Tonight’s the night. It is in a special way the night for Lauren Robertson who is to be baptised. It’s the night for Chisomje and Lyndsey being received into the Church. It’s the night for our seven others who will then be confirmed with them (whose names we’ll hear then!). Tonight’s the night for all of us, of course: for believers throughout the world, even if they can’t come together. Happily, this year, the Easter of Eastern Christians coincides with ours. This swells the ranks. How good, in the midst of so much that’s dividing, to be together. And it’s our night and our candidates’ night because – as we’ve heard – it’s the night ‘when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld’, a ‘night of grace’, a ‘truly blessed night’, a night ‘with sanctifying power’. God seems to like acting at night. There’s the night of creation, darkness over the face of the earth. There’s the night of Passover and Exodus. There’s Christmas night. And as a climax to it all, it was at night, before the dawn, unseen by any human eye, that Christ rose from the dead. And so we gather for this vigil at night, knowing he is risen, he is here and will return: Alpha and Omega.
My predecessor as abbot of Pluscarden didn’t like preaching. And he had a famous line for getting out of it. ‘Today,’ he’d say, ‘the Liturgy preaches its own sermon.’ That’s true really. And it’s especially true tonight. What a Liturgy it is! So, let’s try and hear its homily.
We began with the Paschal candle. It’s lit from a fire as Christ was raised from the dead by the fiery power of the Holy Spirit. It’s carried into the darkened church, and our candles are lit from it. ‘Lumen Christi’, sings the deacon. It’s placed on the candlestand and incensed. Then the cantor sings the Proclamation of Easter: a beautiful, symbolic evocation of the Resurrection, of the continuing presence of Christ in the world. Christ died once and rose once. But, as a French writer famously said, ‘Christ is in agony till the end of the world.’ He’s in agony in all those persecuted for the cause of right, in the sufferings of innocent children, of the wartorn and hungry, the sick and the dying. Christ’s Passion continues. It’s shared by others. But his Resurrection, too, goes on in the world. Every return to hope after despair, or to faith after doubt, or to love after anger or hate: that’s a Resurrection. Every baptism is a Resurrection. With every fruitful reception of a Sacrament, the life of the risen Christ flowers in us. ‘Rise heart: thy Lord is risen’ (George Herbert). All this is in our opening Liturgy of Light. ‘Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages.’ And so 2017 is inscribed on the candle. Christ risen, Christ the Lord of all the ages, carries this year too. He’s the Lord of this year, of my year, my time. ‘Do not be afraid!’
This raises a question: how is the risen Lord present through all time and all the ages? How’s he present to me, here and now? In two ways: through word and sacrament. Our liturgy preaches its own sermon. The candle has evoked his presence and now there follow the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the sacraments.
So first the readings: seven from the Old Testament, two from the new, interwoven with psalms and prayers. Reader after reader, psalmist after psalmist, comes up (I wish I could name them all). So God speaks to us and we speak to him. Last comes the Easter Gospel, with the angel telling the women, ‘He is not here – not among the dead. He has risen, as he said.’ In the liturgy of the word, the Word becomes flesh again, in a way. He becomes human words: in Scripture, in our prayer, in the teaching of the Church. Individual members of the Church, clergy included, may do silly or worse than silly things, or say silly or worse than silly things, but the candle of Christ can’t be blown out. The plot can’t be lost. The Gospel can’t crash. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overpower it’ (John 1). This is what we mean by the infallibility of the Church. It’s the risen Christ sustaining his truth through the centuries. It’s the unimpaired memory of what God has done, is doing and will do, and our part within it. It’s the power of the Resurrection in the realm of truth. It’s Christ still doing what he did in Galilee: teaching, preaching, telling stories, inventing parables, calling disciples, proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Then come the Sacraments, three of them tonight, the foundational, initiating trio: baptism, confirmation, and supremely the holy Eucharist. The candle symbolises the risen Christ, the Gospel proclaims him, the Eucharist is him. And just as the Gospel can’t go under, so neither can sacramental grace. The Sacraments are the power of the risen Christ in the realm of goodness. They’re Christ still doing what he did in Galilee: driving out demons, forgiving sins, healing, multiplying the bread and the fish, setting people back on the road of life. Power went out of him, people noticed, and the power still does. It’s he who baptises, forgiving sins, making us children of God. It’s he who anoints us with the Holy Spirit and his gifts. It’s he who feeds us with his Body and Blood. What he did for a limited time, in one small corner of the world, he does now wherever his Church is. Where two or three are gathered in his name: in Aberdeen, in Abuja, in Lusaka or Buenos Aires, there he is. The candle that can’t be blown out. The light stronger than darkness. The life death’s too small to hold.
Yes, Christ is risen! He is truly risen! He is among us. He’s with us in word and sacrament. So, we can say to ourselves: ‘Rise heart. Thy Lord is risen!’
But isn’t there one thing more? Something else going on in and through all this. It’s at night, isn’t it, that lovers come together? And it’s because of such nights, presumably, that most of us here were conceived. Of this night too, it’s said: ‘O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.’ That’s what’s finally happening tonight. A marital, nuptial mystery. Through word and sacrament, Christ is united with his Church, his Bride. He becomes one body, one spirit with her, with us. He gives her his life. He gives her his Father and his Holy Spirit. He gives her children past counting. He gives her his Resurrection. ‘Unhappy creature, storm-tossed, disconsolate’: thanks to this night, you will never be alone again. Humanly, we may be single or separated or divorced or married, or just lost. Divinely, we are wed. Indissolubly. We are held. We are cherished. We belong to someone else. We have died to sin and we have life. This night is more than a homily. It’s the marriage feast of the Lamb. It’s heaven begun.
(St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 15 / 16 April 2017)