Saturday, April 4, 2015

Darkness to Light, Slavery to Freedom (Easter Vigil)

From darkness to light, night to day.

The early Church lived this paschal reality by praying throughout the night, and celebrating the Eucharist at dawn.

We’re not such hardy souls! But the modern liturgy makes sure we don’t miss the point. Our Easter vigil began in a darkened church that quickly became ablaze with light.

The Exsultet, proclaimed in the light of the Easter candle, prays that its undimmed flame will banish the darkness of the night.

Even if the words of this glorious hymn fail to reach us, the very first reading, from the story of creation, begins with God creating light where there had been only darkness.

The third reading, from the Book of Exodus, also shows us the darkness of night overcome by light: a shining cloud and a pillar of fire lit the way for Israel through the desert.

Even tonight’s Gospel says that the sun had risen by the time the women arrived at the empty tomb.

But what, precisely, does this mean to us? Do we of the 21st century relate to the fact that Christ has overpowered darkness? Certainly not the way people did when the darkness of night was absolute, even frightening, and the rising of the sun a most welcome thing.

If I were to preach tonight about our darkened hearts or souls or lives, people would feel insulted and judged. And if I turn to Susan and Lisa, our two catechumens, and tell them that baptism will overcome their darkness, they might feel a little awkward too.

So I asked myself if there might be a way of looking at this sacred night that modern man could relate to more easily.

I found the answer in a wonderful book by the French priest Jacques Philippe, who says that freedom is the only moral value about which people still agree about today. He thinks that modern culture and Christianity can find common ground in the concept of freedom.

Even if there are some mistaken ideas about freedom in the world today, he concludes that it’s still a meeting point between Christians and non-religious folks.

His thoughts made me take a second look at tonight’s liturgy. When I did, I decided that this vigil is almost as much about the passage from slavery to freedom as it is from dark to light.

Think back on our third reading. What was the Exodus about? The chosen people were in flight from the slavery of the Egyptians.

The Exsultet declares “This is the night when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

Tonight we celebrate not only the triumph of light over darkness, but also the eternal victory of freedom over slavery. This is something everyone can relate to: we all want to be free; no-one wants to be a slave.

As Father Jacques Philippe says, “human beings were not created for slavery, but to be the lords of creation.”

Why is this? Tonight’s first reading tells us: because human beings are created in God’s own image, in the divine likeness. “We were not created to lead drab, narrow or constricted lives… we find confinement unbearable, simply because we were created in the image of God and we have within us an unquenchable need for the absolute and the infinite.”

Father Philippe sums it up in these words: “We have this great thirst for freedom because our most fundamental aspiration is for happiness, and we sense that there is no happiness without love, and no love without freedom.”

Or in other words: “Freedom gives value to love, and love is the precondition of happiness.”

Even amidst confused modern thinking people understand they need to be free if they are to be happy.

But how many of us experience freedom? We feel like slaves half the time: to work, to the demands of family life, and—worst of all, to our weaknesses, sins and addictions. Some of us are slaves to fear, including the greatest of all, the fear of death.

In the face of this struggle—which people of every age have experienced but which is particularly difficult in our day—the apostle Paul tell us how the Resurrection of Christ can free us from slavery.

In tonight’s Epistle, St. Paul gives us a simple formula for freedom. He also explains why the Resurrection is such a personal thing for the follower of Christ.

Paul tells us three crucial things:

One, since by baptism we shared in the death of Christ, we will certainly share in his resurrection. It only makes sense.

Two, since Christ’s death overcame sin, our share in his crucifixion is our death to sin. Sin is no longer our master, and we are no longer its slaves.

Three, since Christ will never die again we must claim our share of the divine life: both here—by turning away from sin, which has lost its stranglehold on us—and in eternity, to which we are called by our share in the Resurrection.

In other words, there is a power for freedom promised to us; a source of strength beyond human resources is ours for the asking.

Of course our release from the many bonds of slavery isn’t automatic. The victory of Christ which we celebrate tonight is absolute, but our effective share in this victory is conditional. It takes discipleship to be free. We must accept the victory, live it, and profess it.

But it is nonetheless ours in baptism, and nothing could be sadder than to turn back to slavery after the Lord has delivered us from the darkness and called us into his kingdom of light.

Let us this Easter share the hope of Susan and Lisa who are about to be baptized; let us share the enthusiasm of Nathan, who is about to make his profession of faith in the Catholic Church.

Most of all, let us accept the freedom that the Risen Lord offers to us, the freedom to love and to live abundantly for which we thirst. We have shared in his death, let us share in the power of his Resurrection.

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