Easter Vigil: This is the Night
By: The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the night. When God brought our fathers and mothers through bondage to freedom, when all who believe in Christ are delivered, when Christ broke the bonds of death. This, brothers and sisters, is the night.
A mentor of mine used to say that if we Christians were only allowed one service all year it should be this one. Not Christmas Eve, not Pentecost, not even Easter Sunday. But this one, the Great Vigil. Because this night is the night around which everything that we are pivots.
In the Jewish tradition there is a custom that, on the first night of the Passover, a young person asks an elder of the house, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ The reason it is different is because it marks the end the Jews’ years of slavery under the rule of the Egyptians. This night is their first night of freedom. And tonight we ponder the same question. Because this night is what St Augustine of Hippo called the paschal mystery, the mystery of passing over. This is the Passover of Christ, when Jesus moves from death into life and we who had been slaves to sin are set free through the might and power and love of God. This is a night unlike any other, as we sit in darkness, sit in a space where Christ’s light is but a flicker, a space of already and not yet, a liminal space.
Liminal comes from the Latin word Limin, meaning ‘threshold,’ and right now, in this moment, in the darkness, we sit at the threshold. The threshold of everything. This is the waiting period, the moments before the sun rises, the flower blossoms, or the child is born. This is the same threshold at which we sit tonight. Throughout the world catechumens sit at the threshold of a new birth, a new life in Jesus Christ. The person they were when they walked into church, when they walked into church this night, is not the person they are when they leave. Through the waters of baptism they too pass over from darkness to light, from sin and death to everlasting life. And their world will never be the same again. The moments move ever slowly for them, as they have been preparing all through Lent, if not longer. They are ready, we’re ready to welcome them into the body, and Jesus is ready too. Still, the darkness holds them for a few moments more, as if to say, “Not just yet.”
We sit here in the darkness, and we, like Jesus, are enveloped in it. These final moments of Holy Week, being stretched out—seconds feeling like hours—as we steel ourselves for the moment that is to come. Oh, but not just yet!
Our emotions have been running all over the place, culminating in excruciating grief at the foot of the cross. Now, Jesus carries out his rabbinical duty, observing his own Sabbath rest, and now he waits. We wait. We wait for God to do whatever God plans to do. It is our great trust and surrender, together with Jesus’ trust and surrender. A new creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing, is about to happen. This Paschal Mystery serves as our great reminder that there can be no creation without there first being nothing. There can be no light without there first being darkness. This was true in the beginning at the creation, it was true on this night at Jesus’ resurrection, and it is true even still for us. There must be darkness before there can be light and transformation.
This night, Christ’s Body—the Church—gathers from around the world in preparation for this necessary transformation; a transformation not only of Jesus, but of our selves and our world. Yes, Jesus is the one who walks from the darkness of death into the light of resurrected life, but we gather tonight so that we may follow. We gather with the church in our local congregations, dioceses, districts, and synods, and throughout the world, so that we may walk through that great Paschal Mystery and experience it for ourselves. Can you feel the moment inching ever closer? Can you feel the prayers of Christians throughout the world wrapping around us as we prepare to cross that threshold?
We do not gather simply to remember Jesus’ Passover or to somehow reenact it. That is not what being the church is about. It is about living these moments with Jesus. We ourselves are making that passage from darkness to light. The catechumens make that passage through the sacred waters, the waters that parted for God’s people, and the waters that christened Jesus as the Messiah. In doing so they become the newest members of Christ’s Body, and we make that journey with them. And we will sprinkle ourselves with those same waters to remind them that they will never be alone as they begin their new lives in Christ.
We are all passing over this night with Jesus. Our sins, our prejudices, and all those things that have separated us from God have been nailed to the cross, and tonight, tonight we are free. Sin and death no longer have the final say. And tomorrow will be different: Easter Sunday, the first day of the week, the ever-new day of Resurrected Life, which will allow us from here on to read all our lives backward with understanding, and read them forward with hope—the kind of hope that tells us that things finally have a victorious meaning, no matter how grim they may seem. It is the kind of hope that sustains us through our darkest and most difficult hours. It is the hope that tells us in spite of our disappointments, failures, and broken hearts, the light of Christ will never be extinguished and that, as Julian of Norwich said, “all manner of things shall be well.” We may have to go through tremendous darkness first, but all manner of things shall be well. This is the biblical hope. The Easter hope. This is the hope we Christians rest in because we have journeyed with Jesus from the darkness of sin into the light of Easter. And this is the night when that hope is realized.
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.