God has given us, as we are slowly filled with the grace of God’s presence.
For those who are being received into the Church tonight – as well as for all of us Christians – it may be worthwhile to reflect on how God has invited you to follow him. How did God's grace come into your life? Did God reveal himself to you as dramatically as he did to Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, or to Mary Magdalene and the other women who came upon the empty tomb? On the other hand, did God's invitation to you come quietly and gradually, slowly giving you the certainty and the courage to respond to his call?
Some of you may be able to relate to St. Paul, struck down on the road to Damascus by a blinding vision of Christ in glory. Others may relate more easily to St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions of the long and often winding journey that led him to choose to be baptized, of his struggles to come to know the truth and to respond to God's invitation to follow him. Reflecting on your own journey to the faith, seeing the signs by which God led you to this decision, you may be able to make your own the words which St. Augustine offered in prayer: "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace" (Confessions, Book 10, para. 38).
III. Darkness and Light
Finally, I'd like to say a few brief words about another pair of symbols: darkness and light. The movement from darkness to light is a major theme of the Easter Vigil; we began in a darkened church, illuminated at first only by the light of the Paschal Candle, then by many candles held by each of us, and finally by the all the bright lights that now surround us. The Exsultet which was sung at the start of this Mass speaks of the light of the Paschal Candle as "a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light," a light which we pray may "mingle with the lights of heaven" and "be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets," Jesus Christ. The light of Christ that has overcome the darkness is a light that we are called to share with others, just as we have shared the light of this candle. My prayer for all of us – and especially for our catechumens – is that our faith in the risen Christ may help to illuminate our community, just as the light of the Paschal Candle illuminates this church. May the light of faith we celebrate this evening be a light to our world, that we may help to bring others to the goal we seek – the goal of eternal life in the kingdom of God, where the light of Christ shines brightly for eternity.
Easter blessings to all who celebrate today. AMDG.