The Easter vigil consists of a series of rites of variable form,
culminating in the first eucharist of Easter. The following order is envisaged
o the striking of a new fire and decoration of the paschal candle (outside
or at the back of the church);
o the procession of the paschal candle to the front with the threefold
declaration "The light of Christ!" and the lighting of the congregation's small
candles along the way;
o the singing of the Exultet;
o the reading of
Hebrew Bible stories - usually including the creation, the fall, the flood,
Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, the Red Sea crossing, and the dry bones - with
collects and canticles; and
o the procession of the paschal candle back to the font for the blessing of
the water and the renewal of baptismal vows.
Easter vigil begins in darkness - the darkness of death that hovers over a
battlefield when the fight is all over; the darkness of Sheol, where the souls
of the elect are imprisoned in cramped quarters, deprived of enjoyments and
unable to act; the darkness of creation unravelled, reverted to primal deep,
where nothing is any longer, where nothing as yet is.
Easter vigil begins as sabbath is ending. All hell broke loose on Friday.
The event, the Gospel story that our rites condense, the worst that a human
being can come to, expose wreck and ruin of the whole human project, when the
people of God crucify God. In the Synoptics, heavenly bodies avert their gaze.
In Matthew's Gospel, shed blood of God pollutes the earth, which quakes and
vomits forth its dead. The temple veil - hung to shield Israel from lethal
close encounters with the Godhead - is torn from top to bottom.
Long before the tragic ending, there was a hopeful beginning, when God
created the heavens and the earth, structured the environments, furnished them
with plants and animals, and bestowed the gift of fertility. God embedded human
beings in material creation, organically connected with the rest of the world -
mud pies, but special because brought to life by the breath of God.
Life together with human beings in this material creation was what God
wanted. God gave humans life as a gift. And because God knows that animal life
is not self-sustaining, God cut a covenant, setting out a lifestyle of
courteous consumption: human beings will be generously provided for, so long as
they honour God as the source of life, and respect life in other creatures.
Neither life nor the necessities of life are entitlements. The sacrificial
system reasserts this ritually by offering first-born livestock and first
fruits (grain, wine, and oil) back to God. Limits to harvesting honoured God's
image in others: the people of God were forbidden to glean fields to the very
edge, to pick orchards and vineyards bare, to basket what fell to the ground,
lest there be nothing for the poor or the sojourners to gather.
Likewise for cultivation: they were not to exhaust the land, but to give it
a sabbath rest. Knowing how challenged humans are in evolving economic systems,
God also mandated a jubilee year, when wealth would be redistributed, and lost
patrimony returned to the poor.
In the Hebrew Bible, covenants were sealed with conditional blessings and
curses. Courteous living in God's world would mean harmonious relations with
God and others in a land of milk and honey. But if human beings refuse to
behave as gifted guests, respectfully restrained in consuming what belongs to
another, the whole cosmos will get radically out of kilter.
Acting as if we were entitled to life and to the necessities of life gives
way to Darwinian grabbing and devouring of the lives of others. Feigned
independence drives desperate expedients towards self-preservation. Alienation
from divine purposes leads us to look elsewhere for help in our futile attempts
to secure immortality for animal life.
Idolatry, bloodshed, rapacious consumption, and social injustice pollute
land and temple, bring on warnings, and set curses in motion. God abandons
sanctuary and city; the land vomits out the people into diaspora. Remnant
Israel survives, wraith-like, deprived of embodied cultural existence in the
land. New Testament apocalypses repaint the lurid consequences: wars and
slaughter, crop-destroying plagues and tormenting diseases, poisoned and bloody
rivers, fields reverted to wilderness, rolled-back heavens, and falling stars.
Friday encompasses all of this. Covenant bonds dissolve, the cosmos comes
apart at the seams, because human desperation to live on our own has pressed on
to its logical conclusion to slay the Lamb of God.
The good news is that the divine divorce of Israel is never final; after a
time and a time and half a time, God appears willing to begin again. The good
news is that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. "The life is in the
blood," and Adam's race shed the blood of God in blasphemous self-assertion:
"Our lives are our own; we don't need God to live!"
