We stand in front of our future which closes and opens at the
same time . . . Return to each place where a man has died;
Return to the place where he was born. The past is the time
of birth, not of death.
Easter Vigil, 1966
No ceremony of the liturgical year is more important or dramatic than the Easter Vigil. Filled with sign and symbol, it is the place where death and life converge, a time of new life for followers of Christ. Stunned into silence by the events of Good Friday, the Church gathers in vigil to await and welcome the Risen Christ. We are enlivened by new members of our community who join our company through baptism, confirmation and eucharist. And cleansed by our season of penance, we renew the original grace of baptism by which we were first joined to Christ our life.
The Easter Vigil, wrapped in mystery and rich in meaning, is the culmination of the Sacred Triduum, the beginning of the Easter Season and a microcosm of the entire Christian life. The goal of the Vigil is to consummate and celebrate total union with Christ.
The darkness of the Vigil is broken by the lighting and blessing of the new fire and presentation of the Easter candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the Risen Christ. As the candle is lighted the Church prays: “Father, we share in the light of your glory through your Son, the light of the world.” And in the solemn preparation of the candle, the priest recalls the centrality of Christ in all history, saying: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him and all the ages.”
The next stage of the Easter Vigil is the reading of the Word of God. As many as nine Scripture readings may be used, making this the “mother of all vigils.”
The readings recall the history of salvation. Here we listen to the familiar stories of the creation of the world, the sacrifice of Abraham, the passage through the Red Sea, and the vocation and holiness of the People of Israel. The Letter to the Romans emphasizes the reality of our baptism by which we are grafted onto Christ. And finally the Gospel, preceded by the joyful and solemn intonation of the Alleluia, proclaims the Good News of the Resurrection of Christ. Thus in a short span we trace the history of the Word of God from the creation of the world to the glorification of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God.
The Vigil then moves on to the liturgy of baptism, and it is here that new members of the Church are initiated through the sacraments. Water becomes the focal point of this part of the rite. As the baptism water is blessed we recall the many ways God has used water as an instrument of grace.
The diverse use of water in salvation history is fulfilled by the sacrament of baptism, that gift of God that washes away original sin, makes us children of God, and opens for us the doors of the Church. In the Easter Vigil liturgy, new members are immersed into the mystery of Christ and their souls are flooded with His saving grace. At the same time, all members of the Church are sprinkled with water and invited to renew their baptism promises and refresh their commitment to Christ.
Finally the Easter Vigil reaches its culmination with the celebration of the eucharist as the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the Lord. It is through the reception of Holy Communion that we share most fully in the redemption accomplished by Christ in His death and resurrection. Now, as the eucharist is consecrated, we move from the realm of pure symbol into a deeper reality. Now the substance of the signs is transformed as they become the Body and Blood of Christ.
You see how many ways the Easter Vigil allows us to experience and express our total union with Christ. On this holy night God is particularly present and active among His people. Here we are wedded to Christ who is the Light of the World, the Word of God, the Living Water and the Bread of Life.
Celebrating this union with Christ is the goal of the Easter Season, the period of fifty days of special peace and joy for all disciples of Christ. We achieve this in our Easter lives by prayer, by keeping the Commandments, by our active membership in the Church, by serving others, and especially by sharing in the sacraments. Our whole life, then, becomes a living-out of the mysteries proclaimed at the Easter Vigil.
In the poem Easter Vigil by Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, we read of the convergence of death and life that occurs in the Easter Vigil. Through powerful sign and symbol, we return to the place were Jesus died, but in fact, to the place where He was born anew. Easter is a time of new birth, a moment in which we stand at the threshold of the glory-filled future we expect as Christians.
To our readers and to the entire Church in the Diocese of Providence, I extend my prayers and blessings that this Easter will be for you a season of special grace, peace and joy!
(This article previously appeared in the Catholic Exponent.)
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The Rhode Island Catholic (March 20, 2008)