Ars praedicandi: Easter Vigil, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

In this digital moment
as we broadcast this Easter vigil
from this beloved church,
which this eve echoes like an empty tomb,
I do not know what time of the day or night
you are joining us.

Some will be accompanying us in the darkness of Saturday night,
the ancient time for keeping watch,
the blooming of what tradition has deemed
the “Queen of all Vigils,”
the temporal arena when the gloom is challenged
by an eternal dawn
when blackness is jeopardized by an impending brilliance
and when death itself is threatened with resurrection.

Others of you might be replaying this broadcast
in the full light of day,
in the glory of Easter morning,
in the predicted sunshine of a mild April day.

Whatever the time of day or night
that you are assembling with us,
the social reality is that you,
like so much of the rest of the country,
so much of the rest of the world,
are in a moment of eclipsed light,
of personal and social twilight,
of veritable darkness.
Easter is imagined by some as the great shade shatterer,
gloom-disperser,
darkness-obliterator.

Some even presumed that its mythical powers
would signal the retreat of the virus,
the regeneration of economies,
and the return to normalcy.

It is a lovely thought.
But one that misreads the true nature of Easter,
whose meaning is most profoundly announced
in this vigil celebration
Hovering between darkness and light,
between desolation and glory.

Many of the baptized do not frequent the Easter Vigil,
and I would guess many of you
ordinarily and maybe only attend Mass
on Easter Sunday itself.

That is well and good – and a boon to the other baptized
who congregate with you
in those festive Eucharists.

There is a unique spiritual benefit, however,
from imbibing in the Easter mysteries,
through the rich, even complex framework of this pivotal liturgy
in which fire ignites the Christ candle,
in which salvation history is narrated, and
in which the elect plunge headlong into the body of Christ.

One central mystery so obvious that it is often overlooked
is that the announcement of Resurrection,
of our ultimate hope and ultimate joy,
can only be birthed in the blackness of night
through an immersion in the darkness of the grave,
by embracing crucifixion,
so that tomb can transform to womb
and light may dawn.

There is no clearer compass
pointing to this shadowy context for the anchor of our faith
than the Exsultet, the ancient chant that began this service,
that hymns the Christ Candle now burning bright,
an ancient lyric that unfolds the central mysteries of our faith.

The drumbeat through that hymn,
the refrain at the heart of this Christic proclamation,
is the reiteration:
This is the night,
This is the night,
This is the night!

This is the night when Israel’s children were led from slavery,
when a pillar of fire banished the gloom of sin,
when the baptized are united in grace,
when Christ obliterated the quarantine of death,
and in that cosmic shattering
birthed unimagined daylight in the midst of darkness.

Sometimes the turning of the seasons, liturgical or otherwise,
Can dispense us from the gifts and lessons of what is now fading.
The changing of the colors in the fall,
announcing the earth’s impending hibernation,
exempts some from collecting the casualties of the tree shedding,
those thousands of leaves forgotten until spring
when their soggy presence impedes the sprouting of new life.

Relief from a harsh winter sometimes excuses us
from maintenance on that snow blower now hiding in the garage,
or the now silent furnace
until next year’s sudden winter onslaught,
when the ancient gas engine Toro no longer ignites
or our 20-year-old furnace unexpectantly decides to retire.

Each season of the year is littered with proverbs
to be harvested in the next.

Similarly, the onset of Easter does not absolve us from Lenten wisdom.
The Alleluias that punctuate the season
are not a liturgical sigh of relief
that all the fasting, and abstinence and penance are behind us
and we can return to indulgent or frivolous ways,
that the searing imagery of crucifixion can be shelved
until next Lent … or the next health crisis,
or that the rigorous journey of the elect
through scrutinies and purification
can be chalked up to a job well done but now over,
rather than a rehearsal for baptismal life.

Easter Sunday does not obliterate Good Friday.
The season of feasting does not discount that of fasting,
and the path of true joy is not possible
without the journey into darkness.
For as the poet reminds us,
the road to resurrection
always passes through a cemetery.
It is part of the mystery we are sometimes reluctant to ponder:
that Jesus did not spring forth immediately from the tomb,
but lingered there in darkness for three days …

This dwelling of God’s Only-Begotten in the ultimate quarantine
was foreshadowed a few short weeks ago on Lazarus Sunday,
when Jesus intentionally waited …
some even say dallied from afar …
while the only individual whom the gospels explicitly say
that Jesus loved, Lazarus, fell ill and then died.

Why would Jesus procrastinate in such a situation?
Even loyal disciples Martha and Mary did not understand,
and a precise explanation is absent from John’s Gospel

For me, imagining why Jesus permitted Lazarus
to languish in death for three days
holds one key for unlocking the mystery
of Jesus own self-quarantine
in that newly hewn garden tomb.