But Christ meant it for good: in his human nature, Christ offers to God (to
his divine nature) what Adam's race always owed - a life gratefully returned to
its source. Blood shed violently cries out with Abel for vengeance. But the
martyr's blood poured out in sacrifice intercedes and makes atonement.
Sprinkling it on us says that we live by the same life as Christ crucified, by
a life returned to the hands of its Creator, by the power of an indestructible
We have waited a day. Holy Saturday recapitulates Israel's 40 years of
wilderness wandering, Israel's 70 years of Babylonian captivity, and ages of
waiting by the souls in Sheol. We are not waiting to be spirited out of this
world to live as ghosts among the angels. We are waiting for our world to be
recreated, for its fundamental structures to be laid down and redefined, so
that we ourselves - embodied spirits - can be recreated.
By turning away from God, the source of life, human beings have made self
and world a recalcitrant chaos. We are waiting for God to reorganise both by
founding and recentring them in Christ.
The time is ripe to strike the new fire, to decorate and light the paschal
candle. In the original creation, God begins by speaking God's Word to create
light and divide light from darkness. Only on the fourth day does God gather up
the light into discrete heavenly bodies - sun, moon, and stars - whose
movements order time. In the recreation, Christ is the divine Word through whom
all things were made and are remade. Christ yesterday and today, the beginning
and the end, the alpha and omega, is the one in whom and through whom cosmos
and persons acquire eternal significance. In the recreation, the divine Word
made flesh, crucified, and resurrected, is the one true light. The paschal
candle insists: Christ is the light shining on in the darkness, the light that
darkness cannot overcome.
As the paschal candle is processed forward, we are Israel, Christ the fiery
pillar leading us out of our wilderness. Lighting our candles from his is
already a declaration of consent, an appeal to Christ to descend into the hell
we have made of self and world, and to bear it up, reorganised around the power
of his indestructible life. Symbols give way to articulate speech as the
sequenced Bible lessons rehearse our history. Each punctuating collect confirms
our resolve, and furnishes broad hints on how to reframe our meanings in the
light of Christ. The litany of saints - shining examples who show us how to do
it - is sung as the paschal candle is processed back to the font.
In the original creation, chaos is watery; in biblical poetry, it is the
haunt of Leviathan or Rahab, mythological monsters who resist the work of God.
In ordinary life, water is a solvent that breaks down the structure of what is
submerged in it. This property makes water not only a destroyer, but also a
cleanser, when a body's internal organisation is stronger than its links with
the dirt. In the original creation, bounded and separated water - contained in
seas, flowing in rivers, falling as rain - is life-sustaining. But covenant
curses take hold to poison rivers and bloody waters.
In the recreation, water must be purified, recontained, reordered. Old
prayers over water explicitly send lurking demons packing. But the meaning is
also in the action: the officiant exorcises the water of baptism by dividing it
in the form of a cross. The cross of Christ enthrones human being, freely
returning life to the source of life, freely choosing to live by the
indestructible life of God.
Water from the side of Christ becomes the life-sustaining water of the
apocalypse, flowing from the throne of God. Older ceremonies continue to sign
the water with three crosses, to divide it and sprinkle it
east-west-north-south to revive all four corners of the earth. Some rites still
three-times plunge in the paschal candle, blow a psi for
psyche, for life, for Spirit - to restore fertility to baptismal
waters about to bring forth new life.
The cosmic framework is in place. The awaited moment has come. We descend
into the water, not to rinse off or to freshen up, but to die. Our perverse
desire for self-sustained and independent living is no surface blemish. It has
penetrated to organise our selves at their very core.
Baptismal waters must dissolve our deep structures, to allow the stuff of
our lives to be recreated, recentred. We descend into the water for a radical
makeover: to die to sin and to rise in Christ.
Canon Marilyn McCord Adams is Regius Professor of Divinity at the
University of Oxford.