Easter Vigil


This Easter Vigil is a celebration of light and life: the triumph of light over darkness and life over death. Nothing could be more stark or more important. As we celebrate these truths, every moment of our life on earth is transformed. We live either in the fear of encroaching darkness and death or we live in the firm hope of the victorious light and resurrection of Christ our Lord. There is little space in between, no compromise middle ground. Tonight we rejoice in our faith. We hail our Risen Lord.

In the Gospel we heard of the stone rolled away from the tomb of Jesus, giving the first disciples a glimpse of an empty tomb and the promise of a risen Lord. Tonight's liturgy puts that basic truth into its broadest context, inviting us to grasp the enormity of this event.

We started at the door of the Cathedral, with the ceremony of light, proclaiming exactly who it is who has left an empty tomb: He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning of all things and their End. We see in Christ, whose light we bear, the one to whom all times belong, all the ages. In the words of our Creed, he is 'the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father from all ages, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.' Nothing then is beyond the reach of his victory, won in our flesh and blood, so that he can share its triumph with us.

St Paul, in the reading from his Letter to the Romans, pin-points the deepest meaning of this triumph. He tells us that when Christ died 'he died, once and for all, to sin.' He died that 'we might live a new life, freed from the slavery of sin.' And he insists that we too 'must consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to Christ Jesus.'

Sin is at the heart of the saving work of Christ. His victory, won only with the total outpouring of his blood and of his spirit, breaks that most insidious of bonds under which we labour: the bond of sin.

Let us be honest and realistic. We know the reality of sin, each and every one of us. This week, Pope Francis spoke of its reality in these words: 'Look around: how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil. Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money which none of us can take with us!' We also know sin deep within ourselves, in those habits of mind and heart by which we belittle others, or use them for our own ends. We know how those habits become actions, acts which we regret yet often repeat. All of this comes under the uncomfortable word 'sin'. All of this is overcome in the victory of Christ.

But his victory is not yet fully ours. It is his gift, but a gift which we only ever partially grasp in this world. This is why we need this night, to remind us, again and again, that the victory of Christ over sin is always available to us. His victory is won in a continuous present, constantly in the sight of his Father, so that we may come, again and again, to receive his mercy and healing. We thank God for the gift and ministry of the Church through which this mercy comes to us in every Mass, in every Confession.

In the deep darkness of this Holy Saturday, there is another truth to be grasped. Today we profess our belief that before his Resurrection, the dead Christ, in his soul united to his divine person, descended into the “deepest Hell” (St. Gregory the Great). There, in the imagery of faith, he sought out Adam, the first man, the representative of us all in our falling from grace, and grasping him by the hand led him out of that pit into the glory of his new light and life. Christ descended to those souls of the just who in Adam were as yet deprived of the vision of God, descended to open for them Heaven’s gates. Here, in this descent into hell, is the full measure of Christ's victory. It is a true redeeming of the past.

And Christ, who descended into Hell, heals even our past, all the wrong-doing that is so much a part of our chequered histories. Only in the light of this victory, and with repentance, can we live in peace with our past. This is not a peace that the world can give, for the world will always demand that the price of our past is paid in full. But here, before the throne of God, a different economy is at work, and in Christ Jesus we are offered redemption from our past and sure hope for our future.

Of all the heavy burdens that weigh us down, sin is the most deep seated and enduring. It is the millstone round our necks. Tonight Christ strikes that stone, that rock, and it is shattered, freeing us to live, day by day, according to his grace and not according to our sin. This is the victory we are to grasp and celebrate with the deepest joy this night. It is expressed in the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah: 'Come to the water all of you who are thirsty, come. Come to me, listen, and your soul will live!'

Isaiah has more to say to us tonight. He said, as the Lord says to each of us right now: 'See, I have made you witnesses to the people.' That is our task as we leave the Cathedral this night: to be his witnesses in our world.

Pope Francis, speaking recently to young people, told us how it is best done - with joy and with a youthful heart. He said to the young, as I do this evening: 'You bring us the joy of faith and you tell us that it must be lived with a young heart - a young heart, always, even at the age of seventy or eighty. With Christ the heart never grows old!'

A happy Easter to you all!

+Vincent Nichols