Peter ‘then went back home, amazed at what had happened’ (Lk 24:12) – the last phrase of the Gospel we’ve just heard. There is a lot happening here tonight, and a lot to amaze us before we go home.
This is the night of nights. Twelve times in the Easter Proclamation, we heard the word ‘night’. ‘This is the night’ – a night ‘as bright as day’, a ‘night of grace’, a night ‘of sanctifying power’, a ‘dazzling night’.
In the Church of the first two or three hundred years after Christ there was no Lent, no Holy Week, no Maundy Thursday, no Good Friday, no Advent or Christmas either. Every week there was the Sunday gathering, and once a year this Vigil. That was all. The Vigil, as with us, was normally kept on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It lasted all night. It began when darkness fell on Saturday evening and ended with first light on Sunday. And on this night, everything was celebrated. It was Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the Ascension, Pentecost rolled into one. It looked back to creation, it recalled the history of Israel, it looked forward to the coming of Christ. It was the night when people were baptised and anointed with the Holy Spirit. And its climax was the holy Eucharist celebrated as dawn was breaking.
The whole of the Christian thing, all our faith and hope, was poured into this night.
Now, of course, we have a full liturgical year. We have a succession of feasts through the year, like pearls on a necklace. But what was true of this ‘most sacred night’ those centuries ago is still true now. It’s not just one in a series. It’s the ‘truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.’ It has got everything. It’s the night of nights.
Don’t we feel it, hear it, see it? There’s darkness and light, silence and sound, speaking and singing, voices and instruments, poetry and prose. There is colour and incense, beeswax and flowers, the wood, glass and stone of this church, water and oil, bread and wine. There’s all that was recalled in the Easter Proclamation. There’s the whole history and faith of Israel captured in seven readings, beginning with the seven days of creation. There’ll be more still in the great prayer for blessing the baptismal water, more again in the prayer that transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The saints will be invoked in the Litany, and the Glory to God in the highest and the Holy, holy, holy are hymns that begin from the angels. And there’s us: Scots, Irish, English, Welsh, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Americans, Australasians – microcosm of the universal Church here in Aberdeen. And each of us with others in our hearts, known and unknown: others we wish were here, others passed away, others still to be, our children’s children. Here in this place, we’re in communion with the Church throughout the world, with Pope Francis celebrating his first Easter as successor of Peter. We are more than just ourselves. We’re representatives of others. We carry one another. We’re a part full of the whole. So many faces, names, stories, sadnesses, joys. They are all here. There is nothing God makes that isn’t here. Nothing past, present or future. All here.
And why? Because he is here, Christ. Because this is ‘the most sacred night on which our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life.’ Because Peter, in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, ran to a tomb and found it empty. He is here, the Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised to life on the third day, taken up into heaven, pouring out the Holy Spirit, waiting for the moment chosen by the Father to come again. There is nothing of him that isn’t here – except his visible manifestation to our senses. He’s here. He’s acclaimed in the candle, he’s proclaimed in the readings. He’s even present in us, your servants: bishop, priests and deacon. Through us he will baptise and confirm. He will transform the bread and wine into his glorified Body and Blood, his resurrected Self. He’ll come to us in Holy Communion. He is in you, his Body, his beloved Bride, praying in you. Yes, he is here. He has risen. ‘And Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no more power over him anymore. When he died, he died, once for all to sin, so his life now is life with God.’ And so, St Paul says, ‘you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive for God in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6:3-4).
No wonder Peter, with all this beginning to dawn on him, went home amazed.
Here too, at the heart of this night, are those about to baptised and confirmed. This is where it becomes quite complex, and where even our dependable deacon and experienced MC would welcome your prayers! There are five to be baptised tonight, becoming Christians. Then there are three already Christian, to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. All eight will then be confirmed, and with them four adult Catholics who have not yet received that sacrament. Twelve in all. There’ll be a movement down to the font for the baptisms, then a return to the sanctuary for the receptions and confirmations. And then all together, candles in our hands, we’ll all renew our baptismal vows. Much to see and listen to, much to sing, much to pray! Much to take part in.
