The Easter Vigil is known as “the mother of all vigils” because of its preeminence in the life of Christians. The Sacred Liturgy of that night is replete with symbolism; we could even say that we can almost experience a kind of “Paschal overload,” which is why Holy Mother Church in her wisdom gives us an entire Octave the better to ponder these mysteries. I would like to reflect on the two most prominent elements of the Easter Vigil: light and water. A quick recourse to a biblical concordance informs us that there are over 300 references to “light” and nearly 900 references to “water” or “waters” in Sacred Scripture.
As we gathered in church last Saturday night, we faced a cold, dark world because Christ was absent from it. We then lit and blessed the new fire, from which the Paschal Candle – symbol of Christ rising in glory – was lighted: Lumen Christi (Light of Christ). That, in turn, became the source for every person’s light for Christ is truly the light of us all. And as the light spread among us, we witnessed the fulfillment of Jesus’ declaration that He is indeed the Light of the World, which caused us to respond, Deo gratias (Thanks be to God).
In the Fourth Gospel, we see a study in contrast presented for our consideration as we meet the man born blind, through no fault of his own; he is eager to see both spiritually and physically – he is open to the workings of God (see 9:1-12). Then we encounter the Pharisees, who have physical sight, but who have become spiritually blinded because they have lost all perspective; instead of rejoicing at the healing of the blind man, they react to the fact that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath. These men prove the adage true which says, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” What John has done, then, is to present us with examples of two types of people we always have with us: People who are willing to accept Jesus as the Light of the World, and people who are unwilling to do so.
The magnificent Easter Proclamation goes to great lengths to tell us why that night is different from all others, bringing us back to the first Passover celebration and linking it to the Person of Jesus. That 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 “paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.” In the unparalleled splendor of its poetry, the Exsultet asks us to realize 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 that night different from every other night? Would we not be stumbling through life like so many – all too many – in our moribund, supposedly “developed” West?
St. Thomas Aquinas comes to our aid in understanding what is at stake here:
Now there are three kinds of darkness. There is the darkness of ignorance. . . [which] is the darkness reason has of itself, insofar as it is darkened of itself. There is the darkness of sin. . . , [which] belongs to human reason not of itself, but from the affections – which, by being badly disposed by passion or habit, seek something as good that is not really good. Further, there is the darkness of eternal damnation. . . .
He goes on:
The first two kinds of darkness are found in this life; but the third is at the end of life. Thus: Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness – the darkness of ignorance – because I am the truth; nor the darkness of sin, because I am the way; nor the darkness of eternal damnation, because I am the life. . . . Just as one who does not want to stumble in the dark has to follow the one who is carrying the light, so one who wants to be saved must, by believing and loving, follow Christ, who is the light.
Let’s move on to a consideration of water. At the natural level, water is a somewhat ambivalent reality. Too much water, one dies; too little water, one dies; the wrong kind of water, one dies. Remember the lament found in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.” If you ever made the mistake of embarking on a day-long ocean cruise without a thermos of fresh water, you know the plight of that “ancient mariner.” In salvation history, that double symbolism of water is most clear as the parting waters of the Red Sea clear a path for the Chosen People, while their receding engulfs the charioteers of Pharaoh in a watery death. St. Francis of Assisi would laud this most necessary element of life in his “Canticle of the Creatures” thus: “Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.”
That first-century version of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Samaritan woman, complains about having to take up the arduous task of going to the town well day after day to get the necessary supply of water (Jn 4:4-26). And then, the cranky and ultimately ungrateful paralytic we also encounter in John’s Gospel complains that he can never make it to the healing waters of Bethesda in time to be cured (see 5:1-18). For both, Jesus provides nothing other than “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14).
From time immemorial, the Easter Vigil has been the liturgical moment extraordinaire for the baptisms of millions of believers as water is blessed and neophytes are baptized and, the rest of us, uniting ourselves mystically with those neophytes throughout the Christian world, renewed the promises of our Baptism, for it was precisely in that Sacrament that Christ first shared with us His promise and gift of eternal life. Through Baptism, we died with Christ to sin and death and rose with Him to newness of life. So why fear an enemy like death – an enemy that has already lost the battle? Why be mastered by sin? The English poet and Catholic convert Richard Crashaw got it right: “The captive world awak’d and found / The prisoners loose, the jailor bound.” Yes, we, the prisoners, have been loosed, while death the jailor has been bound.
When Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to France in 1980, he addressed the nation as “France, eldest daughter of the Church.” Undoubtedly, that historic title for the first country to embrace the Catholic Faith made many Frenchmen swell with pride. He then finished the sentence, “What have you done with your baptism?” Many French heads sank into their chests as the Pope not too subtly reminded them of the massive abandonment of Christian values in that country. Can we not ask the same question of most of the formerly Christian West, including our own nation? Indeed, people of Holy Innocents Parish, what have you done with your baptism? A baptism not lived out in integrity places one in the precarious situation, whereby those sacred waters do not enliven the bad Christian but drown him, as Our Lord warned: The man’s second state would be worse than his first (see Mt 12:45).
