This is the night. So says the Exsultet, the ancient hymn chanted at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, after we have kindled the New Fire. The Exsultet is at least 1200 years old; for a dozen centuries Christians have gathered to keep vigil the night of Jesus Christ’s passing over from death into new life, and marked it with these solemn holy joyful words.
This is the night! The Exsultet’s theological poetry builds upon the testimony of the Gospels, that Jesus’ last meal with his friends was a Passover meal, commemorating the last night of the people Israel as slaves in Egypt, before they set out for freedom as God’s people. The Exsultet says, If the Last Supper was Passover, then this night, the night of Resurrection, this is the same night, the very same night, when, millennia earlier, Moses led God’s people across the Red Sea on dry land. This is the night when bondage gives way to freedom, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. This is the night. This is the night when we gather in the firelight to hear the ancient stories of God’s saving work, God’s fierce relentless love for humanity.
Through our stories, songs, and prayers, this becomes the night when God completes the work of Creation, gazing with joy and satisfaction upon our world. This becomes the night when Noah and his family sleep restlessly aboard the ark, waiting and wondering: will the dove return this time? This becomes one of the nights that Jonah spends in the belly of the great fish, reconsidering his decision to run away from God’s call to proclaim repentance and hope.
The Exsultet, at twelve hundred years old, is one of the younger parts of our Easter Vigil. Our liturgy tonight includes the Easter sermon of the fifth-century Saint Euthymius. We Western Christians tend to think that Jesus spent three days just being dead, lying quietly in the tomb. Eastern Christians believe that Jesus spent that same time tearing Hell apart, breaking doors and locks and chains, freeing all those who had been bound by death, starting with Adam and Eve, our first parents. Euthymius’ sermon invites us into that moment – the moment when Jesus breaks down the doors of Hell and calls the dead back into life. Arise, work of my hands! This is the night!
Our liturgy tonight includes, too, the words of the fourth-century saint John Chrysostom, who playfully and joyfully invites us into the great feast of God’s saving grace. You that have been faithful long, you that are new to God’s grace, you that have fasted faithfully, and you that have… not, celebrate this day! Join in this banquet of grace! For Death is conquered and Christ is arisen! This is the night!
And then our Eucharistic prayer does what it always does – it makes us God’s people, once and always. We are one with our ancestors in faith as the prayer recounts, again, God’s work in human history and human lives: “When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death… In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again you called us into covenant with you… and in the fullness of time you sent us your only Son to be our Savior.”
This is the night. Time and space collapse to one moment, one place, one people. We are one with the communion of saints, all God’s people past, present, and yet to come; we are one with all those who celebrate this feast tonight, near and far. The light in your hand isn’t just a candle – it’s the light of Christ returning to the world. The affirmation of our baptismal vows becomes our opportunity to say YES. YES to the story, the light, the mystery, the hope.
We are God’s people, once and always. We will be God’s people, saved and saving, loved and loving. This is the night, the fulcrum of history. The story – all the stories, the whole story – is about us. It’s ours. It’s true. It’s beautiful. And most of all, it’s now.