Dear Friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
With these words begins the Great Vigil of Easter that we celebrate tonight [Or, if an early morning service, "this morning."] For this is the Passover of the Lord. The Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the fundamental event for our community, just as the Passover/Exodus event was and is the fundamental event for the Jewish people. The events of this Holy Week and Easter are closely tied to the stories of Passover and Exodus. It is for that reason that the reading of the story of the Exodus is always heard at this Easter Eve service.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters don't just hold a memorial when they celebrate Passover. Rather, they take part in the saving acts of those events, in the same way that we Christians don't just hold a memorial of the Last Supper when we celebrate the Eucharist, but rather, Jesus becomes present for us in the bread and wine.
It is traditional in a Jewish home at Passover for the youngest child present to ask the traditional "four questions," which all have, as their overriding theme, "Why is this night different from every other night?" And this ancient question would be an excellent question for us, as Christians, to ask ourselves tonight. Why is this night so different from every other night?
For an answer we might well turn to the joyous Easter song, the Exsultet, which we have heard sung (or read) tonight:
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
Perhaps we think of the Resurrection as having taken place on Easter morning. Actually, we don't know what time of day it was. However, as the Gospel tells us, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came "as the first day of the week was dawning." It was dawn, and the tomb was empty; so it seems that it was sometime between dusk and dawn when Christ "broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave."
How holy is this night, the Exsultet continues, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord. How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.
Think about it. "It restores innocence to the fallen." How can that be? It's a long time since we have felt innocent, isn't it? In today's world, even the little children aren't allowed to keep their innocence for long. Just a glance at the evening news reminds us of that. Yet on this night, we are told, our innocence can be restored.
And it brings joy to those who mourn. Who among us does not mourn tonight? We mourn for those we love but see no more; we mourn for the lost opportunities of our lives, for the sins that weigh us down. No matter what the griefs are that we carry with us this night, joy can be ours, because this night really is different, different from any other night.
And finally, we are told that this night casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord. What an exchange that is! Pride and hatred have done enough damage in our lives, haven't they? Who needs them? Especially if we can trade them in-if we can just give them to God and receive peace and concord in their place.
On this night, heaven and earth are joined, and we can be reconciled to God. That is really what God offers us tonight. We are bound to the earth, but God invites us to be citizens of heaven. We may have wandered far astray, but God calls us to be reconciled. Come home! God says to us. Christ is risen! And you are delivered from the gloom of sin; you are restored to grace and holiness of life.
The Paschal candle burns to remind us that Christ, the light of the world, is risen indeed. Let us keep that light shining as we return to our homes tonight. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness, May Christ the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning-he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. AMEN.