The Liturgy is always full of signs and symbols, but especially tonight. I’d like to take three: a ring with a dragon, night, and water.
When an abbot is blessed or a bishop ordained he receives a ring. It is the sign of his marriage-like bond with his community or diocese. It’s far more precious to him than a mitre or a crozier. But on Good Friday he takes it off. He doesn’t wear it. That’s because, in Jesus’ words, ‘the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away.’ ‘He was torn away from the land of the living’, and went down to the realm of the dead. So only now at this Vigil does the ring go back on. Because, as we heard at the beginning, ‘on this most sacred night…our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life.’ Because ‘this is the night, as our deacon sang, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld’. This is the night the Bridegroom returns and we run to meet him with lamps lit.
But let me make this a little more personal, if I may. As an abbot I had a ring, and when I became a bishop I didn’t do anything to get a new one – the reason being my fondness for the one I already have. On it is the medieval seal of my monastery, Pluscarden. It shows Christ standing erect, holding his cross, coming out between the jaws of a dragon, symbol of the underworld. Holding on to him is Adam, and holding on to Adam is Eve. Christ is leading our first parents, leading therefore all of us, out of the power of death. Who’d want another ring after that? This is the image the Anglo-Saxons called the ‘Harrowing of Hell’. It’s found again and again in Christian art and iconography, in literature and preaching. It’s powerful stuff. A Benedictine friend reflecting on this has written: ‘As [Christ] rises, grasping us like Adam by the wrist, he wrenches us out of the maw of the abyss and raises us with him to new life and a living future. I can think of no more positive image of hope and redemption in the whole of Christian tradition.’ Neither can I! And it is the real matter of tonight: Jesus rescuing us from draconian death. ‘Fear not’, says Jesus to us tonight, ‘I am the first and the last and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades’ (Rev 1:17-18). My love is stronger than death.
Then there’s night. The Church insists that this Vigil only begin after the light of Saturday has gone and before the light of Sunday rises. And the Liturgy sings: ‘O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!… O…night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and things divine to the human.’
Night can be a symbol of all that’s dark in our lives, all that’s dark in human history, all that we dread. It’s at night usually that the worst things happen. It’s a symbol of death. Yet it’s a pattern of God’s to begin his work at night. ‘Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water.’ This was the primal night from which the beauty, variety, order of creation sprang. And it’s read as a prophecy of another night, and another creation, a new creation, and another great cry of ‘Let there be Light’ – the light who is Christ, risen from the dead. This is the light that can enter all the dark nights of history and give us hope. Again, it was night when the Lord drove back the sea with a strong easterly wind, and Israel went through dry-shod, looking back in the morning to see the drowned Egyptians dead on the shore. So it was night when the Lord created his chosen people. But this is prophecy too – ‘for what you once bestowed on a single people freeing them from Pharaoh’s persecution…now you bring about as the salvation of the nations through the waters of rebirth.’ And here we come to the deepest mystery. God himself has gone into the night – the night of our suffering and death. In Christ he has taken it into himself. This was powerfully put centuries ago by a bishop, Melito: ‘This [Christ] is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: This is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonoured in the prophets.’ Oh, how we could add to that list! This is the one abused in the abused, refugee in the refugees, killed in the killing-fields, deprived of life even in the dark of the womb that must have seemed so safe. ‘This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent… This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night.’ And then went down among the dead. ‘This Christ is one who shares our lot and consents to be in our place, even at its most dark. He teaches us the need for acceptance and passivity, for waiting’ (Gregory Collins). He dies the death of all of us. He goes into the night we will all go into. And in that death, that night, he sows the seed, lights the candle, of resurrection. ‘It is he who, by his crucifixion, has changed the sunset into sunrise, death into life,’ said Clement of Alexandria. ‘This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.’ And so our Gospel tonight began: ‘And very early in the morning on the first day of the week [the women] went to the tomb, just as the sun was rising.’ ‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified; he has risen; he is not here.’ It was in the night that he rose, unseen by anyone. It was at night that the new creation, begun in his glorified body, came to be. It was at night that the true exodus, from this world to the Father, happened. And this is the night, ‘that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.’ So we need never ultimately fear any of the nights that may come over us, because in and beyond them shines ‘the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity.’
And so to water. This is the water that will be blessed in a moment with a very beautiful prayer. It’s the water in which Mark Beck will be baptised. It’s the water we’ll be sprinkled with when all of us renew our baptismal promises. And like the ring with the dragon, like the night, the water too takes us to heart of ‘this most sacred night’ and the passing of the Lord ‘from death to life.’ It takes us to the heart of our faith. To be baptized literally means to die by drowning. Water is a wonderful thing. It’s the source of all life. But it can flood, it can become a tsunami, it can drown, it can kill. It can be a symbol of all that threatens. ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck.’ ‘I have a baptism with which I am to be baptised, said Jesus, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished.’ He was talking of his death. But – here again – Jesus has turned things round. At the blessing of the water, the priest plunges the Paschal Candle into it three times. Christ takes possession of it. And so the death this water brings is now the death of sin, and the life it brings eternal life, the life of the risen One. ‘When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death; in other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory we too might live in newness of life.’ When we have been baptised, when we have died to sin, when we have allowed this life-giving water into our lives, then no other water, nothing else that threatens us, not even our physical dying, can ultimately drown us. It may rise to our neck, but it need never wash us away. We’ve been washed away already. We’ve already died in Christ. Our sins have been forgiven. We’ve died to what is really deadly. We’re beyond the reach of death. We are ‘alive for God in Christ Jesus.’ The dragon’s jaws can never close over us again, and in every night the morning of the resurrection is waiting.
So let us renounce, repent of, sin once and for all, and not go back to it. Let us reject Satan once and for all. Let faith and love become the reason of our lives. And so let us await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.