In this solemn liturgy we celebrate the highlight of the liturgical year which is this Vigil marking the anniversary of the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
We have spent the last six weeks preparing for this great day with penance and fasting and calling to mind the sufferings Christ bore for us as he undertook the Way of the Cross. And naturally enough, the longer the preparation the greater the feast and the more profound the joy we experience.
The scripture readings take us through some highlights from the history of Israel with special emphasis on Moses leading the rescue of the Chosen People from slavery in Egypt.
It is no mistake that the Last Supper coincides with the Passover Feast. In Judaism the Passover Meal each year replicated the meal that God instructed his people to eat just as they were about to be led by Moses out of Egypt. And their passage through the Red Sea is viewed by Christians as a prefigurement of Baptism.
Our ceremony tonight began with the lighting of the Easter Fire and the carrying through the darkness of the Easter Candle. The Old Testament readings were proclaimed while the lighting in the Church was subdued. Only when we sang the Gloria were the altar candles lit and the main lights of the Church switched on. These things all emphasise our understanding that the Risen Christ is the true Light of the World.
We understand that God only revealed himself gradually to his Chosen People; slowly and methodically he led them to understand first, in the time of Abraham, that he was the one, true God. Later on, he rescued them from slavery in Egypt and then during their wanderings in the desert he introduced them to his laws. Over the next few centuries he sent Prophets to his people who called them again and again back to fidelity to the ways of the Lord.
All of this can be seen as a gradual enlightenment of his Chosen People. As time goes on God reveals to them more and more of the real picture. But finally, in the person of Jesus Christ, his Son, he definitively reveals the full truth of man’s position in relation to God and teaches them the fullness of the Gospel. It is as if what was once merely a glimmer has now been revealed in a blaze of light.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of St Patrick. You may remember the story of how, in defiance of the King, St Patrick lit the Easter Fire on the Hill of Slane which is situated opposite to the Hill of Tara where the King and his Druid priests had assembled in darkness for their own celebrations. The Druids urged the King to let them extinguish this Easter Fire and punish Patrick lest his new faith spread through the land.
Despite their attempts to extinguish the Easter Fire, Patrick, under divine protection, kept it burning brightly. The flame of faith then spread slowly and surely through the whole island of Ireland.
It is said that St Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, but science today tells us that since the Ice Age there never were any actual snakes in Ireland. The snakes that are most likely being referred to are those sinful Druid priests who were sowing hatred against the Christian faith. It was those spiritual snakes that were most effectively driven out by St Patrick.
It is a wonderful thing to realise that the conversion of Ireland began with St Patrick igniting the Easter Fire, thus bringing light to a whole country which till that point had been in thrall to the powers of darkness.
We know that the Jews generally buried the bodies of their dead with great care. Don’t forget that their ancestors had been slaves of the Pharaohs in Egypt and so they knew all about the extremely elaborate burial customs of the Egyptians. They knew that a body could be smeared with pungent oils and then wrapped in cloth which over time would become a mummy. They didn’t do things as elaborately as the Egyptians which is why no mummies have been dug up in Palestine, but they certainly used oil and cloth wrappings to give the body a dignified burial.
Because of the imminent Passover Feast, when no work was permitted, the body of Jesus could not be prepared properly for burial; this is why the women had to wait until the Sabbath had finished before they could anoint the body of Jesus. This explains why Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Jesus and Salome went to the tomb very early in the morning. They wanted to begin this anointing before the body started to decay.
But, of course, they find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. An angel tells them not to worry because Jesus has risen from the dead. He instructs them to tell Peter and says that they will see Jesus in Galilee just as he had foretold.
We know that we cannot come to faith in Christ and in the fact of his resurrection unless God gives us the gift of faith. As it says in John 6:44 ‘No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.’
The Jewish priests and the Pharisees had spent their whole lives studying the scriptures, which we know foretell the coming of Jesus, and yet they could not believe in him. Even the disciples who had followed Jesus around for three years found it difficult to believe in the fact of his resurrection. Once he was dead most of them thought that the whole Jesus enterprise was now over.
But these women, who were probably illiterate, were the first to understand what had happened. God, by means of the angel, revealed to them that Jesus had risen from the dead. They were the first to believe surely because they were the ones who loved Jesus the most. Their anxiety to be at the tomb at the earliest possible moment to carry out the rituals appropriate for the dead is a sign of their deep love and concern for him.
This is how God works in the world. He rewards those who perform acts of love with an ever-deeper faith in his Son Jesus. The more love we show to Jesus and to our neighbour the stronger our faith will be.
The long weeks of Lent are over. Easter has arrived. Christ is risen. The time for celebration is here. Let us enjoy it and may our joy be a reflection of a faith deepened and a love increased.