Here’s the sermon I preached at High Mass on Easter Sunday.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.
On Good Friday, I offered a series of reflections on the people that walked in darkness, three characters from John’s gospel who, as it were, are people of the night: Judas, who steps out into the night to betray Jesus; Nicodemus, who walks through the night to meet with Jesus; and Mary Magdalene, who comes to the tomb before the first light of morning.
Darkness takes different shapes for each of them. Darkness holds temptation and betrayal for Judas. Darkness offers protection for Nicodemus, providing safety for him to meet with Jesus without being seen by the other religious leaders. And the darkness for Mary Magdalene is filled with grief and absence. And darkness takes different shapes for us too at different points in our lives.
But this morning, as we entered this place before first light, we gathered in a darkness unlike any others.
This night was not like other nights.
At the Vigil, I sang in the great Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet:
Of this night scripture says: ‘The night will be clear as day: it will become my light my joy.’ The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride. Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and we are reconciled with God!
I think these must be the most beautiful words of hope and rejoicing our liturgy has to offer.
Elsewhere, in our scriptures, in our language, in our theology, day and night, light and dark are separated.
In the time when time began, God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
Light is good. Darkness is evil. Light reveals. Darkness conceals. Light is life. Darkness is death.
But today is the day when the psalmist’s words ‘darkness is not dark to you’ ring true. Because of this night, darkness now holds a cleansing, purifying, redeeming power.
In a moment, we will renew our baptismal vows. We will again promise to turn from evil and turn to Christ. We will remind ourselves and each other that we, as followers of Christ, as members of Christ’s body, are called to proclaim in word and deed the presence of the Kingdom of our risen Lord, through teaching, in acts of fellowship, through service to others, and in our stewardship of the earth.
Our liturgy of baptism has sadly lost much of its rich symbolism. The earliest catechumens would walk into the baptismal font, facing west, facing the darkness and the life they were leaving behind, before being plunged deep into the water, dying with Christ. And then, still under water, they would be turned to face east, so that as they emerged, the first light of the Easter sun would shine upon them.
The 4th century church father Cyril of Jerusalem explains the symbolism in his series of lectures to his catechumens:
You were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulchre which is before our eyes…. [You] descended three times into the water, and ascended again.… For as our Saviour passed three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, so you also in your first ascent out of the water, represented the first day of Christ in the earth, and by your descent, the night; for as he who is in the night, no longer sees, but he who is in the day, remains in the light, so in the descent, as in the night, you saw nothing, but in ascending again you were as in the day. And at the self-same moment you were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother…. and your birth went hand in hand with your death.
Or for those of you who prefer a story, here’s a wee reading from the beginning of Ursula LeGuin’s wonderful novel A Wizard of Earthsea, a tale about a wild and proud young boy who holds exceptional powers of magic, but doesn’t always have the wisdom to know how to use them. He is taken as apprentice to the great mage, Ogion.
On the day when the boy was thirteen years old, a day in the early splendour of autumn while still the bright leaves are on the trees, Ogion returned to the village from his rovings over Gont Mountain, and the ceremony of Passage was held. The witch took from the boy his name Duny, the name his mother had given him as a baby. Nameless and naked, he walked into the cold springs of the Ar where it rises among rocks under the high cliffs. As he entered the water clouds crossed the sun’s face and great shadows slid and mingled over the water of the pool about him. He crossed to the other bank, shuddering with cold but walking slow and erect as he should through that icy, living water. As he came to the bank, Ogion, waiting, reached out his hand and clasping the boy’s arm whispered to him his true name.
A better contemporary description of baptism than this, I have yet to find.
The descent into the darkness — whether the waters of baptism or the darkness of fear, anxiety, grief, regret, or whatever it is that we feel knocks us off our feet or makes us lose our bearings — that descent is overwhelming, away from light, away from air. It can feel like death, like drowning. But death no longer has the final word.
Through the death and resurrection of Christ, in the dark waters of baptism, light and dark mingle, sun and shadow play, night and day merge into one, death and birth are inseparable.
On this morning, let us join together in rejoicing in the God who hallows the day and night, whose reconciling work can be found in darkness and in light: Darkness is not dark to you. The night will be clear as day: it will become my light my joy. Christ is risen. Alleluia!