The National Catholic Review

Resurrection seems an unlikely notion for contemporary minds. Creation is much easier for us to understand, given its prevalence in naturethe caterpillar and the butterfly, the seed and the plant, the bud and the rose. But Easter is more than the scent of lilies and the rolling of eggs or the general topic of new things. And it is far more than remembering the body of Jesus raised from the dead. Easter is the crown, the summit, of the whole Christian year; it is the key to Christian faith and to life itself. Easter takes us deeply into what is most real. The English word Easter does not fully capture the meaning of the older term, Pascha (for the Paschal feast), which is about passing from captivity to freedom, from death to life, from illusion to what matters most.

As Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has observed, the nighttime ritual known as the Easter Vigil has its roots in the very earliest experience of the cataclysm of Jesus’ death, our complicities and God’s reply.

Originally the Easter Vigil was the once-a-year, central commemoration, lasting all night from Saturday eve through Sunday dawn, of the passion and resurrection event. It stood at the heart of Christian faith. But what goes on in all the Vigil’s readings and prayersand ritual actions around a fire, a bath and a feastcannot be contained in a day. In fact it demands a full 50 days of liturgical time to unfold, from Easter to Pentecost. The original one unitive feast has become two feasts, with weeks stretching between carrying the Easter story forward.

Time and Reality

Easter contains a whole new sense of time and reality, a way of being human that sees the whole cosmos in a different light. It is the Christian version of the profound question posed at the Jewish Passover Seder, Why is this night different from every other night?

After the kindled fire and the procession, we hear the full narrative read from Genesis through the prophets to the impossible story of Christ risen from the dead. We are blessed with the waters of initiation, and we sing the exultant song of heaven and earth: Rejoice now, heavenly powers, Sing choirs of angels! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendorGlory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever! The primary elements of earth, air, fire and water are made present; a land of milk and honey is revealed to us; andat lastwe encounter a space and time of sheer joy.

This wedding of earth and heaven contains the lost languages of all the senses now found together. It promises to reintroduce us to the world, to God’s promise and desire for all creation. All this, yet not without the background of real suffering, real death, real cleansing, real feasting and rising and the Spirit breathing. These elements are in the Vigil, and they are released into human time and history because we gather to remember and enact.

The Vigil liturgy, then, presents much more than the eye, the ear, the tongue, the body can possibly understand in a lifetime. It offers an annual encounter with what shocks and lures us toward newness of being in our world. It ushers us to envision a refreshed humanity, an altogether different meaning of shock and awe than our culture conceives.

In his wild poem, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection, Gerard Manley Hopkins has it right. The world’s wildfire burns on and seems to consume human life, Hopkins understands. For human beings all is in an enormous dark/ Drowned. But the heart’s-clarion!the Resurrectionchanges everything. The Vigil’s ritual makes palpable that mystery of our being at once what Christ is,/ since he was what [we] are now: immortal diamond.

What Ritual Does for Us

Why does the gathered church use ritual in recalling and confronting death and resurrection? Because as the world turns, the rush of power and the demands of ordinary life carry us always toward forgetting, toward our exile from the deepest sources of our creatureliness and its redeeming and away from the dearest deepdown freshness (Hopkins again)always away from God’s dream and intent for our lives, social and political, indeed for the whole of creation itself.

Easter, like the mystery it celebrates, always lies in wait half-hidden, even when we embrace it. We enact something that both embraces all our senses yet goes beyond what we can comprehend.

Love Stronger Than Death

What would it be like if all our collective griefs, all our sorrows, all our fears of death and terror were met head-on in a single human life? It might look very much like Holy Week and the Great 50 Days of Easter. It might look like an unforgettable human figure stretching out arms to embrace all the world’s pain, only to have those same arms enfold with undying love all that we are and all that we may yet be.

Love is stronger than death, the canticle of Solomon sings. The truth of that lies at the heart of the life-giving Easter Pascha. What would a life look like that incarnated such a truth? It might look like a community of people engaging all the rest of us with a hospitality that will not quit, a respect that honors the least and the last. It might be a way of life that seeks the transformation of all that is creaturely: earth, air, water, fire, bread, fruit of the vine and all manner of human persons, all creatures great and small.

Easter is most of all about humanity’s being clothed with new garments, with the clothing of love, justice, healing and hope. The Vigil of Easter is the great singular liturgical feast that stretches us to enact our collective memory of Christ. But the Vigil’s meaning is also glimpsed in the most humble gifts: in the dance of a child, the cup of cold water given to the thirsty, the clothing placed around the body of the naked and whenever we receive life and hope from unexpected persons in unexpected places and ways. All of a sudden we are what Christ is.

The Great 50 Days

So often we sprint through Lent, hurdle over Holy Week and fall exhausted on Easter Sunday afternoon. This is not what the whole sequence of keeping Lent/Easter and Pentecost is for. The Great 50 Daysthe living out of the time between the Easter Vigil and Pentecostis occasion for the Spirit-giving renewal of life. It is life risen from the death of all human lamentation, grieving and sorrow. Everywhere the risen Christ appears, the Spirit breathes upon Christ’s astonished followers.

The great antiphon for the whole of Easter is Lord, send forth your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth. Again we are confronted with the transformation of the human and of all that is creaturely. Easter enfolds both history and nature, both our human now and the future not yet fully recognized.

Consider the 2nd century homily of Melito of Sardis:

Understand, therefore, beloved
How it is new and old
Eternal and temporary,
Perishable and imperishable,
Mortal and immortal, this mystery of the Pascha:
Old as regards the law,
But new as regards the model,
Eternal because of the grace;
Perishable because of the slaughter of the sheep,
Imperishable because of the life of the Lord;
Mortal because of the burial in earth,
Immortal because of the rising from the dead.

This is what the all-night Vigil hints at. Let us join the enactment, enter the fire, the story, the water. Taste the feast of gracethen ponder and come to life again.

Don Saliers is the Wm. R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Liturgy at Emory University, Atlanta, Ga. He teaches regularly at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn.