Words on the Word

Easter Vigil

Among the elements that constitute the grandeur of this holy night one always touches me viscerally. It occurs towards the end of the Exsultet, when the Church in her own words explains the symbolism introducing the Vigil. The deacon sings of

A fire into many flames divided, yet undimmed by the sharing of its light.

How fragile the Easter candle’s flame is when it burns alone, exposed to the elements! How wonderful it is when the flame then spreads from taper to taper! The Church becomes a universe of warmth and light.

Three days ago we were gathered here in grief. The church was dark, then, the altar stripped. One by one we knelt solemnly, each enclosed in his or her aloneness, before the cross and kissed it, inwardly torn apart by a seemingly total dereliction. Tonight we are here together again, carrying light, with joy in our heart, singing praise that has its freshness restored for having been unuttered since Ash Wednesday: Alleluia! Death is dead! Christ is risen!

If we seek an image of what the Church is, we find it here, in the fact that we, of ourselves a heap of forlorn individuals, are by God’s efficacious power turned into a unified, jubilant sea of living fire. The Church’s decisive synodos happens through incorporation into Christ’s Pasch.

The element I referred to, though  – the touching one – is other. It features in the next phrase of the Exsultet, which sings of how the Easter flame is enabled to burn. The flame, we are told, burns by being ‘fed by melting wax drawn out by the mother bee’.

It is extraordinary! The Easter Vigil liturgy has cosmic reach. It extends an arch from creation to the end of time. It speaks of the origin of galaxies, of the harrowing of hell. Yet in the midst of these immense connections it has an eye for what is little, obscure, laborious, and ordinary. It graciously acknowledges the work the mother bee has put in so that Christ’s most holy resurrection may be celebrated effectively and worthily.

Let us note this fact.

Easter reveals the meaning and purpose of all there is, from the greatest to the smallest circumstance and thing. In Christ, and only in him, everything is led to make sense. Everything can become praise. Everything can be redeemed, if only God’s power may touch it and extract death’s sting.

For Vigils on Holy Saturday we sing an almost shocking verse from Psalm 75 (Ps 75.10). It reads:

Even men’s anger will praise you, O Lord.

The brutal bawling of the Via Dolorosa, the crowd shouting ‘Crucify him!’, has no consistency. Men’s anger is tragic, destructive and perverse, but it lacks final resonance. The cry of Alleluia, by contrast, is eternal (cf. Rev 19). In the long term, our anger is merely a cacophonous upbeat to God’s peace.

The flame enabled by the mother bee points towards the day when ‘night shall be no more’ (Reb 22.5). ‘The old has passed, the new has come’ (2 Cor 5.17). Let us then let ourselves be renewed.

Christ is risen. In him we rejoice. In his name we abjure any compact with death. Alleluia!


Sed iam columnae huius praeconia novimus, quam in honorem Dei rutilans ignis accendit. Qui, licet sit divisus in partes, mutuati tamen luminis detrimenta non novit. Alitur enim liquantibus ceris, quas in substantiam pretiosae huius lampadis apis mater eduxit.

You can find the whole text of the Exsultet here.