What is the holiest night of the year? Many would presume that the answer would be Christmas Eve, the night in which the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the answer is Holy Saturday or the night before Easter Sunday. It is this night that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Not only is this night the basis for our faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God as he rises from the dead, but it is also the basis for our hope in the bodily resurrection. What I find beautiful about Christmas and Easter is that both celebrations sanctify that which many cultures cast as a negative: The night.
Now, night does carry a symbolism in Christianity of sinfulness. As I have shared with you before, one of the reasons that the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist is celebrated on June 23rd is because it is at about this time (in the northern hemisphere) that the days start to become shorter and shorter, providing a natural symbol to the Christian of a world that falls more and more into sin. The birth of Christ, December 25th, roughly coincides with the time when the days get longer and longer, giving us a natural symbol of hope that comes with the light of Christ. Therefore, Christ’s birth sanctifies the night, taking that which was a symbol of sin and transforms it into a symbol of new hope like a star shining in the night sky. This leads to a logical question: What, then, is the symbolic interplay between light and darkness at Easter?
To begin with, Holy Saturday is one of the liturgies of the Church year that must be celebrated after sundown. One of the reasons we do this is to honor the Jewish tradition of viewing the start of a new day beginning at sundown instead of midnight. Another reason we do this is to allow the night, once again, to be a powerful symbol of the power of sin that so invaded the world that it put to death the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. The celebration begins with a simple flame, a light in the darkness, representing the light of Christ (Lumen Christi). After the blessing of the fire, there is a procession into a dark Church that is, at first, illuminated only with the light form the Easter Candle, but then is slowly filled with a warm light as each parishioner lights their candle form the Easter flame. The symbolism: The light of Christ illumines the darkness of a sinful world.
Similar to how the birth of Christ transforms the symbol of the night from despair to hope, so, too, does the light of Christ’s resurrection transform the night before Easter Sunday from a symbol of defeat to ultimate victory. This transformation of symbol is present elsewhere in Christianity, such as the transformation of the symbol of water from its Old Testament meaning of sin and death to the waters of new life. This transformation of symbol is accomplished through Christ’s baptism, signifying his entry into our human condition, transforming the symbol of water to one of new birth that, when combined with the Trinitarian formula of the baptismal rite, washes away our sins, incorporates us into Christ, infuses virtue into the soul, and gives the recipient the right to heaven. Returning, now, to the Easter Vigil, one of the more powerful expressions of Christ’s resurrection transforming the night from defeat to victory is the ancient hymn called the Exsultet (Praeconium Paschale). Below is the English translation of this hymn.
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
(Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.)
(V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.)
V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up to the Lord.
V. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R. It is right and just.
It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
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.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by 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,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. (Text taken from the USCCB)
In this hymn, we hear the constant reference to “this night,” reminding us of Salvation History, starting from the “happy fault,” the “necessary sin of Adam,” which paved the way for the coming of the one true “Morning Star,” Jesus Christ, to illumine our darkness. Adam’s sin is a “happy fault?” Again, this poetic language draws out a great mystery of Christianity that life in Christ often takes what appears to be defeat and reverses the symbol to glory through Jesus’ total gift of self. I am always moved by the section that speaks of the “things of heaven” that are “wed to those of earth,” recalling a more ancient metaphysic of connecting the night sky with the heavenly realms. Though modern science has obviously shown this ancient worldview to be in error in the material sense, I still can’t help but think that there is something we can recover spiritually from this image that reclaims a vision of all of creation as a sacred gift from God.
This odd meeting point of symbolic tension that is resolved through the light of Christ also reminds us of the inner battles we face as individuals and a community. We live in a world that increasingly sees the symbols of sin and death, leading some to despair that either evil is prevailing or violence must be used to overcome the darkness. It is in these moments when our hearts can enter a metaphorical “tomb” with the body of Christ, falsely presuming that the end of this story is a dead body wrapped in a funeral shroud in the still quiet of a darkened grave. However, the mystery of the holy night of the Easter Vigil reminds us that the darkness of the grave is temporary, eventually giving way to new light through the resurrection of Christ. It is this very hope that has inspired people at other dark times of history to not lose hope, but turn to the illuminating light of Jesus Christ, inspiring the faithful to confront evil with love and peace. A prime example of this is the oft-quoted words of Martin Luther King Jr. from his work, Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. (Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community.  p. 62-63)
As we prepare to celebrate the joy of Easter, let us bring the “dark nights” we encounter to the light of Christ’s resurrection. Let us not view the night as merely a symbol of sin, but let us gaze into the night with wonderment, realizing that Christ has sanctified the night through his victory over sin and death. As a hobby astronomer, it is rather easy for me to see the night as sacred, imagining the stars and planets I can gaze upon with the naked eye as reminders of the hundreds of candles that burn at the Easter Vigil, taking their light from the Paschal flame. And as we move from a romantic introspection of the Easter Vigil to the difficulties of the real world, may we work to ensure that the sacred night Christ has inaugurated through his resurrection may never know a “complete darkness” in which the light of our faith ceases to blaze. May we work for peace, confronting the violence of this world with love; the love that is modeled for us through the example of Jesus Christ.
Below is the chanting of the Exsultet from last year’s Easter Vigil at the Vatican. Enjoy and Happy Easter!