Homily given by Cardinal Vincent Nichols at the Easter Vigil, 20th April 2019, at Westminster Cathedral.
Tonight is a family party. It’s a big family, and so a big party!
At a family ‘do’ we happily reminisce. ‘Do you remember when this happened?’ ‘How on earth did we get out of that mess?’ ‘Remember Auntie May?’ Memory is such an important part of how we identify and understand ourselves. Some people go to great lengths to work out their ancestry and know that little bit extra of what makes them who they are today.
It is the same here among us, in this great family of the Church of Jesus Christ. This is what we do this evening, recovering afresh that sense of who we are, where we have come from and what we are about!
‘Remember’ is a theme running through this Easter Vigil.
Remember that in our origins lies the hand of God and that although we are ‘made from the dust of the earth’ we have life through God’s breath and are made in the image and likeness of God.
Remember that our ancient ancestors were once slaves in Egypt, brought into freedom, just as we strive for freedom from our fears and our least attractive obsessions and desires.
Remember the echoing words of the Prophet Ezekiel in the Third Reading about a yearning for a new heart and a new spirit. He put his finger on a restlessness in our hearts.
Our strongest memories this night focus on the person of Jesus, the one who gives us our fundamental identity. In the sung message of the Exsultet we recalled that it was he ‘who paid the debt of Adam’ and ‘wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness’. We rejoiced that it was he ‘who broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld’. Later we will remember that he said to us, in all solemnity, ‘Do this in memory of me’!
But memories here have a special quality. Did you notice that in the singing of the Exsultet, the words celebrating the resurrection of Jesus were not ‘This was the night’ but ‘This is the night’. In the gift of the Holy Spirit, the events we recall become present to us here and now! Eight times the hymn said that ‘this is the night’. Its wonder is here among us. Its work is accomplished tonight, just as the words of Consecration in the Mass make the single sacrifice of Christ, offered on the wood of the Cross, present again on the altar of every church.
To try and understand this living memory, tonight we use two great symbols: fire and water, two of nature’s great forces. We lit a fire inside this Cathedral, a living fire, so that its qualities might impress in our hearts the new fire of the Holy Spirit, the new light of Christ. As we hold our lighted candles, our share of that living fire, we pray that the power of Christ may burn out of us all evil, that he alone may be the guiding light of our lives.
In a few minutes, water will be blessed and sprinkled among us as a sign of our baptism. I hope it evokes in you not only the cleanliness you seek but also a thirst for more. We know Jesus to be the living water, the one who flows from the depths of God, a life-giving spring in the desert. This water alone can quench the longings that lie deep in our own hearts: a longing for wholeness, a longing for peace, a longing to find the way of overcoming the dismay and violence that is also written deep within us.
In the wonder of this night I am reminded of a line of poetry I read recently: ‘Such various noises run through my blood, yet I can tell: I am made of longing’ (Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Book of Hours’, quoted in ‘The Shattering of Loneliness’ by Eric Varden). Yes, an awareness of God, a longing for God, is stamped on our being. In this new light of Christ, in this living water of baptism, all for which we long, for which we have been made, finds its great fulfilment.
Today we are living through times that are deeply distressing: anger and aggression not far from the surface; conflict between peoples over power and wealth; distress and hunger around us; hurt and betrayal marking our homes, including the home of our Church. What are we to do? Turn to the risen Christ. He is our light: to live with him and by his rule is our only way. Pope Leo the Great once exclaimed, ‘Oh Christian, remember your great dignity’. On this Easter night, the family of the Church is reminded of that dignity, renewed afresh in Christ. Whatever life may bring, never for a moment relinquish that dignity.
A very happy Easter to you all! Amen.