On these twelve, then, and most especially on our five being baptised, there is shining that ‘peaceful light’ of Christ ‘come back from death’s domain’, Christ the Morning Star. The spotlight of grace is falling on them. And how much we salute them! How warmly we welcome them! It is always good to be a Catholic Christian, but it is never easy. It isn’t easy now. It takes guts. How grateful we are for their courage and commitment! And how grateful to all who have prepared them and accompanied them: their catechists, sponsors and godparents!
Here we’re at the heart of this night. Here are the most amazing of tonight’s amazing things.
During the Jewish Passover meal, a child asks, ‘why is this night different from every other night?’
Tonight, at our Passover, with our five Elect, we can ask, what difference does believing, being baptised, being a Christian make?
We go back to St Paul: ‘When we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death;…when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life’ (Rom 6:3-4).
That’s why it’s so good to be baptised tonight, ‘on this most sacred night, when Our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life.’ When we’re baptized, we pass over with Christ. As St Paul says elsewhere, we are ‘rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (Col 1:13-14).
We go under the water and we come up from it, and our lives are turned around. They’re no longer heading for the dark and death; they turned to the light of everlasting life. They’re no longer a trickle that will run into the ground; they’re a river flowing into the limitless ocean of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We imitate Christ’s death, we die to sin, and his Resurrection begins its work in our lives. It begins in the faith, hope and love of the children of God.
We’re clothed, ready for the Eucharistic meal, dressed for the banquet hall of heaven.
We have a light in our hands, the flame of faith, to find our way through life.
We are named. In the Kingdom of God, no one is nameless or faceless, a cipher or thing. Tonight God writes five new names on the palm of his hand and in the book of life. And with a name goes a vocation, a purpose, a contribution to make.
Then the four to be received join the song. The grace of Baptism brings into the Church, into the Body of Christ. We’re no longer alone. We’re part of a whole, which runs through time, and joins heaven and earth.
Then on all twelve the Holy Spirit will fall – energising and inflaming, sealing and confirming, commissioning and sending out.
And in the holy Eucharist all of this will reach its consummation. We exercise our baptismal priesthood offering the sacrifice with the priest. We receive Christ’s Body. We become what we receive. We’re completely his.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
We’ll all go to our separate homes tonight, and the church will be locked till tomorrow morning. I come to the Vigil and go home. I renew my baptismal promises, and go home. I go under the water and come up, and I’m still me. In a sense, nothing changes. If I had a headache when I came in, I’ll probably have one when I go out. But in a deeper way, everything changes. Jesus rose from the dead. He was the same, the same face, the same hands, even with the wounds of crucifixion still on him. But everything was changed. He was beyond death, he was wholly in God. It’s something the same with us – thanks to this night. We’re not where we were. We’re in a new place. It’s no longer the place of sin and death. Everything in us, character and temperament, memories and hopes, body and soul, our past and our present, is now in him. Everything, all the little dyings and risings of daily life, now in him – relocated in him, rearranged around him. Everything graced. We in him and he in us. In the house of ourselves, the idols have gone. There’s now a candle burning, the paschal candle, the risen Christ. Everything is transfigured by the One who has passed from death to life.
‘Amazed at what had happened’, Peter went home. He went home in the early dawn as the Resurrection dawned on him.
Christ our Light, come to us, shine on us, shine on those to be baptised and received and confirmed! Shine on Mary, Sergy, Wei Lynn, Jean Bruno, Charley, Marta, Elizabeth, Natalia, Hannah, Ikenna, Erin and Laura! Shine on them, shine on us, as you shone on Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James, and on Peter and Paul! Shine on us, this Year of Faith! Shine on your Church, and shine through her, through us, on everyone we meet!