Homily for the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night preached by Abbot Cuthbert Madden during the Easter Vigil at Ampleforth Abbey on Holy Saturday, Saturday 19th April 2014.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, do any of you remember your fear of the dark when you were small? Did you, like me, have to have the door ajar and the landing light left on? Or if you are parents, have you had to cope with the unreasoning fear of the dark displayed by one of your children? There is something very primitive about fear of the dark: it penetrates into the depth of our being. So very often it will not yield to rational explanations. We know something of its power by the embarrassment that grips us when we have to admit that, yes, it is true, I was once afraid of the dark.
I think that I understood fear of the dark better since I have been going to Zimbabwe. In recent years there have been many nights in our little foundation in Macheke where the night has been entirely dark because power cuts often mean that there is no power. The only lights in the sky, if they are there to be seen, are the moon and the stars. The night is very, very dark. The sound of the cracking of a twig, or the scratching of an animal in the roof space or on the roof are magnified in the dark and they can so easily breed fear. It is small wonder that darkness is depicted as the domain of evil, and fear is the sign of evil infiltrating its way among men.
The power of darkness as a symbol of evil was well known to the evangelists. We see the interplay of darkness and light in the Christmas narratives when the baby is born at dead of night. We remember the star guiding the Magi to where the baby lay. In the Last Supper narrative we remember Judas leaving to betray Jesus and John’s simple and telling comment, “Night had fallen”. In all of these scenes, and in other scenes in the scriptures, darkness symbolises chaos, evil, the absence of God; and light by contrast symbolises order, goodness, God’s saving presence. In the monastic tradition monks gather by night to pray, to await the return of light bringing an end to the time of darkness; and in the returning dawn they see the foretaste of God’s promise to come again in his glory as Saviour and Judge. And so tonight we have gathered in darkness to reflect upon our human condition and to welcome the return of Christ from the dominion of darkness as He rises, the firstborn from the dead.
The opening of this solemn vigil takes the form of a Lucernarium, a lighting of lights. Our forebears delighted in symbols. There is a sense of fun, of joy, at work here – and it is important that we recognise this because it colours what we are doing. We listened to the Passion of Christ in the Gospel of John yesterday afternoon as it led us into darkness, and tonight our Lucernarium brings us into the light of Christ and takes us back, in symbols, to the very beginning of John’s Gospel, to the Prologue. You will remember the Prologue well: we read it at Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word: | and the Word was with God | and the Word was God. | He was with God in the beginning. | Through him all things came to be, | not one thing had its being but through him. | All that came to be had life in him | and that life was the light of men, | a light that shines in the dark, | a light that darkness could not overpower” (John. 1.1-5). The Lucernarium sets the tone for the entire Vigil: and that tone, that melody, is the story of light and joy breaking into a darkened and sorrowing world.
The climax of the Lucernarium is the Exsultet. This is a remarkable song of joy. It is remarkable because it is packed with symbols singing of our salvation. In the first place of course, the candle symbolises Christ the Light of the World. The symbolism is complete; even down to the five wounds piercing the body of Christ. And then the biblical imagination of our forebears takes flight: Christ’s Passover from death to life is prefigured by the Passover of the Jews from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. This is the night when the pillar of fire led the God’s Chosen People from slavery into freedom. Once that Chosen People was the people of the first covenant but now there is a new Chosen People redeemed in the blood of the new and eternal Lamb, Jesus Christ. This new Chosen People, that is to say you and me, is led from slavery to our vices into the freedom of the virtues bestowed upon us by Christ the Lord. This is the night which makes our human birth worthwhile for we have been redeemed by the love that God has for each one of us.
The Exsultet proclaims that the reality of our God: he is humble, he is loving. The sin of Adam has led to the revelation of God to us, God as He truly is; without that sin we would never have known, never experienced His loving kindness in such an explicit way, and so the hymnist dares to say, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, ... O happy fault”. The death and resurrection of Christ have transformed the whole world so that, in another biblical image, the night has become as bright as day – for this is the Day of the Lord. The transforming power of God’s power which on this night above all nights is revealed in the sacrament of baptism is so all-pervasive that it washes away all sin, all shame, and all of us are restored to innocence in the sight of God.
But our baptism which has freed us from all sin has also commissioned us to become missionary disciples of Christ and this, too, is imaged for us on this holy night: we have received light from the one light, “a fire into many flames divided”. It is our duty and our joy to go and announce to the world that Christ has risen, that He has freed all mankind from sorrow and lament; that we are free to live in accord with our true nature, that human nature which has been revealed to us by the only Son of God, Jesus Christ, crucified, dead and now risen for evermore.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in this evening sacrifice of praise we have been instructed once more by a careful baptismal catechesis. We have listened in the scriptures to the unfolding of God’s plan for us and for all mankind. Now we are invited to renew our baptismal promises, the promises we made so long ago, and to receive the Body and Blood of our Saviour to nurture His life within us so that whoever we are, wherever we live and work, we may bring His light to our brothers and sisters teaching them by the example of our lives that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4.4 quoting Deut 8.3).