Saturday, April 07, 2012

Easter Vigil: Homily / Sermon


About 1,630 years ago a woman from Spain or possibly France went on holiday to the holy land. She was a Christian, and she went to Jerusalem to witness the famous ceremonies of the week before Easter. Her diary, travelogue, is said to be the oldest signficant written work by a European woman. It is also the first account we have of the ceremonies of Holy Week.

Egeria describes the procession of palms on the Sunday before Easter, a Mass to celebrate the Last Supper on the Thursday before Easter, a ceremony of veneration of a wooden cross on the Friday before Easter Day. She describes them in enthusiastic detail as great novelties, remarkable, unknown, amongst her readers at home. She describes elaborate and detailed ceremonies, the like of which those at home would never have seen. It is thought by historians of such things that her writing did much to spread and establish ceremonies which are now very familiar to us and which are the basis of holy week all over the world.

And then she comes to the Easter Vigil, the most colourful, the most dramatic, the most elaborate of all the ceremonies. Her description here is all the more remarkable - "and on Easter night", she says, "they do exactly the same as us". Little detail. Bare description. "They do just the same as we do". [these are not literal quotations!]

For Egeria, the Holy Week ceremonies were worth writing home about.They were so different, so unusual, so dramatic. But the Vigil was the same everywhere.

This travelogue tells us something we might have worked out for ourselves. The Vigil is so different. The other days, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in a sense dramatise the story of the passion. They take us into the footsteps of Jesus. They place us amongst the crowd. We voice the words and carry out the actions of those days. They are drama.

Yet in this vigil there is no drama, at least not in that sense. We do not gather round a tomb. We do not roll away a stone. We do not converse with angels, not even in a theatrical manner.

We gather in the dark. We listen to Old Testament prophecies, about creation, about salvation through water of the Red Sea, about the water which will be poured over us and give us a new heart and a new spirit. Our symbols are a candle and water, neither of which feature - at least not directly - in any story of the Resurrection.

In this night we do not recreate a story. In this night we do commemorate an event, but we celebrate our salvation which is represented by our Baptism which is our own dying and rising with Christ.

And in doing this we are doing something far more ancient than the retelling of the story, something more fundamental than reliving history.

We are not stepping back into history, but striding forward to eternity.

This is not drama, this is spectacle, this is mystery, this is sacrament.


[This picture is found in one or two places implying it is a portrait of Egeria, though I can't find the source. I think it is very unlikely to be from her time]

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