Tonight is when Catholics celebrate the Easter Vigil. It is probably the longest mass, sometimes lasting three or more hours, but without a doubt is the most beautiful of celebrations as the imagery of darkness and light, of creation, baptism, resurrection, are all contained in this vigil of vigils.
The service begins in darkness. Fire is made and from this the Paschal Candle is lit. This candle is used through out the Easter season and will be present throughout the year for special services such as baptisms and funerals. From the Paschal Candle the flame will be passed onto the rest of the congregation, who holding candles will pass this light on to those next to them, eventually illuminating the celebration with the light that from one candle has spread to all. Several passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are then read as the Liturgy of the Word begins. The focus is on rebirth with the symbol of spirit and water. The Creation, the Flood, and scriptures are read, until the lights go on and the Gloria is sung for the first time (except on Maundy Thursday) since the beginning of Lent. The stone of Christs tomb has been rolled away.
The mass continues as the baptismal font is blessed with the Paschal Candle, and those who have been preparing to come into the church are baptized and anointed with oil, after which the celebration of the Eucharist is held and those who have just been baptized receive that most Blessed Sacrament.
It is without a doubt my favourite mass of the year, so rich in symbolism and beauty. But there is another reason why I particularly enjoy this mass which comes from a story in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The story comes from Genesis 15 when God makes a covenant with that father of the Hebrew faith, Abraham. Out in the darkness, having prepared a sacrifice, Abraham waits for God. I can imagine the night, black and star scattered, where the lonely Abraham awaits the Lord. Then in the darkness appears a light, “a smoking furnace and lamp of fire”, passing through the sacrifice. And the Most High God, makes a covenant with Abraham.
The story has always awed me, because there is a certain fearful mystery that surrounds it. Haunting, powerful, and holy. It is the darkness of a lonely desert where you can look up into the pure heavens, as if peering over the edge of a cliff into a black sea with no bottom. But then light approaches, chasing away the darkness and bringing peace. The shadows are cast aside, as holy light is revealed.
In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum :
et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebræ eam non comprehenderunt.
In him was life: and the life was the light of men.
And the light shines in darkness: and the darkness did not comprehend it.
At the first Easter Vigil I attended, it was this most of all which I came away with. An answer to this mysterious tale from the book of Genesis and what it means for me.