Given at the Easter Vigil of the Holy Night, 31st March 2018, at Westminster Cathedral.
Christ is our Light in every darkness. This evening we seek to renew our life in him. This we do together, for faith in Jesus cannot be lived as a solitary individual; he calls us into the Church. This evening we stand alongside those who, very shortly, will take definitive steps in their life of faith: some will be baptised, others received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. With them we step forward, holding high the light of Christ as our standard.
Shortly we will renew the promises of our baptism. So let us take a moment to ponder how the stories of faith have unfolded in our lives, from childhood to today, as individuals and in our families. This is a moment for thanking God for all who brought us to faith, who have shared their faith with us. I certainly do so. I would love to listen to the story that each of you has to tell. But that is impossible!
The readings we have heard this evening tell us the story of our faith in the lifetime of humanity, from the beginning until today. It is a story worth pondering.
The first reading was from the book of Genesis, speaking of the beginnings of all things, their creation. The words cried out the goodness and beauty of creation, all that God ‘found to be very good’. The story of God’s love actually begins there, in creation, just as our story begins with our first coming into being in our mother’s womb. Every time we appreciate the beauty of created order, we are on the threshold of faith. Such beauty might be in a sunset, in our garden, or in the face of another human being. The story of our salvation begins just there, for in such moments we begin to see with the eyes of God and respond to God’s love.
As we grow in faith in God, and in our Saviour Jesus Christ, we should never lose this sense of the goodness of God’s creation. We come to love that which we know: our homeland, our families, our own customs. But we also strive to see all that is unfamiliar to us with the eyes of faith, acknowledging people different from us, as sons and daughters of God and beautiful in God’s eyes.
The second reading reminded us that in the long journey of life, God never leaves his people abandoned, but accompanies them, step by step, in a cloud by day and a fire by night.
This story of faith, in its great sweep through history is also in the small print of our own lives.
The third reading made us face up to the presence of wrong-doing and evil. The prophet Ezekiel names that evil: ‘the blood they have shed in their land’; ‘the idols with which they have defiled it’; the profanation of the name of God. Each of us has a conscience. Each of us knows our own wrong-doing. Each of us sees the daily shedding of blood that is a mark of shame on our world. This evening, then, is a moment for us to bring our faults before the Lord and to ask for the cleansing of which the prophet also spoke: ‘I shall cleanse you of all your defilement and all your idols. I shall give you a new heart. I shall put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh instead…You shall be my people and I will be your God’ (Ezekiel 36).
All of this story, our beginnings, our journeying, our forgiveness, comes to its fulfilment in Christ. He is the Word of God through whom we are made. He alone, risen from the dead, brings us the forgiveness of our sins. He is the one who draws us through life into the splendour of the Father. He is, in this sense, the key to our lives and the apex of human history. His power of God triumphs over every enemy, even death itself. His embracing our flesh means that we can share in his triumph and show it in our lives.
Let me give two examples, both from events of recent days.
Two years ago, the villages on the plain of Nineveh were occupied and reduced to rubble by the forces of Daesh. This week, even on this night, the Christian communities are returning there. In the village of Bakhdida, a joyous Palm Sunday procession wound its way through the ruined streets of the village. A victory for the strength of faith of a resilient people!
Another example. Last week a gunman stormed a supermarket in Trèbes in France, taking a woman hostage. The police arrived and the senior officer, Lt Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, promptly offered himself as a hostage in place of the woman. His offer was accepted; she went free. But shortly afterwards, he was shot in the neck and died later in hospital. He has, quite rightly, been declared a national hero. Arnaud Beltrame was a practicing Catholic who, ten years ago, came afresh to his faith in Christ whom he sought to imitate each day. After his death, his priest said: ‘Arnaud knew that if his life belonged to Marielle, his wife, it also belonged to God, to France, to his brothers in danger. I believe that only his Christian faith animated by charity could have asked for such superhuman sacrifice!’ This, for me, is faith finding a loud and clear voice today. Arnaud was indeed alive for God and will, we pray, live with God for ever.
As St Paul tells us this evening, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead ‘makes us alive for God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 6:11).
‘Alive for God in Christ Jesus!’ This is the effect of the baptism we celebrate and renew this evening, receiving its waters with joy.
‘Alive for God in Christ Jesus!’ This is how we try to live each day.
‘Alive for God in Christ Jesus!’ This is the way of the Church, the way we try to walk together, writing our part of the great story of God’s presence in our world, the way that brings us home and fills us with his joy.
A happy Easter to you all!