As I listened to our deacon sing the stirring words of the ancient Easter Proclamation (commonly called the Exsultet from its opening word in Latin), I thought back 26 years to my first experience of proclaiming it as a deacon. That year, I prepared myself to sing it 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 – as the celebrant says to the deacon when blessing him beforehand – to proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well. How well I actually did I won’t venture to guess, but I think our own deacon did a much better job here tonight!
Thomas Merton once called the Exsultet "the key to the whole business.” The year it fell to him, as a deacon, to sing it, he wrote, “I am going to sing the whole of theology. It is marvelous. … And the people who hear it are learning all theology, and the Holy Ghost, Who operates what is signified, throws light in darkness upon the whole meaning of Christianity …” [April 6, 1947, and April 15, 1949]
Merton wasn’t alone in his praise. The great Pius Parsch once called the Exsultet "a hymn that never ceases to touch the heart and mind." It does so, by bringing us back to the heart of the ancient Passover story, which we recall tonight with this Vigil, just as the Jewish People have for so many centuries celebrated the Passover night’s annual return each spring. In the Book of Exodus we are told: This was a night of vigil for the Lord, as he led them out of the land of Egypt; so on this same night all the Israelites must keep a vigil for the Lord throughout their generations. That they have done, and so must we on this our annual Christian Passover night. On this night, when once God led Israel from slavery and brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, we too tonight follow the pillar of fire, our own Easter Candle marked with 5 grains of incense to signify the holy and glorious wounds of Christ’s passion, to relive that night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
Tonight, having heard again the ancient story - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent these past two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor and clangor they can muster. As some of you know, the ringing of the bells has always been my favorite part of the Easter Vigil – the part I most look forward to, a moment of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond.
I’ll talk more about the bells tomorrow morning. Tonight, however, I’ll stick with the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, and the strange way we began this Vigil, walking in the dark behind the light of the Easter Candle. The Exsultet waxes eloquently (no pun intended) in praise of the Easter Candle - this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for its fed by melting wax drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious. … Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night.
Now a candle – even a big and beautiful one such as this – is still just a candle. The night outside is still dark, despite all our efforts to the contrary. Life is like that. We go through life more or less in the dark – or, as Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham would say, trying to overcome problem after problem, one after another. And we’re going to be better off if we stick together, like our little procession tonight, following the way led by that single candle - relying on one another and supporting one another in this community created by that candle’s glowing fired ignited for the honor of God. Just as God once led his Chosen People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues to lead his Church today through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.
So no wonder we ring bells tonight. How else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake! So our job, having huddled together in the dark and followed the light into this Church is now to spread it around, with the assurance, as Pope Francis has written, that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” [EG 276]
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus told the women on Easter morning. Do not be afraid. Go tell the others! And that’s what they then went and did.
And, as they did then, so now must we.
Homily for the Easter Vigil, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 19, 2014