Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Why is this night different?

Easter Vigil

As Christians celebrate Easter, our Christian Passover, Jews throughout the world also commemorate this holy night with the seder or Passover Meal. A crucial and integral part of the Jewish ritual is what is called “the Four Questions”. Now, that’s actually a misnomer because the truth is that, it is just ONE question with four answers. The central question is posed by the youngest person in the room, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” The Exultet (or the Easter Proclamation), sung at the beginning of this Vigil, provides us with the answer. Why is this night so different? Why is this night so special? “This is the night that with a pillar of fire, (God) banished the darkness of sin,” “This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious of the underworld,” “This is the night of which it is written: ‘The night shall be bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness’” and “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of Earth, the divine to the human.”

At the heart of this proclamation is this invitation to praise the invisible God and our Lord Jesus Christ for His work of redemption: “for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father.” This is done by using biblical device of type and antitype. From the perspective of scriptures, a type was a model or symbol of something or someone that would exist at a future time. The later person or thing was called the antitype. For example, Moses is a type of Jesus, who is the antitype. The first three proclamations refer to the three types of night in the story of the Exodus: the night of the Passover in Egypt; the night of the passage through the Red Sea, and the night of the journey through the desert, which was illuminated by the pillar of fire.

But, the focus of this great song is certainly not on the story of Israel’s delivery from Egypt. These stories and the images they paint only serve as a prefiguration of what is to come. The delivery from slavery in Egypt is a type of delivery from the eternal death of sin, pointing to the antitype which is anticipated in the New Testament. First, the Old Passover points to the new Passover, where Christ passed from death to life (or as the song proclaims “this is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld”). As God in the story of the Exodus accepted the death of an innocent lamb in place of the death of the Israelites - they were saved vicariously, as we are by the death of Christ. The blood of this lamb marked out the Israelites as the object of God's special choice and love; and this is just what the blood of Christ does for the souls of the redeemed. That lamb, having been sacrificed, was eaten by the family; the true Lamb of God is shared with God's family in the Mass.

Secondly, the crossing of the Red Sea points to baptism and its effects: “The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty!” The waters of Baptism are also death-bringing and life-giving; they bring death to the ‘old man’, the Adam-man, but life to the ‘new man’, the Christ-man or Christian. “In our Baptism”, wrote St. Paul, “we have been buried with Christ, died like him, that so, just as Christ was raised up by his Father's power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence”.

And finally, the journey through the desert illuminated by the pillar of fire points to the Paschal Candle described as a “pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour … to overcome the darkness of this night.” Just as the ancient fiery pillar led the men of old through the darkness of the desert to the waters of the Red Sea, so now the fiery pillar of the paschal candle leads the men of today through the darkness of the church to the waters of Baptism.  After the waters, the fiery pillar led God's Chosen People of the Old Testament in their march through the desert towards the Promised Land. In like manner, after Baptism he who is symbolised by the fiery pillar of the candle leads God's Chosen People, the Church, in their journey through this life towards the promised land of heaven. As you can already guess, the Paschal Candle is the symbol of Christ Himself, the Light of the World. That is why the Paschal Candle is treated as if it were a person. It is welcomed by the congregation at the church door; it is given the honours proper to a person of importance. It is introduced as “Lumen Christi” (the Light of Christ. Majestically it is borne ahead, hero of the occasion, shining focal point of every gaze, the sole light-giver - as was Christ whom it personifies.

In a way, our liturgy seems to imitate life. The looming darkness which enshrouds this night always threatens to overwhelm the dimming light emanating from our candles but with the first notes of the magnificent Easter Proclamation being sung, the darkness is dramatically dispelled by the lights which are turned on in the Church, as the darkness of sin is expelled by the Light of Christ. The forces of chaos that threatens to destroy our universe are subdued by the power and authority of God, and subverted into becoming the very raw material of both the old creation as well as the new one. God re-creates and redeems all life from dead and dry bones. We are released from the bonds of self-obsession, addiction and whatever that would steal away the radical freedom God has given us. From the waters of destruction, emerges new life. On this night, death itself is trampled upon.

We know only too well those situations where darkness covers our lives. Our present struggles, our addiction to sin, the scandals that have rocked the Church, the weight of world events and even the crisis we are experiencing in our communities, our families and our own personal lives, all obscure our hope. But the hope of the risen Christ can transform our darkness to light. This is what we celebrate tonight. So, why is this night different from all other nights? Here you have the answer: “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.”

Yes, this is the night when Christ, the Life arose from the dead. The seal of the grave is broken and the morning of the new creation breaks forth out of the night. This is the night when the Lord leads Adam and Eve, you and you and all of you out of the blackness of the tomb and into the brilliance of the 8th day sun. This is the night when we receive more from Jesus than what we lost in Adam; when we are clothed in the skin of the Lamb of God; when death’s dread angel sheathes his sword to beckon us with open arms back into the Garden of Heaven. “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” This is the night where the wonder of the resurrection is upon us once more. Christ is risen, death is vanquished, humanity is restored to their rightful place with God. Yes, “this is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.”

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