Paschal Vigil, 2011
‘Dear friends in Christ,’ we heard at the beginning, ‘on this most holy night..our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life.’
He ‘passed’. This is our Christian Passover. Tonight our Lord Jesus passes from death to life, and throughout the world thousands of men, women and children, are being buried with him by baptism into death, and are rising with him into the new life of the Spirit. Tonight, for the first time, thousands will eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation.
In a small symbolic way, we lived that Passover as we passed from darkness to light on entering the church. And now, the Paschal Candle presides serenely over everything.
Then we did so again in the solemn succession of readings. It’s as if they try to bring together all the great passovers of creation and history - so we can glimpse the unity of God’s saving plan and see the glory of the Father.
In the night of the beginning, when there was darkness over the deep, God says, ‘Let there be light,’ and creation passes from nothing to being, as in Christ it passes from death to life. In the night of Abraham’s anguish at the coming loss of his son, the angel of the Lord calls out, the child is spared, passes from death to life, as it were, and Abraham is promised descendants ‘as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand’ - we who believe. In the night of the Exodus, ‘the Lord drove back the sea...and he made dry land of the sea.’ ‘Why do you cry to me so? Tell the sons of Israel to march on.’ And a new people, bearer of the promises, passed from slavery to freedom, prefiguring us. And in the readings from Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekiel, Israel is called in the night of disappointment (disobedience and exile and dashed dreams) to pass to a hope of new birth, a new heart and new spirit - that given us.
‘Dear friends in Christ, on this most holy night..our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life.’ And we pass with him. We go to the tomb with Mary of Magdala and the other Mary, and the angel says, ‘There is no need to be afraid...He is not here, he has risen as he said.’
Yes, ‘our Lord Jesus Christ has passed from death to life’ - for us, carrying us. The mystery of iniquity is not to be underestimated. The 20th c. showed that. How many terrible immersions of fire and destruction, how many cups of cruelty and death, man baptised man in, man has made man drink! And still does. ‘I have a cup to drink, I have a baptism to be baptised with’, Christ had said. He underwent the baptism, he drank the cup, inwardly in Gethsemane, completely on the cross. These things are beyond us, and deeper than words, but perhaps we can put it like this: in his Passion, Christ allowed everything in man which is closed and hostile, sinful and deathly - he allowed it all to pass over and into himself, the full flood of the mystery of iniquity, all the filth of the world. He took it freely on himself, and into himself - all the way to that tomb in the garden where his Father covered him lovingly with the blanket of night. He took it on to absorb it, wipe it out, transform it. His love was stronger than our hate, his purity could purify our filth, his divine-human life undo our death. And on this most holy night, our Lord Jesus Christ passed - always for us, carrying us - from death to life. He was ‘raised by the glory of the Father’ (Rom 6:4), as St Paul says, ‘designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness’ (Rom 1:4). The mystery of merciful, Trinitarian love has shown its splendour. Everything is different now, even suffering, even physical death. And ‘there, coming to meet them, was Jesus’ (Mt 28:9). Now there is another flood: one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Now there is something else to drink: the chalice of salvation.
He comes to meet his Church tonight with the water of baptism and the chrism of confirmation; he comes with the bread of life and the chalice of salvation. He has been immersed in our suffering, drunk our filth, and he gives us holiness and joy. Everything for nothing. He makes us members of his risen Body. He has placed us in his own new place, on the far side of sin and death. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1), says St. Paul. As a Council of the Church memorably put it, ‘God hates nothing in those who are reborn...who, putting off the old man and putting on the new, innocent, unstained, pure and guiltless, have become the beloved sons and daughters of God,... so that henceforth nothing holds them back from heaven’ (Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin, 5). Of course, we’re vividly, rightly, aware how frail our grasp of this grace is, how flickering our candle. But tonight the everlasting bonfire of Christ’s risen life has first place. We renew our baptism in the light and warmth of it. We make our Easter communion as if it were our first and last. We drink salvation. And the one who has passed from death to life, passes his life to us, so that ours can pass into his.
It is all gift. He has done everything. And yet something remains for us to do. It’s in tonight’s Gospel, the strange admonition: ‘Go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there’ (Mt 28:10). What is ‘Galilee’? It was the springboard of the disciples’ mission. It was where they would learn to pass life to others, to live like Christ not for themselves but for others, where they would receive the gift of mission, and everything in them begin to be a gift to others. Christ has passed from death to life, and passed his life to us. And that life becomes fully alive in us - we become fully alive - only as we pass it on. That is ‘going to Galilee’. To live as a member of his Body, caught up in the energy of his pro nobis. To give others life, in whatever way the Lord allots. In the saints this giving of life takes the whole of them. It is the final passing-over. After Jerusalem comes Galilee; after this holy night, all the days of the year; after thanksgiving, service; after Communion, ‘go’, ite, missa est.
‘Dear friends in Christ, on this most holy night, our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life.’ Let us pass over with him!
Fr. Hugh, OSB