Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil: A Tour of Unseen Realities

Eight weeks ago today, I marveled, not for the first time, at the magnificence of the cathedral church of Notre Dame in Paris. I gazed at the glorious rose windows, at the lofty gothic arches, and admired the statues.

But there was something hidden that I didn’t see, that almost no one saw until the tragic fire on Monday—the wooden beams that held up the roof. They were concealed from view, though they’re famous now for fueling the flames.

The beams were put in place eight hundred years ago, each made from a single tree, 13,000 of them. No forest in France contains such trees today.

As we know, the stone walls of the cathedral survived the destruction of the roof, and Notre Dame will rise from the ashes, rebuilt and strong.

No-one but historians and architects will really mourn the loss of all those unseen beams. But we should: they are a reminder of the invisible things that make visible things strong and durable.

Tonight, the Church gives us a tour of  the framework of our salvation. We know well the main story—the triumphant resurrection of Jesus is as central to our faith as Notre Dame to the city of Paris. 

But there are other stories that connect to Easter, and by listening to them we understand that God’s plan, however simple in its essentials, is far more glorious than the most magnificent of cathedrals.

The liturgy at this great Easter Vigil could easily begin where we left off on Good Friday.  Jesus has died, now let us hear the Gospel of his Resurrection. Yet the Church makes us wait for the whole story, and invites us to wonder as we wait.

Paying no attention to our impatience, the readings began at the dawn of creation—with the goodness of creation, the first expression of God’s love for us.

We responded in song, praising God for his works and wonders. But the psalm’s antiphon, “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth” expresses the fact that what God created needs renewal: a new creation is called for.

The second reading presents the source of the new creation: it will be a sacrifice. The sacrifice of an only son.

That’s enough to make us afraid, so in the psalm we renew our confidence in God, who will keep us safe and strong, and bring joy regardless. God kept his promises to Abraham, and he will keep his promises to us.

The third reading offers further encouragement to the hesitant and fearful.  God not only keeps his promises, he keeps them with power and might. We’re not part of a TV show called Survivor; a reality show about Christians would be called Victor.

Our fourth reading moves from history to our own hearts. Isaiah invites everyone here tonight to take stock. Are we thirsty and hungry? The prophet knows that only the foolish are fully satisfied with life; he promises on God’s behalf what the heart most longs for—a relationship that fulfills our deepest desires and answers our most troubling questions.

We use Isaiah's own words in response—we “will draw water joyfully from the spring of salvation.”  Lowering our buckets into the well of salvation is the source of the greatest joy imaginable. Tomorrow I will invite our many Easter visitors to experience that joy, by putting Alpha on their bucket list—not for the future, but for this coming Thursday.

I will promise them the joy that comes from knowing Jesus if they will take the simple step of seeking the Lord while he may be found, in an evening of welcome, fellowship, and hope in God.

I don’t need to talk much about that tonight, because three of our five catechumens and confirmation candidates, attended Alpha, heard an invitation from Jesus, and came to know him better through the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA. These three—and many others—can tell you about the joy of drinking living water from the well of salvation.

Not all of us have quenched our thirst with Christ, but our final Old Testament reading brings everyone God’s promise of water that washes us clean. The cleansing water of baptism brings a new heart, a heart that beats with love for God and neighbour. Ezekiel speaks God’s promise of a new spirit that helps us live a new life according to God’s commands.

The psalm that follows is not triumphant like Miriam’s song after the crossing of the Red Sea; it’s not the loud shout of joy we sang in response to the promise of thirst-quenching and hunger-satisfying blessings.

No, our last response to this forest of Old Testament scriptures is that of a panting deer, at the edge of the babbling brook that will bring relief from exhaustion. 

Dear catechumens, you are almost there! You have a right to be a bit weary, a bit impatient. But very soon you “will go to the altar of God”; very soon you will be baptized and confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.

I dare not hold you back any longer from the saving water of baptism, from the strengthening oil of confirmation, and the living bread of the Eucharist.

Let me just end by proclaiming that the sturdy oaks of the Old Testament are timbers that hold up the indestructible structure of the Resurrection of Christ, in which God’s creation is refashioned and his promises fulfilled. 

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