The Easter Vigil so recently celebrated provides a rich fare for reflection. Alas, its memories pass so quickly. The shadowy yet wonderful Easter Vigil is the greatest and most elaborate liturgy of the Church year.
Due to its length and late hour, many Catholics have never rejoiced in the somber glow of its initial moments or in the blaze of glory and sacraments that follow. It features a presentation of the dramatic battle between darkness and light; the light wins, it always wins and the darkness is scattered.
The Easter Vigil is the manifestation of what St. John wrote in the prologue of his Gospel: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Psalm 20 says, Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Ps 30:5). Peter wrote, And we have the more certain prophetic word, to which you do well taking heed, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until this day shall have dawned and the morning star shall have arisen in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).
As the paschal candle enters the Church, the cries go up: “Jesus is the Light of the world and this Light shall never be extinguished!”
Rather than allow the liturgy of the Easter Vigil pass unremarked, let’s consider some of its details and the teachings that its solemn richness bestows. The following are but a few observations and teachings from its opening moments.
1. Pillar of fire and cloud – After the Easter fire is blessed, the paschal candle is lit. The candle is an image of Christ our Light. In the Book of Exodus, we are taught how Christ was mystically present in the Exodus.
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night (Exodus 13:21). Christ is the true light who led them.
These two images of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire come together in the Easter Vigil. Although we begin outside, we are led into the Church first by the pillar of cloud (symbolized by the incense at the head of the procession) and followed by the pillar of fire (the paschal candle). Just as the ancient Israelites went forth in the Exodus out of slavery into freedom, so do we.
The pillar of fire illuminates our night and the pillar of cloud keeps our enemies, the demons, at bay. As many exorcists attest, Satan and his minions hate blessed incense.
Scripture says, The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night (Ex 14:19-20). For us, holy incense enshrouds us on the night of the Easter Vigil and separates us from our ancient foe and his fallen angels, just as the pillar of cloud did in the first Exodus.
And of the pillar of Fire there came a critical moment in the Exodus, which Scripture describes: At the morning watch, the LORD cast a glance on the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud and brought the army of the Egyptians into confusion (Ex 14:24). So too, the light of Christ scatters and confuses the satanic powers in our time as well.
All of this comes to mind as the incense (the pillar of cloud) and the Easter candle (the pillar of fire) go into the Church before us and the incense surrounds us and acts like a rear guard.
2. A Picture of the New Covenant – But there is still more meaning in the incense and the paschal candle. In Genesis 15, we are told that God made a covenant with Abraham:
The LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half… As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. … When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram (Gen 15:9-18).
Thus the smoking fire pot of the incense thurible and the pillar of fire that is the Easter candle also announce the New Covenant that the Lord offers on this night, when the once-for-all paschal mystery is made present to us.
Yes, all of this from incense and the Easter candle! (These insights are developed well by The Liturgy Guys, an excellent podcast that I highly recommend.)
3. Clothed in Light – As the flame of the paschal candle is shared, a darkened Church is clothed in light. The Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, is read or sung by the deacon or priest at the arrival of the candle in the sanctuary. One part is as follows: Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory.
Yes, just as in Heaven we will not be arrayed in garments of mere cloth but of light, Mother Church now see herself clothed in light, the Lord’s light. As the Book of Revelation says, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and celebrate and give Him the glory. For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. She was given clothing of fine linen, linen bright and pure.” For the “fine linen” she wears is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:6-8). On this most holy night, Christ the Bridegroom comes and says to His bride the Church, Awake O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (Eph 5:14).
Further along in the Exsultet, the deacon or priest reads or sings, Therefore, dearest friends, standing in the awesome glory of this holy light, invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty, that he, who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy among the Levites, may pour into me his light unshadowed, that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.
Thus we are clothed in the light of Christ, who alone enlightens us.
4. An undiminishable light – Of the Light of Christ, of the paschal candle, the Exsultet says, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light. It is a flame divided but undimmed. We live in a world marked by the fear that in sharing with others we will have less. But of love this is not so! Just as the sharing of the Easter light among so many candles does not dim it in the least, neither does the sharing of love or truth diminish it; rather it multiplies. We do well to remember this lesson and stop being so stingy, fearful, and withdrawn. The Easter candle is no less dimmed by being spread. No, it is brighter than ever; the more it is shared the brighter this world gets!
5. A daring and dangerous notion – The Exsultet boldly proclaims, O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer. Only saints can talk or write so boldly.
To speak of our sin as “necessary” and “happy” can only be done as a sort of hyperbolic flourish within the context of God’s providence. Joseph said to his brothers regarding their great crime against him in selling him into slavery, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Gen 50:20).
Yes, God can write straight with our crooked lines and make a way out of no way. The Exsultet comments, O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
There is so much more to say of the Easter Vigil, but let this be enough for now. Particularly if you have never attended the Easter Vigil, please be sure to go next year! Where it is celebrated faithfully, the Easter Vigil is the true summit of the liturgical year and a feast whose riches can never be fully savored.