Tonight we are at the heart of our Triduum, our Passover. And how full tonight’s liturgy is with passings, transitions! With the entry of the Paschal candle and the lighting of ours, the church passed from darkness to light. The readings passed from the Old Testament to the New. In the Gospel, it’s as night is turning to dawn that the women go to the tomb. And there they hear that the one they thought dead has passed to new life. And they’re given the mission to pass the news on to the disciples, and tell them to depart for Galilee. From St Paul, too, we heard that “when we are baptised, we go into the tomb with him and join him in death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father we too might walk in newness of life.” Everywhere movement. Creation comes into being, Abraham is multiplied, Israel makes its exodus, there’s the promise of Exile being reversed, and promises pass to fulfilment. Everywhere Pascha, Pasch, Passover, passage, crossing, transitus, transition. All poured together into this “most sacred night”.
And in a moment, making it all realer for us here and now, Lucinda will be baptised and then with Pauline, Tom and Neil will be confirmed. The Church will be that little bit enlarged.
Earlier this year, I saw a painting by a 15th / 16th c Italian painter, Vittore Carpaccio. It was called Meditation on the Passion, but it was a conventional one. It showed the dead Christ sat on a ruined throne, tilting to one side. Either side of him is a figure, and behind him two contrasting landscapes, one rocky and barren, the other well-ordered, spring-like, fertile. It’s a mysterious painting, but it’s as if it catches Christ the moment before he’s raised and will open up a green and pleasant land for us. It suggests a transition.
Tonight it is this passage of Christ we remember and share. The world is full of transitioning these days: from fossil fuels to renewables, which is desirable; from one gender to another, which is ill-advised; from one political administration to another, and so on. Our personal lives, too, how full they are of passages and changes, small and great, some neither here nor there, morally indifferent, some negative, some positive. But something is always afoot. There’s always the sound of traffic, as it were, in our lives. We go from childhood to adulthood, from middle age to old age, from work to retirement, from health to sickness, or back again. It’s endless. We are so much beings in time. “In heaven it is otherwise, but here below, to live is to change”, said St John Henry Newman. But perhaps there’s a deeper reason too. We suffer from constant discontent. I was on a train recently, and heard a young woman say to her friends, “I always want to be what I am not.” What high philosophy, I thought. She was actually talking about the colour of her hair. But it is philosophy. It’s humanity. Isn’t a dog 200% content with its dogginess? Animals are always “in their skin”, as the French say. But not the human animal. We are almost always out of sorts with things, dislocated, discontent. We really can imagine something other than what we have and are, and not just in relation to our hair. It’s a sign of the scope of our desires. It is, as it’s often been called, a “divine discontent”. We don’t fit with the world in the way other animals do. And, therefore, we change. We’re constantly in passage. And tonight at the heart of all the Passovers the liturgy suggests, beyond all the changes in our lives, we’re shown the real and true transition: that of our Lord. He himself makes the great Passage. Indeed, he is the Passover. And his measures and judges and sanctifies and undergirds and soars above all the others. His, He makes it possible for us to navigate all our changes wisely, to make them part of his. As St Augustine says, “let us pass over in the Passover of Christ lest we pass away with this passing world.” “On this most sacred night, we heard,…our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life”. And through the bonds of faith and sacrament, we can pass over with him, from sin to grace, from mediocrity to holiness. In the land the risen Christ unlocks for us, there are so many blessed transitions to make, from selfish lives to a generous life, from loneliness to relationship, separation to unity, indifference to love. St Paul, swept away by the prospect, even says this: “And we all…are being transformed into [his] image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).
Bishops and abbots wear rings. It’s a sign they’re wedded to the Church. And it’s the custom to take the ring off between the end of the Good Friday liturgy to the beginning of tonight’s – the Bridegroom has been taken away. My own ring is stamped with the medieval seal of Pluscarden Abbey. I’m very fond of it. Out of the opened jaws of dragon, symbol of the world of the dead, comes the risen Christ. He holds the staff of his Cross in one hand, and in the other hand holds Adam’s, while Adam with his free hand holds Eve’s. It’s a beautiful image. In Adam and Eve, it contains all humanity. It sums up redemption. It sums up this Vigil: Christ’s Passover and ours with him. “Who is this?” goes the question. The “great Shepherd” surely, “brought again from the dead” by “the God of peace” (Heb 13:20). “The Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity” (Easter Proclamation).
All hail, then, to Lucinda, Pauline, Neil and Tom who, however different their journeys and their futures, have all given in to God-given discontent, and so are here tonight. All hail to us who want to renew the promises of baptism “by which we once renounced Satan and his works and promised to serve God in the holy Catholic Church.” Yes, life still has its “slings and arrows”; spiritually too, we have setbacks, reverses, detours, distractions, delays, sometimes inexplicable difficulties, while our unredeemed selves put up their stubborn rear-guard actions. But the victory is won, the passage is opened, the Spirit wells up to eternal life. Presaged in the earthly Eucharist tonight, the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb, slain but standing, is beckoning us. And through it we can glimpse the goal of all transitions, Pascha aeternitatis, the Supper of everlasting life where we will be together with the Lord and one another, passed from death to life. Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 8 / 9 April 2023