In my religious imagination,
Jesus could allow Lazarus to linger in darkness
because he believed that God’s spirit was already there
waiting for him,
incubating Jesus’ young friend
for a new life … a different life … a dutiful life
after his release from the grave

Similarly, Jesus’ abiding in death, entombed after Golgotha,
was neither desolation nor isolation,
but communing with the very Spirit of God,
imbibing the promised Holy Advocate so deeply
that he was eternally transformed in the belovedness
the Dove had announced at his baptism.
And when this new time of fulfillment was at hand
he was catapulted out of grave and out of death,
no longer a Galilean peasant
but the cosmic Christ whom this liturgy proclaims
as the light of the world.

I have a young relative who gives me permission to tell this story,
one that began over 20 years ago
when her carelessness and adolescent foolishness
put her at the wheel of a car that killed a father
and his two young sons.

Convicted of triple manslaughter in a state that required
criminals to complete 80% of their sentence,
she has spent the better part of the past 20 years
buried in a particularly degrading tomb,
a maximum-security prison in a southern state.

Her transformation in that place
from a reckless 19-year-old to a thoughtful,
even wise, middle aged woman
has been astounding.

In particular I remember one letter she wrote
reflecting on the officers who guarded her.
She commented that she was the one
who was supposed to be imprisoned,
but many of them were the ones,
in their smoldering anger and inhumanity,
were the ones captive to their own heartlessness …
While she was journeying to
personal and spiritual liberation,
to the point that with 10 years of prison yet ahead
she could write, “I’m already free, cousin!”
she too found God’s spirit waiting for her
in that tomb for criminals,
some of Jesus’ favorite people.

This past week, her spiritual liberation found resonance in her release.
She is now out of judicial quarantine,
changed, transformed, and clearly liberated …
yet unable and even unwilling to forget the many ways
her entombment birthed her into new life.

As someone interested in language,
I have recently traced down the origin of the word “quarantine.”
It seems to be derived from the Latin word
quaranta, apparently derived from the Latin
quadragesima, or forty-day fast
Yes, quarantine is a social form of Lent.

Some of the first evidence of the use of the word in English
refers to Christ’s 40 days in the dessert,
his isolation not for the sake of his physical health,
but an isolation from worldly distraction,
marked by intense temptations,
an isolation that steeled him
to live out his recent baptism,
the announcement of his belovedness
and his mission on behalf of God’s reign of love.

While society imposes necessary rules
of social distancing,
sheltering in place,
even quarantine,
believers are summoned to discern the presence of God’s lurking spirit
even in the confines of our own homes,
in those miraculous ICU units filled with medical angels,
in hermetically sealed nursing homes,
or even on solitary walks, as we wave from afar,
smiles hidden behind hand-fashioned masks.

This unwelcomed pandemic is a rude reminder
that Lent is never over,
just as Easter is never eclipsed,
nor is the mystery of incarnation suspended,
or Advent extinguished by the Christmas feast.
For Christians, in fact, there is no ordinary time.

We live in the unfolding of the mystery of God,
and each social and personal season,
like that of every turn in the Church year,
prods us in God’s spirit to new spiritual depths,
fresh baptismal commitment,
and even mission.

Sheltering in place is not permission
to forget the fragile,
to erase those already deemed by society as forgettable,
or to abandon discipleship.

So we devise new ways to care for each other,
to check on our neighbors,
to express our gratitude to medical professionals,
delivery workers, and first responders of every stripe,
to stay in touch with embargoed loved ones.

We also ponder in our tomb dwelling how we will be different
when the metaphorical stone is rolled away,
the quarantine is lifted,
and shelter in place orders are suspended.

Will we be more aware of mean-spirited social distancing
between ourselves and the stranger in need?
Or be more reflective about the masks
that camouflage prejudice or indifference?

Quarantine without social conversion is as futile,
as Lent without transformation,
Advent without fresh incarnation,
or Easter without communal resurrection.

And so we pray for comfort and conversion,
for well-being accompanied by welling hearts,
for health boosted by expanded helpfulness,
for carefulness amplified by new expressions of care,
and for personal and social recovery
authenticated by a fulsome resurrection
of charity, of justice, of respect for the dignity of all.

And in this interim of difficult grace, but grace nonetheless,
we petition for peace as well, as with the poet we pray,

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

(John O’Donohue, Beannacht / Blessing)

We pray this and every good thing in the eternal hope of the Holy One, who promises that we too will rise with the Christ, the Lord of Light, the destroyer of death, whose grace and peace dawns now and forever.

3 comments

  1. Thank you, Father, for giving redemptive purpose and hope in this quarantine time. God bless you for using your gift to guide God’s people. I will pray for you. Please pray for me.

  2. Ed,
    I am mesmerized by your words erupting from a life immersed in resurrection faith. Like Christ, you never disappoint. Like Christ, your proclamation of the Good News is planted in the margins. Like Christ, you lead the faithful to where we belong into a sacred between reality and the immensity of hope. In gratitude.

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