This is the night, when once you led our forefathers, Israel’s children from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
So sang our deacon a short while ago in the stirring words of the ancient Easter Proclamation, commonly called the Exsultet, its opening word in the Latin original. The famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton once called the Exsultet "the key to the whole business.” The year it fell to him, as a deacon, to sing it, he wrote, “I am going to sing the whole of theology. It is marvelous.” [April 6, 1947, & April 15, 1949]
The Exsultet brings us back to the heart of the ancient Passover story, which we recall tonight with this Vigil, just as the Jewish People have for so many centuries celebrated the Passover night’s annual return each spring. In the Book of Exodus we are told: This was a night of vigil for the Lord, as he led them out of the land of Egypt; so on this same night all the Israelites must keep a vigil for the Lord throughout their generations [Exodus 12:42]. That they have done, and so must we on this our annual Christian Passover night. On this night, when once God led Israel from slavery and brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, we too tonight follow the pillar of fire, our own Easter Candle marked with 5 grains of incense to signify the holy and glorious wounds of Christ’s passion, to relive that night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
Both in its antiquity and in its solemnity, the Exsultet testifies to the specialness of this Passover night, when once God led our forefathers, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea – fulfilled for all and forever in this night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
In the centuries-old ritual for the Passover seder, it is said that “in every generation” every person should view him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. In other words, Passover isn’t just some historical anniversary. It is something that happens in the lives of God’s People here and now. And so it is for us on this Passover feast of the Church, this Easter night. For, as the same Exsultet tells us, this is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.
In times past, the faithful of Rome assembled at nightfall at the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran, the Mother Church of both the City and the world, for an all-night vigil. Meanwhile, next-door in the Baptistery the Church’s newest members, solemnly renouncing Satan and all his works, passed through the saving waters of baptism - an experience meant to be every bit as transformative for them as passing through the Red Sea was for the Israelites. The Exsultet expresses how they undoubtedly would have experienced their emergence from that Baptistery in the dawning light of Easter morning: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
And so it must be for all of us - whether we are being baptized or confirmed tonight or were baptized and confirmed many decades ago. As at a Passover seder, so on this most holy Easter night, we must each of us personally experience coming out of Egypt. We must each of us personally experience Christ breaking the prison-bars of death and rising victorious from the underworld. And then, because of that, we must each of us personally solemnly renounce Satan and all his works. Then, indeed, this night shall be as bright as day, dazzling and full of gladness.
And so, tonight, having heard again the ancient Passover story - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent these past two days, the bells have now been rung again with all the clamor they can muster.
As many of you know, the ringing of the bells has always been my favorite part of the Easter Vigil – in fact, the part I most look forward to each year, a moment of sheer joy to be remembered all year long, and beyond.
I’ll talk more about the bells tomorrow morning. Tonight, however, I want to look back at the strange way we began this Vigil, walking in the dark behind the light of the Easter Candle. The Exsultet sings eloquently in praise of that Easter Candle - this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for its fed by melting wax drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious. … Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night.
Now a candle – however tall – is still just a candle. The night outside is still dark, despite all our efforts to the contrary. Life is like that. We go through life more or less in the dark, sometimes distracted by the scenery that surrounds us, sometimes stumbling dangerously, but hopefully staying on - or finding our way back - to the forward road. And we’re going to be better at staying on or finding our way back to that road if we all stick together, like our little procession tonight, following the way led by that single candle - relying on one another and supporting one another in the living community of the Church, this community created by that candle’s glowing fire ignited for the honor of God. Just as God once led his Chosen People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues today to lead his Church through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.
So no wonder we ring those bells tonight. How else will the world hear this wonderful story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake!
Having huddled together in the dark and followed the light into this Church, our challenge now is to spread the news, with the assurance of the very first ones to hear the news.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead,” the angels asked the terrified women that first Easter morning. The Gospel writers tell us that the women’s purpose in visiting the tomb was to honor Jesus’ body with spices. Whatever they were expecting, it was a dead man whose tomb they came to visit. But, instead of a corpse, they found something surprising and unexpected.
The simple act of the women’s going to the tomb, Pope Francis has said, “has now turned into … a truly life-changing event. Nothing remains as it was before, not only in the lives of those women, but also in our own lives and in the history of [hu]mankind. … Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness... and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive!”
And so Pope Francis challenges us: “Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.” [Easter Vigil 2013]
The women, we are told, returned from the tomb and announced all these things to the eleven and to all the others.
And, as they did then, so now must we!
Homily for the Easter Vigil, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 26, 2016.