The Easter Vigil, the summit of the Triduum, the greatest and most noble of all solemnities, begins in the darkness and desolation of the tomb; the darkness in our world, the darkness in our hearts. In that primordial darkness we linger in watchful wakefulness awaiting in hope the shattering of the uncomprehending darkness by the Morning Star.
In the Resurrection, Jesus vanquishes the darkness, which may obscure but never engulf the Light of Christ which seeks out the darkest corners of our world and our hearts, to quench the flames of despair and hopelessness.
This is what we celebrate at the Great Easter Vigil, the reemergence of the unconquerable Light of Christ symbolized by the new fire from which the Paschal or Easter Candle is lit. The Light of Christ is not quiescent but animated by the Holy Spirit to not only scatter the darkness but to spread the light.
Slowly the darkness of the church surrenders to the Light as the flame from the new fire is spread. The Paschal Candle is placed in its stand and the Exsultet or Easter proclamation is sung. Dating back to about the fifth century this beautiful hymn invites us to “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad knowing an end to gloom and darkness.”
It is well to keep in mind that for more than a millennia this hymn was sung in a world lit only by fire. The dichotomy between light and darkness was a much more profound reality than it is in our day when darkness can be dispelled by the flip of a switch. Thus the hymn includes the gift of the bees from whose wax “a torch so precious” is fashioned.
While the Exsultet traces the history of salvation, it is centered upon God’s unshadowed light that “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”
Finally, in an allusion to our watchful waiting in primordial darkness, the hymn prays that “this flame may be found still burning by the Morning Star; the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your son.”
More ancient than the Exsultet is the Baptismal Liturgy that may be traced to sub-apostolic times. Once again we return to the light and darkness dichotomy. The east was associated with the Resurrection and the Second Coming. St. John of Damascus taught, “We adore him facing east, for that is the tradition passed down from the Apostles.” Those to be baptized would face west and renounce the darkness, then turn to Christ in the dawning light in the east.
After their baptism and anointing the newly baptized would join the community for the Easter Vigil.
Today, at Easter Vigil services in their parishes, baptismal rites are essentially the same. In the Diocese of Dallas in 2016 more than 2,300 adults and children will turn to Christ and be received into the Church through baptism or profession of faith.
St. Paul wrote, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6: 3-4). These new Catholics look east awaiting Him whose Resurrection they shared in baptism. We welcome them.
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