“Death, you shall die in me; hell, you shall be destroyed by me.” (Liturgy of the Hours, vol II pg 509).
Today is Holy Saturday. We anticipate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The above opening is from the evening prayer for Holy Saturday found in the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. It is a powerful opening to the psalter. In the evening, the faithful gather outside of their parish. The Easter Vigil is about to take place. A fire is lit and blessed. The priest or deacon holds a large candle called the Paschal Candle. The candle goes through a ritual of preparation.
Wax knobs are placed within the cross engraved in the candle symbolizing Christ’s 5 wounds. The priest then traces the cross reminding us that Christ is the beginning and end, all time belongs to Him and to Him be all the glory and honor.
The priest then lights this candle as a sign of Christ’s light that will light the darkness in us. The candle is then taken into the Church building and the priest or deacon says, “Christ our light” while raising it high. All response, “thanks be to God.” All present have smaller candles. They then light theirs from the Paschal candle showing this transfer of Christ’s light to them. The Church is pitch black, holy water fonts are empty. It is like entering an abandoned building that has no signs of life.
As all process with their candles and the larger flame of the Paschal Candle enters closer to the sanctuary, the Church building starts to show signs of life, so to speak. The Exsultet is now sung which is the Church’s proclamation that Christ has risen. The Gloria is then signaled, all the lights of the building are lit, the Church bells rings. Jesus Christ has risen!
The Liturgy of the Word follows and then the Rite of Baptism where we renew our Baptismal vows. The Catechumens and Candidates who have prepared to received the Sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion) are brought forward and receive them. The rest of the Liturgy continues as a regular Sunday Mass would.
This is considered one of the most beautiful Liturgies in the Catholic Church. Everything about it speaks to every sense of the human body. We see the darkness and lights, hear the chants and bells, smell the incense, touch the wax and feel the heat of the Paschal candle as fire is transferred and the holy water as it is sprinkled, we taste the Holy Eucharist. Jesus is Risen and this Liturgy shows it well.
The ceremony is focused on both light and dark; life and death.
What is light?
Physics tells us that it is electromagnetic radiation made up of photons that are detectable by the
human eye as well as the eyes of other organisms. It is composed of many wavelengths, not all of which are capable of being detected and processed by the human eye. The human eye can only detect the spectrum of wavelengths from about 650 nanometers where red is present and about 400 nanometers where violet is detected.
Light is the fastest substance in the universe traveling at 186,282 miles per second. Light presents to us spatial and temporal information of things around us. Matter in the universal absorbs and reflects light waves. Depending on the charges of particles in an object, light is absorbed and some of it is reflected back allowing our eyes to see the object and its color(s) when the light enters the eye into the cones which process the information in the brain. Nothing can travel faster or as fast as it. Despite this knowledge of light, we still do not truly understand it. However, light is extremely important for life to truly evolve and progress in nature.
In Scripture, light is mentioned many times. As a matter of fact, it is first mentioned in the third verse of Genesis chapter 1. God says “let there be light.” Prior to this, the author describes existence as dark and desolate. Darkness is something most of us do not like. When we are in the dark, we get moody, depressed and sleepy. Our energy drains from our bodies and we feel lethargic especially during winter time when there is less light (Eastman et. al, 1998). Psychologists call this “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or “Winter Blues.” The changes in lighting effects the production of melatonin. This goes to show how powerful light and darkness are. They affect us in many ways. As the weather warms in spring and we see more daylight, we get cheerful and have a “bounce in our step.” Light livens everything up.
Darkness may seem powerful. It engulfs everything. However, it blinds and creates dangerous scenarios. Despite this, light is so powerful that it stands out even in the darkest area. The stars in the sky shine brightly against the darkness of the universe. These stars are light years away and despite this, their light reaches our eyes here on Earth. The light from our own sun takes 8 minutes to reach us, yet it is powerful enough to warm our planet and illuminate the material that composes it.
The Paschal candle reminds us of light. Christ is the light. We all walked in darkness as Isaiah 9:2 says. As I stated before, darkness is dangerous. Without light, we get disoriented and our brain has a difficult time processing spatial information by using stored memories of an environment and sounds. Psychologists call this “Sensory Deprivation” or “Spatial Disorientation.” Most of us have lived in our homes for many years and know it well. However, this familiarity changes when we try to walk in the dark. We will stumble on things or crash into a wall most of the time. Our souls when they are in darkness stumble as well (John 11:10). We do not know where we are at and walk about until we fall in sin.
In today’s world full of atheistic existentialism and relativism, we are getting lost in strange philosophies that push God away in favor of man’s formulations of morality and his social constructions. This is the “new god” that is blinding many societies today into rejecting the reality of life in the womb and setting aside the natural complementary union between a man and woman for counterfeit unions (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus, the Light of the World (John 9:5) came into the world to illuminate humanity (John 1:4) and it still rejects this light in preference of the darkness (John 3:19). The human being is stubborn in this way. Evil and sin always seem to be “fun” while good and holiness is the pastime of boring people or prudes. This is the Concupiscence in us driving us to incline towards the bad (CCC 405).
The Easter Vigil reminds us of this. The church building is dark. We are in the dark without Christ. Despite this immense darkness, the small flame from the Paschal Candles is enough to light the way as we enter the church building. This small flame allows us to enter without stumbling. As the people light their candles from the Paschal Candle, the light grows more intense and we begin to see each other’s faces more. The light of Christ restores the image of God in us. The light we receive must not be hidden, nor should we fall back into darkness for we are children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5:5).
We must go out into the dark world and illumine it just like each star illumines the night sky despite being small in appearance in contrast of the immense darkness of the universe. Our Christian lives must be witness to Christ Jesus. This is why Pope Francis has been centering his Papacy on Christian witness. The light that we receive from Christ must not be so bright that it blinds others. Nor should it burn them to the point of scaring them away. We must be humble and present the light of Christ with love.
Christ is indeed the light that continues to shine even in this dark world. He is risen! Christ won, he defeated darkness and death (1 Corinthians 15:55)! His resurrection stated loudly what the antiphon for vespers says, “Death, you shall die in me; hell, you shall be destroyed by me.”
He is with us and will return at the end of time. Let us spend our lives on Earth bringing the light of Christ to the world.