For me, over these years as a priest and now a bishop, the Great Vigil of Easter has been the most powerful and engaging event of the liturgical year. The dramatic interplay of darkness and light – the darkened church, the new fire, the lighting of the paschal candle, have provided a visual and sensory experience of the Resurrection.
These symbols serve to proclaim in a dramatic way the light of the risen Christ overcoming all of the darkness within us and in the world around us. Early on in the liturgy, a deacon stands by the paschal candle, which represents the light of the risen Christ, and sings the ancient hymn Exsultet: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. 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 light to all creation, and who lives and reigns forever and ever.”
Light is a constant symbol throughout Scripture of God’s presence. In the Gospel of John, the incarnation of the Word is described in terms of light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Later on in the same Gospel, Jesus proclaims himself “the light of the world?”
Light functions in many ways, revealing what is around us and exposing what may be hidden away in darkness. Light makes it possible for us to see things clearly and accurately and in the fullness of their reality.
We are now within the Great Fifty Days of Easter, during which we seek to explore and more fully appropriate the mystery of resurrection. This is a time to remember that the one who declares himself the light of the world also declares himself the Truth. And through the agency of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, continues to guide us into the unsearchable riches of his truth.
Resurrection, the light of Christ piercing and scattering darkness in all its forms, can be a fearsome thing. Everything within us and about us is exposed to the searing brightness of the one who knows no darkness and whose presence always brings with it the light of truth.
However, truth is not always welcome and is therefore sometimes obscured by half truths, misrepresentations and biases. As well, troubling aspects of truth can be rather politely ignored, allowing what might be called “known secrets.”
Alas, truth is not always welcome even within the life of the church. Church history reveals, in addition to moments of light and truth, acts of condemnation, violence, oppression and even murder committed with righteous certitude by those who were sure they were doing God’s will.
Our life in Christ is not a solitary undertaking: it engages us in a deeply personal and emotional way in worship and witness within a community of faith. Because we care so much that the church reflect what we perceive to be the values of the gospel, we are exposed to a variety of temptations under the form of what might be called “a greater good.” St. Paul observes that Satan can so easily masquerade as an angel of light.
Our notions of what the church should and ought to be can reflect our own deep need for relevancy or certitude and have little or nothing to do with what God may actually desire. It is very easy to project onto God our own notions of righteousness and judgment toward others who differ from us and to declare with absolute confidence and conviction that we are doing “God’s will.”
Here I am put in mind of Jesus’ words to his disciples and to us: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now … when the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth …” God’s truth is larger, stranger, wilder and infinitely more paradoxical than anything we can understand or imagine or contain within our tidy and sometimes self-serving notions of righteousness. God’s truth is continually unfolding and never fully possessed, which is why certitude is the enemy of truth: Certitude limits truth to what we presently are able to perceive.
God’s truth, revealed in the person of Jesus and worked into our hearts and minds by the Spirit of truth, is immensely liberating and makes it possible for us to undergo an expansion of consciousness that enables us to see the world around us with God’s own compassion for all things. “If you continue in my word,” Jesus tells us, “you are truly my disciples: and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
As we as a church continue to live the mystery of resurrection, may we be drawn beyond our present points of view into the ever-unfolding truth of the risen Christ, remembering always that: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”