Easter Vigil 2017
Homily preached by Fr Prior at the Easter Vigil at Ampleforth Abbey (Saturday 15th April 2017). Readings: Readings 1, 3, 5, 7: Genesis 1:1 – 2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15 – 15:1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a,18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10
(Image: Jaume Serra, 14th Century - click here for full image and more details)
The liturgy for the Easter Vigil is so full of symbols, from the darkness to the fire, from the fire to the one candle. From the single Easter candle to the many candles! And then we go on from here to the water and to recall the mystery of baptism, to the use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, the first celebration since the Last Supper. And then there is the popular symbolism of eggs and bunnies and so on. Where do you start?
The fundamental level, the most important message is to proclaim the resurrection. That is the prime aim of the whole of each gospel, of the New Testament in its entirety. The lives of the disciples had been transformed because the life of Jesus had been transformed. He was no longer dead, but alive. The disciples were no longer confused and disappointed but full of joy. Still a bit puzzled, certainly not having all the answers, but nonetheless, never the same again, and convinced that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!
The readings we have listed to this evening are so rich! We have listed to the story of creation. And within that story we heard that everything starts with God’s spirit hovering over the water. Water symbolises formless chaos and danger, but also opportunity: the material for creation, and the place where life first begins: Let the waters teem with living creatures. And God saw that it was good.
Next in the story of Abraham and Isaac we were reminded of the way Abraham, the man of faith, was alert, listening to God, always listening, prepared to obey, to change. And we heard his prophecy that “the Lord will provide the sacrifice,” a prophecy that is fulfilled in Jesus, another only son.
Then long after the creation, and the special creation of man and woman, we again encounter water, in the book of Exodus. Water is the barrier between slavery and freedom. Moses leads the people from Egypt to Sinai, crossing the Red Sea, leading them from captivity and degradation to freedom and dignity, as he began to form them into the people of God, the chosen people, favoured by God, provided by him with everything they needed: food, water, and eventually the whole promised land.
Then in the fourth reading we heard this evening, once again water is central: this time to refresh the thirsty, to reinvigorate the exhausted, and at the spiritual level, to forgive the sins of those who had become discouraged and lazy. This water refreshes and purifies. It also allows new life to begin: it is necessary for the germination of seeds.
Then finally in the reading from Ezekiel, we are taken forward to the time of the Babylonian Captivity, when the leaders of the people had been deported to Mesopotamia. It was their infidelity that had caused this. They needed forgiveness and a new heart, a fresh start. And once again, water is used as the symbol of this wonderful action by God.
So water is used extensively to symbolise the old life giving way to the new, and how fittingly tonight as we celebrate the Resurrection. Jesus’ new life. His death was not the end. After three days in the tomb, he rose again. This resurrection is to a new and complete life: he will never die again. He has won the victory over sin and death, and now he passes that gift on to us. On the very same weekend that the Jews celebrate Passover, the escape of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, we have a festival for our release from a much more serious slavery.
'As baptised Christians, we have left behind the old life and received the new. We live the new life of heaven, in anticipation, as it were.'
It is true that we do have to die in the normal way, but we know through our faith that this death, though it is painful and sad, ultimately does not matter. As baptised Christians, we have left behind the old life and received the new. We live the new life of heaven, in anticipation, as it were.
So today, this night, we have blessed the candle, whose light has now spread into the deepest recesses of this church, and from here shines out to illuminate the world. And in a few moments we will bless the water, baptismal water. It will be used as an invitation to all of us to recall our own baptism, to turn again to God, and ask him to refresh our own faith, to wash away our own sins, to call us once again to fidelity to the new life.
We are not limited to the Easter Vigil to do this. Every time we dip our finger in the holy water and bless ourselves, we are recalling our own baptism, and making an act of faith, asking the Lord to wash away our laziness and re-invigorate us in his service.This is truly a night of great joy. A night to celebrate and give thanks.