“Why is this night different from every other night?”
That is the question asked by the youngest at each Passover seder. When we apply it to our own celebration, we discover that the world cannot answer this question. They see this vigil ceremony – if they know about it all – as a somewhat strange, cultic action. The only symbols of this feast to which they can relate are new hats and clothes, brightly colored eggs, and a parade.
So let’s press this point: Why is this night different from every other night? It is an Easter secret, and the answer is given only to those who participate in the beautiful liturgy of this service which the Fathers of the Church termed “the mother of all vigils.”
As we gathered tonight, we faced a cold, dark world because Christ was absent from the church building. We then lit and blessed the new fire, from which the Paschal Candle – symbolic of Christ rising in glory – was lighted. That, in turn, became the source for every person’s light for, as we sang, Christ is our light. And as the light spread among us, we witnessed the fulfillment of Jesus’ declaration that He is truly the Light of the World, which causes us to respond, “Thanks be to God.” The magnificent Exsultet or Easter Proclamation goes to great lengths to tell why this night is different from all others, bringing us back to the first Passover celebration and linking it to the Person of Jesus. This night is at one and the same moment the ancient Passover of the Jews from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land and our own Passover from sin and death to innocence and new life – in and through Jesus Christ, the spotless Lamb “who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father.”
The poetry of the Exsultet asks us to reflect that “our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” Indeed, would we be any different? In other words, if we did not acknowledge Him as our Lord and Savior, wouldn’t we be like the rest of the world, finding it hard to understand what makes this night different from every other night?
God’s work, however, did not begin with the Exodus; nor did it end on Calvary or even at a garden tomb three days later. God’s saving action began at the very beginning of time and will continue until the very end of time, operative at every point along the line. To remind us of this, the Church turns our attention to God’s holy Word, in which the events of salvation history are rehearsed for us. Seven readings from the Old Testament are offered for our reflection.
The reading from Genesis rehearses the details of Creation, while the second brings before our eyes the obedient devotion of Abraham, whom the Roman Canon calls “our father in faith” because of His willingness to sacrifice his only son, so much did he love and believe in God. The Exodus passage picks up on the history of Abraham’s race as they prepare to escape from the clutches of the Pharaoh. The first passage from Isaiah invites the Chosen People who, as a punishment for their sins, had endured the suffering of exile in a foreign land, now to return to the Lord their God, who alone would or could satisfy their hunger and thirst; the second Isaihan text proclaims the power of God’s Word to bring sinners back to Himself. Then the prophet Baruch encourages the children of the Covenant to come to a renewed understanding of what it means to belong to the one true God by living holy lives, different from other peoples, walking according to the light and truth of their Lord, who had revealed His Will and Law to them. Finally, Ezekiel, functioning as God’s spokesman foretells that time when God will replace men’s stony hearts with hearts of flesh, hearts open to His statutes and decrees.
At the very dawn of the Christian era, the Church fashioned the Easter Vigil liturgy and chose readings such as these to serve as the last instruction of the candidates for initiation into the mysteries of Christ. They were to hear about the slow but sure unfolding of God’s plan for our salvation and then they were to enter into that plan in a truly marvelous and personal way. For them, this night would always be different from every other night because the Lord God in and through His beloved Son was taking them by the hand – as certainly as He did the Hebrews of old – leading them from slavery to Satan, sin and death into a new life of grace begun through the waters of Baptism, confirmed through the coming of the Holy Spirit by sacred anointing and the imposition of hands, and ratified in the Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant of the Eucharist.
While Passover night might have significance for the Jews of centuries past and for observant Jews today, what does any of it really have to do with us Gentiles? Everything, for this is our night, as much as anyone else’s because our remembrance of those sacred events from ages gone by re-occur for us tonight, reinserting us into God’s scheme of salvation for us. We pass through the Red Sea with Moses; we stand beside the Cross and tomb; we are lowered into the baptismal font, which is equally Christ’s tomb and the Church’s womb; we emerge as a part of the Lord’s re-creation of humanity into the perfect image of His divine Son; we become very members of that Son’s Church, in which all national and ethnic differences are rendered meaningless. Hence, Jews, Greeks, Hispanics, Italians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles and Germans – all become one in the Risen Lord because we were all created by the same Father, redeemed by the same Son, and sanctified by the same Holy Spirit. On this most holy night the Triune God comes to us with the gift of grace, offering us the opportunity to renew a relationship of love with the One who is the Life and Light of the world.
Almighty God, however, never starts a project which He does not intend to grow to full stature. What He began in us through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, He wishes to bring to perfection through the Holy Eucharist. This night is different from every other night for two reasons. First, because Christ risen in glory has His act of self-sacrifice accepted by His heavenly Father, and He offers to us the first-fruits of that saving event. Second, because we begin to know, at the deepest level of our being, what the Exsultet means by speaking of this “truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” That happens in each reception of the Blessed Sacrament, made possible in and through the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery we commemorate this night.
What else makes this night different from all other nights? The Jews understand the feast of Passover as a time of Covenant renewal, and it must be that for us as well. What do I mean? We know that we all fail to live up to our baptismal commitment; our actions often do not reflect the selfless love of Jesus Christ, as we put either ourselves, or other things, or other persons before the pure love of God, thus making our reception of the Holy Eucharist a counter-sign.
Tonight we think back on all the missed Sunday Masses, the refusals to accept guidance from the Church established by the Risen Christ, the sins of materialism or sexual immorality, the negativity toward other people who have likewise been created and loved by God. We remember that Christ died and rose for each and every one of us, with all our sins, loving us to death and loving us into newness of life, if we but offer Him our sins, if we but let Him nail them to His holy Cross and raise us up to lead new and sinless lives. That kind of an attitude would make this a very different night; that action would be loved by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. May Almighty God grant to each one of us the grace to desire this night to be different, and ourselves as well. That is what the world cannot begin to understand; that is the heart of the Easter secret.
Praised be the Risen Christ. Now and forever.
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