Given at the Easter Vigil in Holy Night, 11th April 2020, at Westminster Cathedral
These moments together give us an opportunity of taking to heart the joyous proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus. His victory over death, proclaimed this night, changes radically the way we understand ourselves and the unfolding of our lives. In the midst of this awful pandemic, let’s ponder it joyfully and carefully.
To do so we have to go back to the beginning. We started this evening, with the reading from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. That is where the story of the resurrection begins.
We read that, in the beginning, the Holy Spirit hovered over the void and that the chaos became a cosmos, an ordered world. This work of creation is the work of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The first words of the Creator were ‘Let there be light’ and it was seen to be good.
Tonight we have a new light, bursting from the tomb. It is in the light of the Risen Lord. This too is the work of the Godhead: the will of the Father, the obedience of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘I can do nothing of myself’ (Jn 5.19). He is not our lone hero, but the new and full manifestation of the great mystery of God at work in our world and now in our flesh.
At the end of the reading from Genesis we sang: ‘Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth’. Our cry is answered in the victory of God in Jesus. In him our world is recreated, given new and transforming life!
In the reading from the Book of Exodus we heard that the sea was driven back by a ‘strong easterly wind’, so that God’s people could escape from their imprisonment as slaves. And wind is a powerful image of the Holy Spirit at work, bringing freedom to all who welcome that wind.
In the reading from the Prophet Ezekiel, we were reminded of the deep flaws that have found their way into God’s creation, the flaws of idolatry and sin. The first creation, with its gift of free will, has been corrupted and the prophet points to our need for radical healing in cleansing waters.
Following this reading, not surprisingly, we sang of our yearning for God, knowing that we are dwellers in a parched land, in need of that healing. Such a prayer rises in our hearts most powerfully in these days.
Tonight we acclaim again the wonder of God’s response to our thirst: the living water, flowing from the side of Jesus, the right side of the Temple. This is the work of the Godhead: the desire of the Father to show forth his merciful love for a stricken people, the obedience of the Eternal Word through whom all things are made, achieved in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here the love of God recreates the work of his hands.
Tonight we see that the stories of creation and recreation are intertwined. Each is the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is a continuous work, for we are held in being by the breath of God and we are redeemed each day by the ultimate gift of God in Jesus. This night is the finest proclamation of this, our faith! Now we are ‘dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus’ as St Paul has said. Tonight we hear again, from the mouth of the Angel and from the Risen Lord himself: ‘Do not be afraid!’ No wonder Mr Murray-Philipson, emerging from his struggle for life in Leicester Royal Infirmary, spoke so movingly of the image of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee and coming to help him in his hour of need.
With this faith we approach the coming day and indeed every day.
We know that the Holy Spirit continues to hover over our world. In the work of creation, gifts are given of scientific genius, selfless service, enlightened business practice, compassion and generosity in so many hearts. We know, too, that these gifts, energised by the Holy Spirit, will bring us forth from this pandemic, which seems so like a tomb. For it is through this same Spirit that the tomb of Jesus is broken open.
From that broken tomb of Jesus comes the new, transforming light of his Word, his Truth, his beauty shining forth in our world, the light we are to follow.
The work of creation, the work of recreation: this is why we have no fear but cling to the Lord. This is God’s world and this night confirms beyond all doubt that God will never abandon it, even at the cost of the suffering and death of God’s only Son. Rather, God will raise us up, in, with and through his Son, our Saviour, the Lord, Jesus Christ.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins caught the greatness of this night, its story of creation and recreation, in his poem ‘God’s Grandeur’. You may remember these lines:
‘All is seared with trade; bleared
smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares
Man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep
And though the last lights off the black
Oh, morning, at the brown brink
Eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and
With ah! bright wings.
This Easter night, then, is the great festival of human life in which we celebrate the gift of Christ conquering corruption and death. This is not a fleeting moment. In the Risen Lord, God sets out again our true course, a new way of life for us to pursue, a new grace and power by which we can live. We embrace it with all our hearts as now, together, we renew the promises of our baptism, of our new life in Christ.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster