I don’t think anyone could imagine a more joyful liturgical celebration than the Easter Vigil. It’s not only joyful for me personally, since I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil 19 years ago, but the entire liturgy exudes joy from every pore and fiber of its being. It’s as if the Church has packed into it the whole sense of longing and anticipation for the coming of the Messiah for so many centuries and her accompanying the Lord during the desert of Lent so that she can share with all her members her spontaneous burst of immense joy at the accomplishment of his mission. The liturgy begins with a fire blazing forth from a pit in the earth illuminating the darkness and thus signifying the Resurrection of Christ, who dispels the darkness of sin and death from the hearts of believers. These believers take their light from Christ’s own resurrected light and illuminate the Church in the midst ofthe world’s darkness. The joyful celebration only continues to crescendo throughout the Liturgy of the Word until we come to the acclamation of the solemn “Alleluia” for which the Church has longed to proclaim throughout the season of Lent.
Today we celebrate as a Church God’s wonderful works of creation and redemption, with the glorious realization that the two are inseparably intertwined. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil along with all nine readings from the Scriptures and their corresponding Psalms attempts to encapsulate the entire plan of God in His work of creation and salvation. Obviously, no liturgy, no matter how beautiful and how packed it is with rich symbolism and meaning, can convey the fullness of God’s plan, His work, and His gradual revelation of Himself to man. But this liturgy certainly gives us plenty to reflect on.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 53, it says: “The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously ‘by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other’ and shed light on each other.’ It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.” When we take a step back and look at God’s entire plan of creation and redemption, we might think to ourselves: “Why did it take God so long to enact this entire plan and why is it still ongoing over 2,000 years after He accomplished His work of redemption on the Cross through Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t we already be living in the fulfillment of the New Creation in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Yet, when we really stop to think about this question humbly and prayerfully, while standing in the stream of the Church’s Sacred Tradition, we realize that these are not the right questions to ask. The question is not why it takes God so long to unfold his plan; rather the question is why it takes man so long to come to understand God’s plan and to get on board with it.
Since God created us, He knows how our minds and hearts work. He knows that things must be revealed to us gradually over time and that we are prone to make many mistakes and commit many sins along the way due to our fallen human nature. Since He knows us so intimately, God is incredibly patient and merciful with us. Hence, the catechism fittingly uses the words “divine pedagogy.” The word pedagogy comes from two Greek words meaning literally “leading a child.” In gradually revealing Himself to us over time, God leads us as His children deeper into the Divine Mystery. We take on this same model of pedagogy in education for children with grades Kindergarten through 12th grade followed by college. Education always works best for human beings when it is gradual because we cannot process too much information at once.
Yet the problem is not simply a matter of education but also practice. While it is indeed true that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and culmination of Divine Revelation and that, as St. Peter teaches, Christ suffered for us and left us an example that we should follow in his footsteps, yet we often fail to put what we have learned into practice. It’s not enough to simply have knowledge about God, about His work of creation and salvation, and about His commandments to love God and neighbor; this knowledge must be put into action. Pope Francis teaches this beautifully in his Apostolic Exhortation EvangeliiGaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. He says, “Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with the incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: ‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God’ (1 John 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization…This principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centeredness and gnosticism.” Pope Francis has pinpointed the problem precisely. We often remain in the realm of ideas, of knowledge, without taking those ideas and working them into reality through works of justice and charity. We think that merely talking about the works of God in creation and salvation is sufficient for evangelization, but we do very little when it comes to participating with God in His work and manifesting His work in our own lives and the lives of others. St. Paul himself intimates in Colossians 1:24, what is lacking in God’s work is ourselves. He says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” Any deficiency in good works and in God’s plan not coming to fruition is not the God’s fault but our own.
