Alleluia! Christ is risen! This is the night!
Five times our Deacon Will sang that great phrase of promise as he proclaimed the Exsultet. Twelve times in all there is mention of this night in that great prayer of praise before the new paschal candle. And by the ministry of the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit, it is true. This is the night!
It is that “most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life” and throughout the world thousands, in baptism, pass to new life in him. Beginning with us, and passing through the time zones over the hours ahead of us, as bells ring out to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. This is the night.
What can we say tonight, that our liturgy has not already said for us? Really, there’s only one thing to say, and perhaps understatement is the best way of saying it. It is simply this: that what happens tonight is no small thing. There may just be a few of us here. It may seem irrelevant to the majority of the people who live around us – but what happens tonight is no small thing.
It is no small thing that we gather as the Church to recall and relive and remember in Holy Week and Easter. It is no small thing when the Son of man goes as it is written, to death and on to resurrection in obedience to the Father. It is no small thing when Jesus makes his passage from this world to the Father. It is no small thing when our great High Priest passes through the heavens. Neither for him, nor for us, nor for our neighbours around us (whether they realise it or not), nor for any particle of the universe, is it a small thing.
It is no small thing, already, that – purely for his delight – God should create this universe and share something of himself with us. It is no small thing, already, that when humanity prefers its own project to its Creator’s, he should begin a hidden work of reclamation, should make, as we heard, a people for himself and lead that people out of slavery to a land of their own. It is no small thing already, as we heard, that that people should in their prophets carry hope for all humanity. But those nights that we have recalled to our minds in our vigil – the night of creation, when there was darkness over the deep and God’s spirit hovered over the water; the night of the exodus when Israel went forth from Egypt: those nights are only faint images, foreshadowings of this one. This is the night.
It is no small thing that happens tonight. It is no small thing that after having sent his servants to his vineyard, God should send his beloved Son. It is not a small thing: the birth and the life, the death and the resurrection of the God-man, Son of God and son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is no small thing that this man who is God should have exposed himself to sin and death, to the full force of human evil and the Satanic power behind it. It is no small thing that someone wholly good should have, in St. Paul’s astonishing phrases in his letter to the Church in Galatia, been “made sin” and “become a curse for us”. It is no small thing that someone who could call himself the ‘Resurrection and the Life’ should have “tasted death for every one”. It isn’t nothing that someone freely, out of compassionate love, should have gone further than anyone into the night of human suffering, into and beyond the sufferings of the psalmists or Job or Isaiah’s Servant or all the tortured and abused of history. It is no small thing that someone whose whole being was for God his Father (and for others) should have accepted such rejection, such loneliness as he. This is the night.
It is no mere trifle brothers and sisters that we celebrate tonight. It is no shot in the dark, or fairy tale, or vain hope. This is the night. And anything and everything else in the whole of history is measured by it. “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from underworld.” That is what Deacon Will proclaimed. That is what we believe. Do we grasp these phrases? Do we grasp what it means to say that Jesus rose, came back, from the world of the dead? It is no small thing we celebrate this night.
It is no small thing that someone, this one, the God-man, Son of God and son of Mary, one of the Trinity and one of us should, after the Cross, after shattering the gates of the underworld, be raised by his Father to a new and immortal life, become a life-giving Spirit, and pour the Spirit out upon us and upon all creation. It is no small thing if by his rising from the dead, the whole world is already secretly raised, if death is already, in principle, dead, and humankind’s horizon is suddenly the hope of resurrection and life everlasting. It is no small thing if this Jesus, raised from the dead, is standing even now behind the gates of time to come as Judge and Transfigurer. And all of this is in tonight.
It isn’t anything small that if we put our faith in him, we too can pass already from death to life. We too, in the baptism that we will affirm gathered around the font in a few moments time, can go into the tomb with him and join him in death, and therefore join him in his victory over death. We can have the Spirit rest on us, eat his Body and drink his Blood, and become living members of his ever-dying but ever-rising Body the Church. We too, like Peter and the disciples, can go to Galilee and see him risen, that is find our freedom again, the freedom to give our lives in love. None of this is small, and all of it in this night.
This is the faith of the Church – this is what I believe to be true, this is what we believe as disciples of Jesus. Not that this night is some imagery-filled passion play performance pointing to a deep mystery beyond ourselves, although it certainly is a mystery. But that this story, these events took place in history, to alter history for all time, for all people. This is the night.
As Deacon Will sang, “this most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life,” and thanks to Mother Church and the overshadowing Spirit, we pass too. It is no small thing our Lord, by his death and resurrection, has done and does. It is unsurpassable and inexpressible. It is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. And through the new fire, and the lighting of the paschal candle, and the recalling of the history of our salvation, and the renewing of our baptismal vows, and the reception of Christ through the Sacrament of his Body and Blood… through all of these things we enter into the awe-filled joy of this night.
It is no small thing – let me bring it home to each of us – it is no small thing that each of us tonight, when Christ comes back from the dead, never to die again, gains a Friend in him. It is no small thing that someone, this one, Son of God and son of Mary, should enter my life – even before I was conscious of it, when I was baptised as a baby – and live within me more intimately than anyone. It is no small thing that he should carry, bear with, secretly sustain, pick up again, put right, shepherd, shower kindnesses on, stand by in trials and walk with through the valley of the shadow of death this poor wayward unappreciative self-preoccupied me, and do this over a life, — my life, your life — twenty years, forty years, seventy years. It is no trifle that there is someone who will answer every unanswered question and heal every secret pain. It is no little thing that he should even share the thoughts of his heart, his prayer, his prophetic, priestly, kingly work in the world, with this poor self – with you, with me. It is no small thing that he should have made my everlasting destiny a fullness of bodily well-being and physical delight, a fullness of human friendship and love, a fullness of God himself.
It is no small thing that, at the cost of his life and his blood, he should raise from the dead, transfigured too, those I love, my father, my grandparents, my departed friends… and yours as well, that he should lavish on brethren and friends good things I can long for for them but never give myself. This is the night when we are most intimately connected with them, who have died in the hope of Christ, and who will live with him, and with us for eternity.
This is the night! Praised be Jesus Christ, risen from the dead! The central symbol of our worship this evening, the cross of flowers that stands centrally on the altar, speaking so clearly to us of this new life in Christ, was made yesterday as an offering of devotion to Jesus by the young families of our parish, and as a gift to us who gather tonight.
If we take away anything from this night, from our pilgrimage through Holy Week and Easter (and for those of us who have been able to participate fully in it, it has been a profound week here at St Peter’s, and I thank our staff and musicians for making it so). If we take away anything from this night, this week, let it be this: that it is no small thing that we are involved with, no small thing that someone, this one, Jesus, has died and risen for us, no small thing to believe and be baptised. Not a momentary thing, but a life-changing every moment thing. The cross of his suffering for us, has been transformed into the new life of his resurrection.
It is no small thing. On the contrary: it is everything. Alleluia! Christ is risen!