Homily for the Easter Vigil

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus once cried out, ‘I have a baptism to be baptised with and how constrained I am until it is complete’ (Lk 12:50).  And, further on, he asked James and John, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ (Mt 20:22).

Tonight, Zoe and Robyn will be reborn through baptism and for the first time drink the cup of the Precious Blood. And all of us will renew our baptismal promises.

But first Jesus had a baptism to undergo and a cup to drink. These were his images for what lay ahead of him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the cup filled his prayer: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, let your will, not mine, be done’ (Lk 22:42).And when, a little later, Peter wants to fight off those arresting Jesus, the Lord says, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?’ (Jn 18:11). To be baptised is to be immersed, to go under; it can mean to be drowned. To drink a liquid is to have it course through our whole body, to feel it and be filled with it. In his Passion, Jesus went under. He endured another Noah’s flood of destruction. He was another Jonah thrown overboard. One of the Psalms he prayed was Ps 68, ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck. I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold. I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me’ (Ps 68:1-3). Or Ps 87: ‘Your anger weighs down upon me; I am drowned beneath your waves…Your fury has swept down upon me; your terrors have utterly destroyed me. They surround me all the day like a flood’ (Ps 87:8, 17-18). This was the baptism he underwent. And it wasn’t just physical pain, which, in a way, remains external. It was inside as well. It was a cup he had to drink. Jesus freely imbibed, ingested the dirty water of humanity. He drank the vinegar, the soured wine. People who went through the floods of this last winter will tell you how plain scary even that was. Or think of the image of a pallid Alexander Litvinenko dying in hospital after drinking a cup of coffee poisoned with polonium-210. Forgive me mentioning such things on this beautiful occasion, but these are the images Jesus used. They point to an experience of the power of darkness, of human and demonic evil, beyond our grasp. They are the horror and ugliness that have made the beauty possible. By the wonder of Easter, by the power of this most holy night, they have become the occasion of unconquerable joy. Christ was saved from the waves, raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father, and so we too can walk in newness of life. Such was his inner freedom, such the innocence of the Lamb of God, such his loving obedience to the Father, such the power of alchemy in his heart, such the immune system of his divinity, that he could neutralise, metabolise, transubstantiate all the evil poured over as a baptism and into him as a drink and change it into a torrent of goodness to us. ‘He committed no sin’, says St Peter, ‘no guilt was found on his lips, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’ (1 Pet 2:22-24). Indeed, to another image, he was tree-like. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide and gives out oxygen, more than a hundredfold. And so, far more, does he, the Tree of Life. Tonight occurs the great reversal. Sin is turned into forgiveness. Aggression into peace. Hostility into friendship. Bitter water into sweet. The chalice of wrath into the ‘cup of consolation’ (Jer 16:7). Into his freshly dead body goes the soldier’s lance: a last gratuitous gesture of violence. And the response isn’t vengeance or retaliation, but the blood of forgiveness and the water of the Holy Spirit. ‘If anyone thirst, let him come to me, let him drink, whoever believes in me’ (Jn 7:37-8). Out of him comes the flowing water of baptism and the living blood of our chalices. Out of the One drowned come ‘the waters of a river that give joy to God’s city’ (Ps 45:5) and into our hands is pressed the chalice of salvation that gives joy to the heart. ‘I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your defilement and all your idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you’ (Ezekiel, 7th reading). ‘So come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money come!’ (Isaiah, 5th reading).

Yes, Christ had a baptism to undergo and a cup to drink, his Passion and death. And now, through his Resurrection, through the Sacraments of Initiation, we have a horizon of joy and life. There is a promise of springs of living water and a ‘feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined’ (Is 25:6). We have our heavenly home before us, the Father’s house, and the first-fruits of the Spirit within us. We have one another; we have the Church and her sacraments, the fellowship of Mary and the saints. Of course, we are still in the world, and experiences can come, and do, that overwhelm us or threaten to turn us sour within. This is true individually. It’s true for families and communities, countries and cultures. But the power of this holy night, the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, the chemistry of his humble love, the alchemy of his heart is always there. It’s always greater. There are alternatives to resentment. Even our suffering can be redemptive. Even now, we are the body of the victorious Christ, and ‘in the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jew and Greek, slave and free, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink’ (1 Cor 12:13). The great reversal.

We can be shockingly forgetful of and ungrateful for all this. And this is why, Zoe and Robyn, we’re grateful to you tonight. ‘O Lumen Christi, leading all things home’ says a poet. God has touched you and led you, and you are flesh and blood reminders of his gifts and what the Paschal mystery means. And the prayer of this congregation for you tonight, of the whole Church, is that the light of this night fill every one of your days, however dark they may sometimes turn. Our prayer is that you will be green trees beside the flowing waters, growing holy in the Church, turning the world’s pollutions into oxygen, yielding merciful fruit in due season and sprouting healing leaves for those around you.

So, come to the waters!   ‘Come, flesh redeemed, with chrism of joy anointed, / The children of the Spirit and the Bride, / God’s breathing icons:. side by side, / Enter the paradise for you appointed…O Lumen Christi, leading all things home’ (J. McAuley, Nuptial Hymn).


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
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