Homily for the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

16 Apr 2022

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 16 April 2022

When people come to church on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, All Souls Day or even Easter, most don’t do so out of sentimentality or habit as they might at Christmas, but rather because the feast itself and the ritual speaks to some challenge in their lives.

This year’s Triduum has come in dark times for many. The story of the People of Israel fleeing an army in our second lesson tonight (Ex 14:15-15:1) resonates with what the people of Ukraine are suffering, with large and growing numbers dead, damaged or driven out. The bushfires, floods, mice plague, pandemic and COVID lockdowns have felt like the plagues of Egypt and have taken their toll. There’ve been harrowing reports of injustices suffered by those in aged care or living with disabilities, as well as the Indigenous, refugees, trafficked, homeless, victims of sexual or domestic violence, or mentally ill—all of which mirror injustices and suffering told in the Passion of Christ these days past. Even our present concern for our common home, the earth, echoes tonight’s creation epic (Gen 1:1-2:2) and the ‘weather events’ of eclipse and earthquake associated with Christ’s death on the cross.

On top of these society-wide issues, we may be anxious about ourselves or those we love; be suffering some physical, emotional or financial pain; sickness or death in the family and in due course ourselves. I, for one, am grieving the loss of my dear mother a few weeks back; for several years she attended what she could of our Triduum ceremonies. Once again there are so many parallels in the highs and lows of Holy Week, the hopes and fears, loyalty and betrayal, torment and death. Jesus’ nearest had deserted and His dearest were desolate. Come Easter morning, as we just heard in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 24:1-12), the women were not merely numb with grief, they were ἐμφόβων, “terrified”—the same word used in the New Testament to describe how people will feel at the end of the world (Rev 11:11,13).

The sacred liturgy reflects this reality. It ended on Holy Thursday night in our going out into the darkness with the Lord. It started this evening with our coming into a darkened Church in a darkened world where, with all humanity, we wondered whether there will ever be light again. Our readings, though all pointing to Easter, also reflected our Holy Saturday mood. In the first (Gen 1:1-2:2) we heard the story of creation, beginning with a dark, chaotic void into which God introduced order, light and goodness, especially in His image that is man and woman—yet within a few verses they had turned on Him, on each other and on themselves in the only ever really original sin. In the second (Gen 22:1-18) and third (Ex 14:15-15:1) lessons there was brutality afoot, domestic violence as a father moved to kill his son and so his posterity the Jewish people, and military violence, as that same People were pursued by hard-hearted Pharaoh and his terrible army. In the fourth (Isa 54:5-14) and fifth (Ezek 36:16-28) readings prophets called out our infidelity, violence and idolatry, even as they promised new hearts through the clean water of Baptism. And the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which we heard twice this week past, ended with the Light of the world snuffed our and darkness over all the land: we had lost the Way, contradicted the Truth, killed the Life and laid Him in a tomb…

So the Triduum is full of human fright and consequent fight or flight. How do we respond to parallel challenges in today’s world? Our contemporary culture says suffering must be avoided at all costs, fixed quick by negotiation, regulation, money, technology, therapy, drugs, whatever it takes. When there’s no fix, those who suffer are best put out of sight and out of mind. And our state of New South Wales is poised on the verge of legalising the killing of some people judged better off dead.

Easter proposes a different way of seeing things. We know that the way we undergo hard things can either ennoble us or demean us. We see in Judas and Peter how a moral lapse can end in self-destruction or renewal. We see how the mettle of all the apostles and holy women was proved, and how they came through by the end of Eastertide on fire with God’s Spirit. We see the calibre of the civil and religious authorities of the day likewise tested, and in some cases found wanting.

We saw on Holy Thursday Night that Jesus is God-with-us: how He suffered all we do, not to trivialise suffering but to accompany us through it, and so made a Church for our candidates Elaine now (Mary Help of Christians), Dominic (Louis of France), Kim-Lyvonne (Joseph) and Elizabeth tonight, a family of fellow travellers who care and ensure each is administered the medicine of word and sacraments. We saw on Good Friday that Jesus is not just God-with-us but God-for-us, given completely so we might have life: He doesn’t just sympathise with our fears and suffering but redeems them, bringing new purpose and possibilities, a kind of post-flood reconstruction as will be experienced in Baptism by our catechumens Margrit now Margaret Mary, Ayla now Hildegard of Bingen and Fiona now Anastasia. And we see on this Easter night that Jesus is not just God-with-us and God-for-us but God-in-us, transforming our fears and suffering by divine grace into love. Jesus himself demonstrated that fear and suffering can be transfigured, as He was turned to pure light at Easter by the love with which He had endured the darkness the day before.