It is necessary for us to come to realize this truth in light ofthe incredible gift of grace that Jesus Christ has won for us through his Paschal Mystery so that we might be moved by his love for us to do works of love. Through a masterpiece of divine poetry, God’s work of creation and salvation rhyme with one another. We can discern the divine stamp through the works of Jesus Christ. As God created the cosmos in six days by means of His Word and His Spirit (breath), so Jesus carries out the work of re-creation in becoming incarnate and performing the works of the Father throughout his public ministry. On the same day that man was created, the sixth day, Jesus undergoes his suffering and death on the Cross for man’s salvation. As Adam was placed in a deep sleep and his side was opened so that woman might be brought into being, so Christ is put into the deep sleep of death and his side is opened by a lance bringing forth blood and water, symbolizing the sacraments of baptism and the holy Eucharist and thus the birth of the Church. Jesus’ mother Mary is present at the foot of the Cross as the new Eve, the one through whom the Son of God came into the world. She is the new mother of all the living, of those who live in God and for God. As the fall of man resulted from an act of disobedience in eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus leading to the denial of man’s access to the Tree of Life, so Christ the New Adam is obedient unto death and is nailed to a tree thus re-opening access to the Tree of Life for all. On the seventh day, the sabbath day, when God rests from the work of creation, the body of Jesus rests in the tomb from the work of redemption. Yet, as Jesus had carried out healings on the Sabbath day during his earthly public ministry to bring healing and deliverance, Jesus likewise carries on the mission of preaching the Gospel to the souls in hell, thus bringing them healing and deliverance. After all, the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. Jesus desires true liberation for man from sin and from the effects of sin so that man might be liberated from his burden and enabled to truly enter the sabbath rest with him. As long as there remain poor people who are unable to rest from their labor, toil, and suffering, especially due to injustices committed by other men, then God’s work of liberation remains incomplete.
Finally, on the first day of the week after the Sabbath, Jesus rises again from the dead. The Catechism says in paragraph 2174: “Because it is the ‘first day,’ the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the ‘eighth day’ following the sabbath, it symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day – Sunday.” As St. Justin Martyr points out in his First Apology, “We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day [after the Jewish sabbath, but also the first day] when God, separating matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.” As God began the work of creation on the first day and rested on the seventh, so the new creation begins on the first day, the day after the sabbath day, after Christ’s body had rested in the depths of the earth and his spirit descended into the darkness of hell to lead the souls there into the light of freedom as children of God.
The readings for Easter Vigil Mass constitute for the most part an immersion, no pun intended, in the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is an integral part of the Easter Vigil liturgy, since this is the time when catechumens receive new life in Christ through Baptism and are brought into full communion with the Church. Most of the readings have some reference to water, the most significant being the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus, a clear prefiguration of Baptism. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of how God will gather his people together and bring them back to their own land. He will sprinkle clean water upon them and cleanse them of all their impurities and idols. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul brings out the significance of Baptism more explicitly. In Baptism, we are baptized into Christ’s death so that we might be buried with him and thus rise again with him to newness of life at the resurrection of the dead. Although we must still suffer death as a result of our sin, our death has lost its sting, its victory, because we are united at Baptism with the death of Christ. Death has no power over Christ; hence it no longer has power over us. We no longer need to fear death and can now enjoy the freedom of the children of God, even in this current life, this valley of tears: “Those who sow in tears will reap rejoicing” (Psalm 126:5). Because of this, we must think of ourselves as dead to sin, that the old man of sin has been crucified with Christ, and we are already alive for God in Christ Jesus. We are no longer slaves of sin but are made slaves/servants of God, whose yoke is easy and His burden is light. We do not use our freedom as children of God as a cloak for vice, but to truly live free by doing the works of Christ in charity and justice.
This Easter celebration is a reminder once again that we already share in Christ’s resurrected glory in this life and that we participate in magnifying his glory to the extent that we cooperate with his work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. We are members of Christ’s mystical body the Church, each endowed with our own talents to contribute to the building up of his body, to the work of evangelization. If we simply live our lives in a way that is indistinguishable from the world, if we pursue idols such as selfish ambition, money, power, and pleasure, then we cannot expect Christianity to thrive and to grow. As the Second Vatican Council has made clear, every single person in the Church is called to active participation, not just in the liturgy, but to the work of evangelization primarily through the proclamation of the Gospel and without neglecting works of charity and justice. As the hymn sung during the washing of the feet at the Holy Thursday liturgy says, “Where charity and love are, there God is. The love of Christ has gathered us into one flock.” If we wish to do the work of Christ and gather his people together into one, then charity and love are indispensable. Without love, we are merely noisy gongs or clanging symbols. We communicate God to others through love so that God might carry out in them His works of creation, redemption, and sanctification and bring them with us to the glory of Christ’s Resurrection at the end of the age.
By Fr. Matthew Mary