This is the night, when once you led our forefathers, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
So sang our deacon a short while ago in the stirring words of the ancient Praeconium Paschale, more commonly called the Exsultet (its opening word in the Latin original). As a deacon myself back in 1987, I prepared myself to sing the Exsultet by listening to a recording of it every day of Lent, listening and repeating it until I somehow had every note and every up-and-down of the melody memorized so as to fulfill that challenging chore to – as the celebrant says to the deacon when blessing him beforehand – proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well.
Both in its antiquity and in its solemnity, the Exsultet testifies in sublimely beautiful language to the specialness of this sacred night, the Passover feast - the night when once God led our forefathers, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea – fulfilled for all and forever in this night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
In the centuries-old ritual for the Passover seder, it is said that “in every generation” every person should view him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. Passover isn’t just some historical anniversary. It is something that happens in the lives of God’s People here and now. And so this Passover feast of the Church, as the Exsultet tells us, is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.
And so, in times past, the faithful of Rome assembled at nightfall at the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran, the Mother Church of both the City and the world, for an all-night vigil, while next-door in the Baptistery the newest members of the Church, solemnly renouncing Satan and all his works and empty show, passed through the saving waters of baptism, an experience meant to be every bit as transformative for them as passing through the Red Sea was for the Israelites. The Exsultet expresses how they undoubtedly would have experienced their emergence from that Baptistery in the dawning light of Easter morning: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
And so it must be for all of us. Whether we are being baptized or confirmed tonight or were baptized and confirmed many decades ago. As at a seder, so on this most holy Passover night, we must each of us experience coming out of Egypt. As the Church, on this most holy Easter night, we must each of us experience Christ breaking the prison-bars of death and rising victorious from the underworld. As his Church, on this most holy Easter night, we must each of us solemnly renounce Satan and all his works and empty show. Then, indeed, this night shall be as bright as day, dazzling and full of gladness.
Homily for the Easter Vigil, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 7, 2012