Homily for the Easter Vigil

Yesterday we gathered in this church and three times lifted the cross singing “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. Come let us adore.” Tonight we gathered once more, beneath the Easter Moon, and lifted the paschal flame three times singing, “The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.” Between cross and candle we find humanities predicament: the joy and the sorrow of our existence here on earth. The gospels tell us that when the cross was lifted up there was darkness over the land; the light of Christ we carry dispels that darkness. Tradition calls this space between cross and candle Christ’s descent into hell and since we have little knowledge of this space, we use liturgical symbols to help us experience and understand. 

         Even today we are aware of this darkness, which if I let it can become a deep prison of my own making. I can become captive to my pride, my fears and insecurities, my selfishness, my self-will and loneliness, especially in these unusual times of isolation in which we find ourselves. The Book of Genesis tells us that the origin of evil in our world is pride and disobedience and in this darkness, I can fall into a deep sleep, like a living death, in a place of utter loneliness. This darkness has not gone away, but it is defeated.

The unknown ancient author of the famous Holy Saturday homily explains how. Something new is happening on this very night. Christ has entered this dark and lonely place. The earth in terror was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld trembled – an earthquake terrifying the guards at the tomb. We lack the wings needed to carry us out of this dark and lonely sleep between the cross and the paschal flame and so humanity has called for help down the ages, “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…” This is the prayer of the suffering, the sick, those fleeing wars, famines and persecutions. Those who live in communities held captive by the pervasive grip of criminals and those close to the moment of death. We all cry out!

         On this night, Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders to carry it home, borne aloft on wings of love. He descends into the darkness of all those who are waiting, who out of the depths cry out! He takes Adam and Eve by the hand and leads them out of this dark and lonely place into the light of the resurrection and in so doing he has taken my hand too. 

         As the ancient author proclaims, “I command you: Awake, O sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.”

         Between the cross and the paschal flame there is much more than darkness. In this space we find hope, we find our story, we find the story of salvation to which we have listened and we find God. This is the night and on this holy night, the entire creation cries out – beginning with the Easter Moon in darkest night. Flaming fire dispelling that darkness. Beeswax and a candle formed by human hands. Charcoal glowing and smoking incense rising in a sweet aroma. The water of rebirth and the oil of gladness. Then bread and wine so that he might be present among us. Every element of the Earth speaks, creation explodes and all together cry out:

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! (Khristós Anésti! Alithós Anésti!) Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Abbot Brendan Coffey OSB

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