28 April 2019

Homily - 20 April 2019 - Easter Vigil

At the Vigil During the Holy Night of Easter

Dear brothers and sisters,

We have gathered in the darkness of night, when all of the earth is quiet, to keep sacred vigil for and with the Lord, this mother of all holy vigils. Yet, tonight, all is not dark. Having experienced the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ and having received his mandatum – his command – of love, we accompanied him on his Way of the Cross. We, too, were witnesses to his loving suffering and with great anguish and sorrow of heart, we, with quiet breath, witnessed his death on the Cross. Today, we, with all of creation, have waited in silence because there is something strange about this day.

The quiet darkness of the death of the Lord of heaven and earth permeated this day, yet, as we said, all is not dark. We gathered around the fire, which, when blessed, became the great Easter Fire used to light the Paschal Candle, the symbol of the Risen Lord, the Light of the World, who leads us through the darkness of death into the light of the light of life.

As we blessed the Easter Fire some moments ago, the light of the moon shone brightly upon us. For those with eyes to see, it is a clear reminder of how the date of Easter is chosen each year; we celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This year, the full moon and the Sunday following happily coincide. Of this, Saint Augustine wrote:

Let us now direct our minds to observe the reason why, in the celebration of Easter, care is taken to appoint the day so that Saturday precedes it: for this is peculiar to the Christian religion. The Jews keep Passover from the 14th to the 21st of the first month, on whatever day that week begins. But since at the Passover at which the Lord suffered, it was the case that the Jewish Sabbath came in between his death and his resurrection, our fathers have judged it right to add this specialty to their celebration of Easter, both that our feast might be distinguished from the Jewish Passover, and that succeeding generations might retain in the annual commemoration of his Passion that which we must believe to have been done for some good reason…[1]

What, then, is this good reason? We would prefer the Lord’s Resurrection to be celebrated on the same date each year, like Christmas. Why is the moon so important to the date of Easter?

Psalm 89 sings of the moon as being established in the sky forever and calls the moon “the faithful witness in the sky” (Psalm 89:37). But to what does the moon give witness? The moon bears witness to the promise of the Lord God who said, “I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness” (Psalm 89:33). The moon not only witnessed this promise of the Lord God, but it also saw this promise fulfilled. Because of its association with the Jewish Passover, the moon witnessed the death of the Christ; the moon likewise also witnessed his Resurrection from the dead, his triumph over the power of death. “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!”[2]

For this reason, Saint Augustine said, “we do not adore the sun or the moon, although, in order to convey instruction in holy mysteries, figures of sacred things are borrowed from these celestial works of the Creator, as they are also from many of the things which he has made on earth.”[3] The moon, then, teaches us not to lose hope, but to wait always on the Lord who keeps his promises and remains ever faithful. Tonight, we, with the moon, are witnesses to the Resurrection of the Lord; we are witnesses to his fidelity.

It is not enough, however, that we simply experience the moment of the Lord’s Resurrection, that with the moon we see him rise. No, it is not enough. Saint Augustine instructs us, saying:

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays…; question all these things. They all answer you, 'Here we are, look; we're beautiful.'

Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?

The moon, together with all of creation, not only is a witness to the Lord, but the moon, and all of creation, gives witness to the Lord and to his faithful love. So, too, must we. It is not enough that are witnesses to the Lord’s fidelity; we must also give witness to his love – to the truth of the fact of his Resurrection from the dead - by the manner of our lives. Just as the moon always reflects the light of the sun and never shines with a light of its own, so, too, must we always reflect the light of the Light of the World, of him who was dead but now lives. As Saint Augustine put it, “Our love, like a fire, must take hold of what is nearest and then spread to what is further off.”[4] In this great effort, may the moon always remind us of this sacred duty so that everyone who encounters us will know that Jesus is risen, even as he said. Amen. Alleluia!

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Letter 55.16.
[2] “Exultet,” Roman Missal.
[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Letter 55.11.
[4] Ibid., Ten Homilies on I John, 8.1.

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