Homily for the Easter Vigil

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

That’s the famous question that the youngest member of a Jewish family asks at the Passover meal. Four times. And the question isn’t just said; it’s sung.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This year the Jewish and Christian calendars come very close, and the Jews ate their Passover meal last night. So round the world Jewish children, last night, Friday night, were singing that very question. And now it’s our turn. Now it’s our Passover.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

Can’t we hear our catechumens and confirmandi with this question like a song in their hearts?

Why do we keep this Vigil at night? Why all the interplay of darkness and light? Why a Paschal (Passover) candle? Why all these readings, beginning from the very beginning when there was darkness over the face of the deep? Why is our 40-day fast from Alleluia broken tonight?

We’ll get there in a minute. But what’s the Jewish answer, first of all? This night is different because it’s the night God freed their ancestors, led them out of slavery in Egypt, Exodus night. It’s the night the avenging Angel, punishing the Egyptians, passed over the Hebrew houses seeing the blood of the Lamb on the doorposts. It’s the night Israel began her journey, leaving Egypt, passing out and on, soon to pass over the Red Sea, forty years later to pass over the Jordan into the Promised Land, there – first thing they did – to keep the Passover. It’s a great answer, a great story. It resonates. ‘Let my people go!’ You can hear Paul Robeson singing it! Think of our refugees and migrants, think of the people desperate to pass over the Mediterranean. The Exodus story is not just remembrance; it’s a stimulus. It’s not just a recollection; it has created history. In the Jewish mind, it’s the key to their past and their future. It looks back, it looks forward. One ancient text looks forward to a night of the Messiah, who will set them finally and fully free. Those answers resonate with us surely.

“Why – for us, then – is this night different from all other nights?” It’s the night the Lord passes over our sins, because of the blood – the loving sacrifice – of our true Lamb. It’s the night the power of Pharaoh Satan loses its grip. It’s the night catechumens pass through the Red Sea of baptism, following Christ the Moses. It’s the night we taste the good things of the Promised Land. What would the Israelites after forty years of desert life have been longing for? Running water, green growth, olive trees and vines, wheat and barley, sheep and cattle for clothing, milk and meat – all to be offered to God. Well, here is the water of baptism, the oil of confirmation, the milk of sound teaching, the holy bread and precious wine of the Eucharist, the flesh of the Lamb, the clothing of grace, the greenery of faith, hope and love. This is the night the Church gives birth from the womb of the font, becomes a mother, a Mary giving birth to Christ in us. It’s the night when catechumens and confirmandi experience all this. It’s the night we old-timers re-coup it, as it were, refresh it, renew our baptismal faith, and are strengthened to continue our Exodus – until, together in Christ, we all pass from this world to the house of the Father, the heavenly Jerusalem.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This year the feast of Passover falls exactly as it falls in the Gospel of John. According to him, Jesus, the Lamb of God, died on Passover Eve, a Friday that year like this. He died at the moment the lambs for the family meal were being sacrificed in the Temple and their blood gathered up. So the Passover meal would have been eaten that Friday night, the Sabbath Eve. What kind of night, straight after the crucifixion, must that have been for Mary, Peter, the beloved disciple, for Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome? Different from all other nights. A dark night, if ever there was. A night of tears and loss, loss of a son and a brother and a teacher and a friend. A Passover of grief. Then came the pause, the Sabbath, the rest, the interlude, Mary quietly reassuring them. Then another night – Saturday night. The night of the true Passover, which would turn into day with words from an empty tomb, ‘He has risen.’

So, here’s finally why this night is different. Because on it, “our Lord Jesus Christ passed over – he! – from death to life”. Because in the depth of this night, unseen by anyone, unheard, silently, secretly, the Father woke the crucified body of his Son to a new glorified life, where death has no dominion. Because tonight Jesus broke out, accomplished an exodus, into a new creation, one no longer under the law of dying and becoming, a world with a new possibility of human existence: Easter-life. Tonight, “he has destroyed the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations” (Isaiah 25:7), leaving them behind in an empty tomb. He didn’t do this as a solitary hero or receive it as a personal award. He did it for us. He did it as Messiah, carrying us, including us. Tonight is different from all other nights because now Jesus “is”, not “was”. Now he’s Master of time and space and everything in them. And we have a new horizon, a new hope beyond all losses and griefs, a hope of the resurrection of the flesh and life everlasting. Amen.

Why is this night so different? Dear Taz, Sue, Matt, Greg and Maria, may you, may we all, spend the rest of our lives answering this question, becoming an answer!

Lord Jesus, risen from the dead, answer it for us now!

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 31 March 2018)


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