Sunday, April 12, 2009

When heaven is wedded to earth

Easter Vigil Mass last night was one of the most beautiful I have ever been to. As I sat listening to the readings that tell the history of salvation from the fall of mankind to the coming of the Savior, I marveled again how I came to be sitting in a Catholic Church, ready to melt into a puddle with love for Him.

We were received into the Church six years ago last night, so it was an anniversary celebration as well. I keep wondering why He chose me when there are so many people I know who are smarter and wiser and better.

The road to the Catholic Church was not without its rocky places, though. Strangely enough, even though we became Catholic during the worst scandal of the modern era -- it seemed like every day brought a different account of some priest diddling a teenage boy in the sacristy -- that didn't deter either me or my husband. We'd both been in church practically all our lives and we knew about the swept-under-the-rug problems involving church leaders, so I suppose it wasn't much of a shock to either of us: We both had parents who were fans of Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart back in the day.

No, it was the smaller things that made us wary, like the whole bonfire thing before Easter Vigil starts. When this was first explained to me -- "We meet outside the church? And there's, like, one of those brazier things? Like you might have on your patio? And someone has started a fire in it? Well, anyway, Father lights the Paschal candle from that fire and...Oh, wait, I forgot! First he blesses the fire. THEN he lights the big candle and sings 'Chri-ist be our li-ight' and it's great if the priest can sing, but maybe not so much if he doesn't have a good voice. And then everyone else lights their candles from the Paschal candle and then we go back into the church. And there you go!" -- I thought it sounded like a funny kind of thing to do, out there next to the road and all, but I was already firmly committed to belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (still am), so I figured I could deal with the fire thing.

It was a step, though. I was a member, from the year I was fourteen, of an evangelical charismatic Protestant church where the people thought nothing of waving their arms in the air in praising the Lord, and singing in loud voices or yelling out 'Hallelujah!' or even being slain in the Spirit, but if you'd ever have asked any of us to traipse out to the parking lot and light a fire in someone's Weber grill hauled out from home in the back of the truck and then stand around out there, singing and lighting candles and talking about Christ being our light and all, well. Well. I just don't think that would have gone over all that well, in spite of the fact that our church parking lot was back off the main drag in New Castle, and not right there on Broad Street where all the teenagers used to cruise in their cars and play loud music.

Once I was able to experience this whole bonfire-with-singing-and-candles thing, though, I got it. The fire is like the Holy Trinity, God in the world before time began. The big Paschal candle is Jesus, who came to the world as light in the darkness. And all of us standing around with our little candles - our candles are lit from the big candle -- Jesus within us -- or lit from someone else's candle -- the Word being spread through people and throughout nations. And then we all go into the dark church, which you would never think could be illuminated just from the light of all those little candles, but somehow it is, glowing and cozy and warm with love.

It is the night that heaven is wedded to earth, and beautiful exceeding is the marriage thereof.

Every year, I wait, trembling slightly, for that one specific line of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation, sung a capella: "Father, to ransom a slave, you gave away your Son."

It is the most moving, most shiveringly, hauntingly beautiful hymn of all. To hear it sung, one voice rising in the darkened church lit only by the glow of the candles, is a moment almost undefinable, it is so full, so rich, so full of God's great love and compassion for us. The Exsultet has been sung at the Easter Vigil for about 1,500 years now, first in Latin, of course. Here it is in English, no less beautiful.

The Exsultet

It is truly right that with full hearts and minds and voices
we should praise the unseen God, the all-powerful Father,
and his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,
and paid for us the price of Adam's sin to our eternal Father!

This is our passover feast,
When Christ, the true Lamb, was slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

This is the night,when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slav'ry,
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night,when the pillar of fire
destroyed the darkness of sin.

This is night when Christians ev'rywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night,when Jesus broke the chains
of death and rose triumphant from the grave.

What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?

Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."

The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;it casts out hatred,
brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.

Night truly blessed,when heaven is wedded to earth
and we are reconciled to God!

Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church's solemn offering.

Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.

Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!

May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.


Happy Easter to you, and God bless you.

1 comment:

Kayte said...

This was just beautiful!