Below is the text of the homily Archbishop J. Peter Sartain delivered at the Easter Vigil Mass April 20 at St. James Cathedral in Seattle:
Sisters and brothers, this is the only liturgy in the entire year that must be celebrated entirely at night. It’s not that darkness provides a dramatic, solemn atmosphere. We could create such an atmosphere in the middle of the day.
No, our liturgical guidelines indicate that this “Easter Vigil in the Holy Night” must take place entirely at night and finish before daybreak for a reason that we might not ponder very often: Christ rose from the dead during the night.
St. Luke’s account of Christ’s resurrection makes this very clear. He tells us that the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee went to his tomb “at daybreak” with spices they had prepared for his body and found that his body was not there. The angels reminded them that Jesus had told them he would be handed over to sinners and be crucified and rise on the third day. As the angels put it, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised.” By the time morning broke, Jesus had already been raised from the dead.
The beautiful poem called the “Exsultet” which Father Ryan sang early in the liturgy dates back as far as the sixth century. And so for 15 centuries, every Holy Saturday night, Christians have been exclaiming this striking line which describes why tonight is so important: “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!”
Have you ever thought about that? Jesus rose from the dead at night, at an hour known only to the night, a secret kept by the Lord and by this holy night even to the moment now when we are gathered in St. James Cathedral.
The darkness of any night holds great significance for us, and sometimes that significance is palpable, very real, and very frightening. What child doesn’t fear the night? Who among us does not take extra precautions at night? Who among us has not had life experiences that we could only describe as “darkness” and “night”? We grope for a footing at night, our eyes have to adjust to darkness to see even a shadowy glimmer of our surroundings. Darkness can awaken our deepest fears, the anxieties that keep us awake and disturb our peace. At night, in the darkness, we can feel totally alone and even abandoned.
The Bible reminds us, again and again, that the greatest darkness of all is sin, that experience of having chosen to lose our way in life, figuratively and literally. Tonight we’ve heard many Scripture readings that have given us intimations of God’s love and of our turning away from that love when we sinned. Powerful throughout those readings were the glimmers of light, the whispers of his presence, the shouts of his love that God has given from the moment he created the heavens and the earth. Throughout earth’s millennia, from Adam and Eve, there have been God’s light and the darkness of our choosing sin. And as we heard, there has always been the hope God has extended to every man and woman, in every generation, because he has never abandoned us, even when we chose to abandon him.
We hear many powerful images tonight. The Book of Exodus, for example, tells us that as the Israelites journeyed through the desert, God provided them a “pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” And why? So that even in the darkness they could see where he was leading them.
Remember that this liturgy began with the blessing of an immense fire and the lighting of a huge candle — and we were all led into the cathedral literally by that pillar of fire. And then Father Ryan sang these beautiful lines: “This is the night [when] a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.” The true Pillar of Fire, the true Light, is Jesus, who by his death and resurrection banished the darkness, the sin, the fear, the abandonment, the anxiety, the amnesia, the confusion, and the very power of night. He has banished the darkness of death itself.
And even more, Jesus banished the power of darkness in all its forms by mercy, humility, forgiveness, peace, direction, hope, truth, and new life. The Exsultet proclaims that Jesus dispels the darkness with “his lightning” and makes it “dazzling” so that we will see in him the very way we are all meant to live.
And thus, in the literal darkness of this Holy Saturday night, the Church reminds us that Christ rose from the dead in the middle of the night. He had traveled the distance that sin had taken us from life in God — all the way to death — in order to retrieve us, ransom us, embrace us, and bring us back to life, life as our Heavenly Father has always intended us to live it. The Lord Jesus is not afraid of darkness, nor is he repulsed by the darkness of our sin. When we turned away, he ran after us. When we sinned, he took upon himself the guilt of us all, so that we could be free.
One of the great saints of our tradition, St. John of the Cross, was very familiar with darkness in all its forms and fears. He was even imprisoned, and it was there that he experienced the darkness of abandonment, like the Lord on the cross. Dragged to the limit of his personal resources, he cried out to God, “Where have you hidden?” But gradually he began to experience the presence of Christ in his very imprisonment.
One of the ways John of the Cross described this emerging awareness of Christ has always appealed to me. He wrote that it’s like when we enter a dark room and sit for a few moments by ourselves, only to realize after a time that there is someone with us, someone who arrived before us and has been there all along, someone we perceive at first only in silhouette but who becomes increasingly clearer to us. He described the experience as discovering a companion who walks with us and gives us strength, a loving companion who emerges in our darkness.
My sisters and brothers, if you feel yourself to be in darkness tonight, this is the night to let Jesus enter. He will do so gladly, lovingly, mercifully, peacefully. After all, he rose from the dead in the dead of night!
Over many months and years, our candidates for baptism and reception into the Church have let Jesus in. Having sensed that he was calling them closer, that in fact he had drawn close to them, they let him into their darkness — into their night — and he has changed them. In a few moments, they will be totally transformed and given the freedom of baptism and the fire of confirmation and the glorious food of the Lord’s own body and blood for the first time.
And all of us, who took our lights tonight from the great Pillar of Fire, are sent out from this cathedral to let Christ shine through us to others everywhere, so that they will come to know him, too, whatever their night is like, whatever their darkness. Christ is risen from the dead! And so are we, in him.