Indeed, to love is, among other things, to learn how to suffer well. Our word passion, which we use to describe the ardour of love is the same word we use for the suffering of Christ and the martyrs. The passion of loving means learning to be with others, for others, in others, to see the tough times as opportunities to demonstrate faith in sympathetic accompaniment, to offer hope in renewing redemption, and to persevere in love, in a glorifying transformation. “If you love until it hurts,” Mother Teresa once said, “there can be no more hurt, only more love.” Or as the Apostle of Love, John, put it: “perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18).

Christ loved us when it hurt Him very much. He died praying: Forgive them Father; let them have my Mother; let them be with Me in Paradise; Into your hands I command my spirit. Easter is God loving us till the end.

Many misunderstood Him. His followers can expect no better. Some misunderstand our views of fear and faith, suffering and redemption, dismissing them as hopelessly naïve or even sado-masochistic. Our goal, of course, is to relieve suffering in every morally and practically available way, which is why the Church is the biggest palliative care provider in the country, and the oldest and largest provider of healthcare in the world. Yet some would seek to exclude such experienced voices from the public square, especially from debates over euthanasia and the like. Some would even seek to conscript us: euthanasia lawmakers plan to force Catholic hospitals, aged care facilities and health professionals to be complicit in solving suffering by killing sufferers. When misunderstood and pressured like this, we should, like Jesus, reconsecrate ourselves to the truth, stick to our principles, and explain ourselves honestly, patiently, compassionately. In the face of fright Easter gives us new heart for fight rather than flight, but especially for the spiritual combat, for the internal warfare of character to cultivate virtue in our souls.

The dying Christ was ready for resurrection because of the way He suffered, with courage and love, not bitterness or recrimination. The light that was Christ was ready to be relit because of the way He used it to lighten our fears with hope and enlighten our hearts with faith and love. Death could not be a full-stop for Him but only a colon, a break before the Word was made Resurrected flesh and the love-song of God was sung again.

Word of Thanks after Communion

Dear friends: before our final blessing may I thank you all for joining me for this celebration of the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night at St Mary’s Cathedral. It has been a truly beautiful Mass, and the climax of three days of extraordinary liturgies and devotions. For that I want to thank my brother bishop Terry Brady who has an important birthday coming up soon, the priest concelebrants, including the Rector of Good Shepherd Seminary Fr Michael de Stoop, the Cathedral Dean Fr Don Richardson with the cathedral clergy, the Precinct Manager Helen Morassut and Cathedral House staff, the Sacristan Mr Chris Backhouse, our Master of Ceremonies Fr Lewi Barakat, our deacons and seminarians, and our team of cathedral staff, readers, ushers, bell-ringers, acolytes and ministers. They’ve worked hard all Holy Week, prepared this cathedral church, rehearsed and then assisted at this Mass and many other ceremonies: I am hugely grateful.

The news of Christ’s rising from the dead is hope for every troubled heart and so must be shouted from the rooftops and sung as an Alleluia chorus. For this we thank the Director of Music Mr Thomas Wilson, the Assistant Director Simon Nieminski, our musicians, lay clerks and choristers: they have done splendidly yet again this year. I also thank Paula Flynn, Fr Lewi and our excellent RCIA team for preparing our catechumens and candidates for this night, with their sponsors and all those who have contributed to their journey of faith.

I congratulate our newly baptised, confirmed and communicated Christians: Margrit “Margaret-Mary Mary-Magdalene” Daley; Ayla Louise now “Hildegard-of-Bingen Rita” Casey; and Fiona Camilia “Anastasia Edith-Stein” Hay; our newly received and confirmed Catholics Dominic “Louis-of-France” Gilchrist; Elaine June “Mary-Help-of-Christians” Cleary; and Kim-Lyvonne “Joseph” Saboe; and our newly received but already confirmed Syriac Catholic, Elizabeth Saffo. Welcome to the Catholic Church! We need your enthusiasm and ideas now more than ever as the Church goes through this period of renewal following the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia.

Finally, on behalf of the Dean, clergy and staff of the cathedral, and my own behalf, a very Happy Easter to you and to all your loved ones. May God bless you abundantly in this holiest of seasons.