Saturday, April 7, 2012

It ain't over till ...

Easter Vigil

“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” or some might add, “It ain’t over till the fat priest sings!” This American colloquial phrase has often been cited to indicate that one should not be in too much of a hurry to predict the outcome of some activity until it has actually finished. The final outcome may yet surprise us.

The imagery of Richard Wagner's opera suite “The Ring of the Nibelung” and its last part, is typically the one used in depictions accompanying reference to the phrase. The "fat lady" is the valkyrie Brünnhilde, who is traditionally presented as a very buxomy lady with horned helmet, spear and round shield. Without wishing to fall into the trap of stereotyping, but I’ve often found women in opera usually of the bulkier built, as they have wider vocal range, and can sing louder. Her aria itself lasts almost twenty minutes and leads directly to the end of the opera. This last piece does not only come at the end of the opera but also speaks about ‘Ragnarok,’ the end of the world (or at least the world of the Norse gods), in a very significant way "it is (all) over when the fat lady sings."

What has operas, fat ladies and Norse mythology to do with this evening’s celebration? Those sitting through today’s unusually long liturgy for the first time, may also be wondering – when will it be all over. As Latin Rite Christians, we are often used to our almost painless not-more-than-one-hour services. Many Catholics are absolutely baffled at how their Eastern Orthodox counterparts can sit through a three to four hour service on a normal Sunday. Well, tonight’s liturgy comes close to matching that. In the Lectionary, seven Old Testament readings, one New Testament and the gospel have been selected for the Easter Vigil Service, not counting the lengthy Rite of Baptism that follows. You may be interested to know that before the liturgical reform there were twelve Old Testament readings and not just the present seven! Fortunately for you, we’ve narrowed it down to just three Old Testament texts. But in any event, the number and length of the readings are enough to test anyone’s patience. Why do you think the Church has set out all these readings tonight? I’ll let you in on a secret – the real purpose is to irritate the hell out of you – it’s a way the Church delivers a payback for your lack of observance and sacrifice during Lent. Ok! You know that that was just me kidding, right?

By proposing these readings to us, the Church wishes to offer us a panoramic view of the whole trajectory of salvation history, starting with creation, passing through the election and the liberation of Israel to the testimony of the prophets by which this entire history is directed ever more clearly towards Jesus Christ. The stories in fact link the Easter story to the story of mankind, to the story of the whole universe. In these stories, we see the Easter story being prefigured in the story of creation, the story of how God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, the story of how God will place a new heart in us and pour his spirit into us. It’s a story that involves death, but more importantly it is a story that acclaims life! In all these stories, when everything seems to be at an end, marking tragedy and disaster for the protagonist, something amazing takes place. The hand of God intervenes and a new ending is written! Seen in this light, the story of Easter is a fitting climax.

I remarked to a quite a few people that I was astounded at the sight of the massive crowds at yesterday’s Good Friday services. Where did all these people come from? And where have they gone? As in previous years, the drop in numbers on Holy Saturday Easter Vigil services is remarkable. The modest turnout tonight may be an indication that most people just don’t have the patience to wait around ‘until the fat lady sings.’ They are contented with the story of Good Friday. Some believe their sins forgiven if they just turn up on that fateful day once a year. There are those who are feel overly beholden to Jesus Christ for having suffered so much for them on the cross. This is their repayment, or at least an instalment to the principal debt owed. Others feel drawn to the Good Friday service because it seems to resonate with their lives, lives filled with failures, pitfalls, disappointments, and loss. They fail, however, to recognise that Good Friday is not the ending, it is only a prelude to a much greater ending, perhaps the greatest ever known in history and all eternity. It’s quite sad to see that they don’t stick around to witness the stirring conclusion of the story – the story told tonight.

Perhaps, that seems to be oft drawn conclusion to the stories of our lives. We find ourselves in a maelstrom of trouble and disaster. We encounter a whole series of problems where we find no way of extricating ourselves. We experience being stuck in the mire of despair and hopelessness. We walk into alley ways only to find dead ends. We sometimes wonder whether there will be an end to the pain and suffering. We are disappointed with how our children or marriages turn out. The temptation would often be to throw in the towel. We try to run away. Or when that doesn’t work, we look for human solutions only to find ourselves deeper in the mud after a temporary reprieve. Whatever may be the outlet we have chosen for our predicament, we only wish that this would be the end to our troubles and problems. In fact, our misery often seems to be the end!

The story of Easter tells a different tale. With just a stroke of a pen, the Divine Author changes the entire conclusion. Good Friday will not be end. The story of salvation did not end on the cross. Hope did not die on Good Friday. If one were to consider the Good Fridays of our lives, the times we’ve struggled with the loneliness and uncertainties of the dark night, the times we’ve grappled with the problem of suffering, failure and pain, as the foregone conclusion to life, then we are mistaken. Know this, with the night of Good Friday, comes the dawn of Easter Sunday. After the death of the Son of Man, comes the resurrection of the Son of God! Just when you thought that all the odds were set against you, we have a freshly written ending to the story, an ending that will never cease to surprise us and bring us joy.

My dear catechumens, tonight you will celebrate the Easter mysteries of rebirth, rejuvenation and partake of the sacred meal of Christians where you will share in the One Bread, and One Cup, the One Body and Blood of Christ. It has been a long journey for most of you. For many of you, the journey began long before you decided to join the RCIA. I presume that there will be times; you too would have contemplated whether you would be able to complete this journey. Today, you come to end of your journey of searching, inquiring, and learning as candidates for baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist, but it is only the beginning of your journey of faith as Christians. Remember, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings!

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings or in our present Easter version of the story of stories, it ain’t over till the women on Easter morning returns to tell the tale of their discovery, the story of the empty tomb, the story of the angels message, the story of fulfilled promises, the story of broken hopes and dreams healed and restored, the story of the resurrection which opens up an entirely new horizon. The empty tomb heralds that the chains and prison of death has been broken. Satan and his hold on us through sin have been defeated. The darkness of this night and every night is now brightened by the unquenchable flame of faith in Christ who is our Light. It ain’t over till they return and sing the great hymn of Easter: that soaring aria rising in crescendo, that beautiful hymn that makes the heart swell with joy and hope, the melody that lifts our spirits out of the doldrums of darkness into his unquenchable light, the words that will transform endings into beginnings: “Alleluia! Alleluia! He is Risen, Alleluia!”

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