I am sure you have often heard it pointed out that many of our great feasts are Christianizations of ancient pagan festivals. Christmas is the most obvious – as if the early church despaired of weaning the people away from celebrating the natural turn of the seasons at mid-winter so inserted a theme truly worthy of celebration. There is something of the same sort in the origins of our celebration of the saving acts of our Redeemer at Easter (which in nearly every other language carries a name closely related to the word Pasch or Passover) because what we have Christianized right from the start is the great Jewish festival of Passover which was in many respects the same as our Easter, a thanksgiving for God’s greatest act of deliverance. We marked the Resurrection symbolically last night with the full, slow-moving liturgy of the fire and the candle and the turning of darkness into light: a ceremony more dramatic than our usual routine, in which Christ himself was presented as life – breaking gloriously from the dark tomb of death to the bright glory of heaven. Never mind our sophisticated science, it seems to be saying, this is poetic drama.
The theme of the poem is, of course, the personified Light of the World: he is symbolized by the great paschal candle drawing its own light from the fire of creation, and we greet it like a pagan rite of spring as if it were an annually recurring dawn, almost as if we were druids at Stonehenge. But the message has its own objective truth and unlike the pointless rubbish of new-age mother-earth worship, the poem swiftly draws us towards a coherent sequence of events: purposeful-creation; human failure; redemption; and the hope of salvation, in a way that is worthy of our full blooded intellectual assent. Far from straining our credulity, the Easter message makes everything fall into place, makes sense of our lives and gives us hope where logically we should otherwise despair.
There is a passage in the Exultet, the chant of praise sung over the Paschal Candle which goes like this: “What good would life have been to us had Christ not come as our Redeemer?; …Of this night Scripture says: the night will be as clear as day: it will become my light my joy…” It seems as if the poet is so taken with the wonder of redemption as a demonstration of God’s love for us, now gloriously completed in his victory over death, so taken also with the sense of being blessed with Divine intervention in human history, that he must pour out this Exultet, this Praise, in honour of an event so generous as to be scarcely credible: a hymn which launches itself straight at the point in its opening phrase: “Exult all creation around God’s throne, Jesus Christ our King is risen from the dead…the light of this holy night dispels all darkness, restores lost innocence, turns mourning into joy, casts out hatred and brings us peace: for we are reconciled with God”. It is of necessity a poet’s vision, for poetry like music, love, art and beauty, is one of the means by which we can get a glimpse of the divine mystery.
But alas I must come down to earth before I end. What are we all to do tomorrow, a secular holiday, when we open our newspapers and read of inhumanity, war, tragedy, murder – even mass-murder – and other cruel horrors, including the desperate plight of our fellow Christians in the Middle East and parts of Africa? It takes little to remind us that we live in a world where, increasingly, the gospel message is not known and, if heard at all, is greeted with inertia, doubt or scepticism. The chains of despair may have been broken by Christ, but it is for us to unwind them.
In our heart of hearts, we all know that there are hidden purposes and wonders in God which it is not given to us to comprehend fully nor to express within the limits of the plain meaning of everyday words. The celebration of Easter is the most dramatic moment of the Western Liturgy. It is as if the people of God, having watched in sorrow over the dark days of the suffering and entombment of their Lord share the excitement of the women who went to the tomb in their eagerness and haste to proclaim the news of the Resurrection.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how the disciples continually testified to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great force. It was, after all, the turning point in their understanding of all that Jesus had said and done. As St Paul put it: “if Christ has not been raised we are still in our sins” – but Christ has been raised and we speak of him symbolically as, being enthroned at the right hand of the Father as our advocate, our friend, so to speak, at court. That is why we have reason personally, as individuals, as well as communally as a congregation, to greet the good news of Easter: it is news that our saviour has won the victory and that now there is nothing outside ourselves that can separate us from the love of God and our eternal union with him in glory.
So much for the high point. But what do we do on Tuesday morning when we open our newspapers and come down to earth with a bump: accounts of sheer inhumanity; of war, murder, horror, family tragedy and financial collapse. It will take little to remind us that we live in a world where increasingly Jesus’s name is not known and the gospel (literally the good-news) of our salvation has been heard, if at all, with inertia, doubt or scepticism. This Easter message must be proclaimed continuously against the secularism of our time. We must regain the sense of urgency that was so apparent in the apostles as they preached the kingdom of the risen Christ into both the Jewish and the pagan world. The chains of selfishness, sin, fear, anxiety, and death have been broken by Christ but it is for us to unwind them. Today as we adore Christ’s presence in our Holy Communion or as we look upon the paschal flame, the symbol of his abiding presence among us, let us recall and retain the closing prayer of the Exultet: May the morning star find this flame still burning: for Christ has come back from death, sheds his peaceful light upon us and lives and reigns forever. Amen.