How holy is this night,
when wickedness is put to flight,
and sin is washed away.
It restores innocence to the fallen,
and joy to those who mourn.
It casts out pride and hatred,
and brings peace and concord.
Jesus rose from the dead in the “dead of night” (sweet irony!). That’s why Mary Magdalene, arriving at the tomb “while it was still dark” (John 20:1), found the stone already rolled away. And so, Christians of the ancient church started their Easter service on Saturday night, and didn’t finish until the sun rose on Sunday.
Taking their bearings from ancient practice, Christians in the liturgical tradition recapture the wonder of what they call Great Saturday. In anticipation of the joy of Easter morning, they keep Vigil on Saturday night. During the Saturday night service, they light the Paschal Candle (which had been removed from the sanctuary before the Ash Wednesday service), read large blocks of Scripture that rehearse God’s redemptive plan, baptize new believers, reaffirm their own baptisms, and share a celebratory Eucharist. Some churches include “The Great Noise”: a very, very loud Easter acclamation involving church bells, organ, and informal noisemakers (“More cowbell!”).
This Lent, I have been memorizing and meditating on the “Exsultet,” the mid-1st millennium-chant that opens the Saturday night Easter Vigil service. I’ve found the chant exhilarating, because it reminds me of how many ways Christ’s death and resurrection impact us.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. The ancient church’s instinct was to take the Exodus as the central motif for Easter. Christ’s resurrection destroys our enemies – sin and Satan and death – in the same way the collapsing walls of water demolished Pharaoh’s army. Christ’s resurrection means we pass through judging waters on dry ground; and the waters close behind us, washing away all guilt and shame, all “consciousness of sin” (Heb 10:2).
It restores innocence to the fallen… Imagine three of the “fallen women” of Jesus’ ministry: the woman at the well in John 4, the woman who washes his feet in Luke 7, and Mary Magdalene (contrary to tradition, not necessarily a “working woman” – simply, according to Luke 8:2, possessed by seven demons; which to me, is “fallen” enough). No wonder that on Easter morning, the Magdalene wanted to embrace the One who had gone into Hell to silence those demons forever (John 20:17). Imagine how tangled were the relationships of the woman at the well (“you’ve had five men, and the man you have now is not your own”) – we’re spared the details. We don’t know how much got untangled in this life. We do know Jesus gave her boldness to go and bid her neighbors to come and consider Who he had shown himself to be to her. Like the woman of Luke 7, she has been forgiven much, and thus loves much (Luke 7:47). Part of the gift his resurrection secures is the restoration of purity.
All things new
… and joy to those who mourn. My 91-year old mother is increasingly senescent. There’s lots of “sundowning,” with weeping and regret. The sad thing is that it’s been a remarkable life – one of joy and service and fulfillment, and of faith in Christ and hope of resurrection. Her slow demise and recurrent unhappiness puts me in mind of so many traps of joylessness: bitter divorces, marital infidelity, wayward children, gossip’s fruit, schedule stress, substance abuse, church infighting. Jesus’ resurrection means gloom and sin and sorrow do not win – senescence is but temporary, bitterness will give way to dancing, and earth’s shackles will yield to a “new earth’s” freedom. There’s good news for my mom and for the rest of us: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Because Jesus rose and now reigns and will one day return, every tear will be washed away (Rev 21:4). The curse of the Garden’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil will be lifted (22:3; see Gen 3:17), and we will have access to the tree of life, with its “leaves for the healing of nations” (Rev 22:2; see Gen 2:9; 3:24).
Deep down, my mom knows that. Every day we read Psalm 23 together, and no matter how bad the day’s funk has been, she slows down and says with emphasis: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me AAALLL the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forEVER!”
It casts out pride and hatred and brings peace and concord. The voices in a campaign season are self-righteous and pugnacious and vitriolic. Would that theological discourse and church government – from the blogosphere to classrooms, and from pulpits to elder meetings – did not ape the pride and pretense of secular politics. How blessed, by contrast, to be reminded that Christ’s resurrection promises that a church built by the blood of martyrs and by the good news of peace will eventually kick Satan’s behind.
Exsultet! Rejoice! How wonderful and beyond all knowing is the mercy and loving-kindness of a God who makes all things right – who began the right-making at Jesus’ rising in the “dead of night,” is working it out in the now, and will bring it to perfect completion at his return when he inaugurates eternal day.
(The full text of the “Exsultet,” from which I’ve excerpted, is available via http://justus.anglican.org); full text with Gregorian notation is available via http://www.nku.edu)