Homily by Mgr Michael Carchrie Campbell FSDM at the Easter Vigil, 2013.
I suspect that few people would reckon that tonight is the climax of the Christian year. But in the early Church it was unthinkable that any Christian would not attend the Easter Vigil. In fact, the test for the Christian was whether he or she attended the vigil or not. If you stayed away, did you really believe that our Lord had risen? St Augustine—himself baptised at an Easter Vigil by St Ambrose on 25 April 387—described Holy Saturday as ‘the mother of all vigils’. It is the highpoint of the Christian year because it is a great big victory celebration. V is not just for Vigil: it’s for Victory too, Christ’s victory over the discouraging darkness of sin and the bewildering darkness of death.
Our experience this evening is quite extraordinary. In our experience, Death makes no concessions whatsoever to life. Our cemeteries and graveyards are full of monuments to its unrelenting dominance. So what is all this talk of resurrection? One potential explanation is that Jesus was not dead at all, only sleeping. Well, the trouble with that is that the New Testament accounts insist that he was definitely dead. He was crucified between two thieves (St Matthew 15.27); that he said, ‘It is accomplished’, and gave up his spirit (St John 19.30). The soldiers had no need to break his legs as he was already dead, and that when they pierced his side with a lance instead, ‘out flowed blood and water’ (St John 19.3–34). We read that Pilate would not hand over the body to St Joseph of Arimathæa until he had been assured by the centurion that Christ was really dead (St Mark 15.45). As well as all of that, we are told that the body was wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb (St Luke 23.31) and that the tomb was sealed with a stone (St Mark 15.46). To cap it all, if you like, we are assured that the two Marys were watching all this as it happened and taking very careful note of where Jesus was laid (St Matthew 15.49).
Accepting the fact that Jesus was dead, perhaps his resurrection only happened because his followers wanted it to? Perhaps, because they wanted it to, they persuaded themselves that it had? Well, that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. The disciples did not expect Jesus to rise at all. A scattered remnant now — shattered and demoralised, their immediate concern had been with their own survival. The women in tonight’s story didn’t expect a resurrection either: they went prepared with spices to anoint the body (St Luke 14.1). Finding the tomb empty, and hearing of the Lord’s resurrection, they hurried back to find the others and tell them, only to be told that they were talking nonsense (St Luke 24.11). St Peter, ran to the tomb himself, and found some evidence of the resurrection in the absence of the Lord’s body and the presence of the binding cloths (St Luke 24.12), his reaction was complete and utter amazement. This amazement was the general one that the disciples had. Death in their experience, as in ours, didn’t give in quite so easily. But tonight, it had. Mountains had moved. The laws of nature were reversed. Death had died itself. An Easter morning was immortalised. The disciples were completely astonished. ‘Death hath no more dominion over him’ (Romans 6.9), says St Paul. Death has been put in its place. It is sulking behind a stone.
But it still retains its power in this life, and each one of us will have died a little since this time last year. Not one of us will not have experienced disappointment or discouragement during the year. These things are a form of dying as well. Despite the good we have done, not one of us has not sinned, and sin is a form of death too. It reminds us of our frailty, and weakens our friendship with Christ. So tonight—as on every other night—we are all a bit broken. No matter ho confident or cheerful we may seem there is a need for healing, for consolation within. We all need to feel that we are forgiven, that we are worthwhile, that life has meaning, that in the final analysis we are not obliterated by death, destined for oblivion. It is Christ who heals us, Christ who loves us, Christ who redeems us, Christ who conquers for us and Christ who lets us share in his victory. ‘If in union with Christ, we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his Resurrection (Romans 6.5). So we rejoice tonight as believing Christians in the resurrection of our Saviour. We hear the Easter greeting again, ‘Christ is Risen’. ‘He is risen indeed, alleluia!’.
Once again with thanks to Bishop Joseph Cassidy’s book These Might Help Too: Homilies for Cycle C.