The renewal of the promises of our own baptism is the culmination of the first half of our Vigil and leads to its fulfillment in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the reception of its fruit as Holy Communion. In truth, the journey from the font to the altar is a kind of paradigm for the Christian’s pilgrimage.
Many of the Fathers of the Church linked the light and water of the Vigil and referred to Holy Baptism as “illumination” or “enlightenment.” But there is a struggle, is there not between true illumination or enlightenment and false illumination or enlightenment? And here my thoughts go back to one of the darkest moments in the history of the Church (the effects of which we suffer to the present day) as I am reminded of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, whose story was memorialized in the novel of Georges Bernanos and subsequently in the opera of François Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.
Although Poulenc’s work lacks the excitement or lyricism of a Puccini opera, it contains a powerful message. The action occurs in France during the French Revolution and zeroes in on one Carmelite convent, which becomes a symbol or microcosm for every other religious house in that time and place. If you recall your history, that period was also known as, yes, the Enlightenment, which prided itself on replacing the God of Revelation with the god of unaided human reason. It was, of course, characterized by an active hostility toward religion. As the plot unfolds, the revolutionary forces offer Religious a choice: Give up your habits and convents, or give up your heads. As a result, thousands of clergy and Religious were martyred – the first fruits of the so-called Enlightenment.
When man exceeds his bounds; when he is blind to his human limitations; when he tries to be like God; the enlightenment which follows is, in reality, darkness. The Enlightenment continues to have a pernicious influence on our culture, bringing in its wake every kind of disaster from abortion-on-demand, to family breakdown, to sexual promiscuity, to materialism, to teenage suicide. Man has attempted to experience enlightenment without Christ, with the result that the darkness has never been deeper, the blindness has never been more devastating. In truth, the “cancel culture” of our day is nothing other than the sad but logical conclusion of the “cancel culture” of the would-be “Enlightenment.”
Returning to our opera, we behold the sixteen nuns of Compiègne as the epitome of courage and fidelity, facing down the Reign of Terror, content to die for the Christ who had died for them but equally confident that He who rose from the dead would likewise raise them up. And so, the Sisters are brought to the site of execution and what do they do? They begin to sing the Salve Regina! As the plot unfolds, we see that as the guillotine hits each nun’s neck, the blindness of their persecutors in their hatred for Christ’s truth becomes eminently clear to the onlookers. True Enlightenment dawns on the crowds, who gradually stop their barbaric cheering of the violence and are forced to consider the witness of these rather unexceptional but undeniably holy women – women who were bearers of light in one of history’s darkest hours. Those nuns succeeded in bringing people from blindness, to sight, to genuine insight. Two amazing historical side-lights: So impressive were the courage and fidelity of those nuns and so negative the reaction of the people to their deaths that they were the last victims of a public execution for the remainder of the French Revolution. And further: Within a month of their martyrdoms, Robespierre himself went to the guillotine and, quite unexpectedly, the Reign of Terror ended. Clearly, like Christ’s death, the deaths of those holy nuns had brought light and life where there had been nothing but darkness and death.
The Carmelites of Compiègne have their place in a long line of faithful witnesses who preceded and followed them. The Church’s prayer is that you and I shall take our place in that same long and impressive line of witnesses to the power of the Resurrection. As Pope Benedict pointed out to those in his Wednesday audience for Holy Week in 2007: “The Paschal Mystery, which the Holy Triduum allows us to relive, is not only a memory of a past reality. It is a current reality: Today, too, Christ overcomes sin and death with His love. Evil, in all its forms, does not have the final word. The final triumph belongs to Christ, to truth, to love!”
The paschal victory of Jesus Christ is ours for the asking. He has made the down-payment; He has, in fact, paid the price in full. We have only to claim the prize by joining our voices – and our lives – to those of the angels and saints as they sing before the throne of the Lamb the hymn of our eternal Easter. To that end, Mother Church would have us keep focused on the Easter Candle and the Easter water for the next fifty days.
When Christ awoke from the sleep of His saving death, He awoke His disciples from their dispirited sadness. They get so “woke,” that they evangelized the known world. As a sign that you want to be among the really “woke,” I would suggest that throughout this Easter Octave and, in fact, for the whole fifty days of Paschaltide, take as a daily, focused, sincere and devout exercise the repetition of the words we used to bless the Paschal Candle:
Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belong to Him and all the ages. To Him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen.
May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our minds and hearts.
(Note: This homily was preached at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on Easter Tuesday, April 6, 2021.)
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