Posted March 30, 2013
This sacred night is shot through with the beauty of nature. Birds that fly across the firmament of the heavens; every tree with seed in its fruit; the busy bees and the mother bee, and wax for the bright candles: You will find all these lovely things and more in the liturgy of this Easter Vigil. For Easter is about God the creator, who created all these things in the beginning, and then created everything anew on Easter Sunday. Easter, as St Paul says, is new creation. And at the apex of this new creation is a new Adam, embracing, liberating, transforming the Adam of old. Now somewhere in this scheme of things are you and I. It is not just poetic imagery. It is you and I in our inner reality, in our sufferings and in our hopes for the future, who are deeply and personally involved in the drama that unfolds for us tonight.
There is a very beautiful sermon dating from the fourth century (we do not know its author), which the Church presents as a reading in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday. The sermon focuses upon Christ as the New Adam. It is based on the legend that the risen Christ, the New Adam, ‘descended into hell’ – which it interprets as Christ entering the dungeon depths where the first Adam is imprisoned to share with him the fruits of his Easter victory. Here is Christ, therefore, the Lord of Easter, in his transformed humanity, confronting our fallen humanity, yours and mine. I shall read the sermon to you. You can imagine it being preached seventeen hundred years ago in a nice quiet church flooded with Easter light, in a nice quiet cul-de-sac, somewhere in Antioch or Alexandria, or, maybe, London EC1. It reads like this:
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth is silent because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still, because God has fallen asleep in the flesh; and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
Truly he goes searching for our first parent, as for a lost sheep, greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death. He who is both God and the son of Eve has gone to free from sorrow the prisoners Adam and Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit!’ And Christ took Adam by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now, by my own authority, command all who are imprisoned to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I command you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For you, who were banished from a garden, I was betrayed to sinful men in a garden, and in a garden I was crucified.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See here the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make the cherubim worship you as they would worship God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
If we really understood what the preacher is saying here – that Christ our Lord has restored our broken nature, that we are now one with him, enthroned on heaven, that we share his new humanity, his very dignity, his heavenly vocation: then we would never be dismayed or discouraged, and Easter would truly come alive in our hearts and in our daily living, and be a joyful certainty to us, and hope for the future, whatever trials come our way. We heard the cantor sing in the Exsultet: ‘This is the night of which it is written: “The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.”‘ May this Easter night shine brightly in our hearts always.
Fr Tom Deidun