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Paschal Candle, Saint Mary, Mother of God, Washington, DC

Tonight, in the strangest of circumstances, the universal Church keeps vigil in anticipation and celebration of the Resurrection of her Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. At a time when the world seems cloaked in darkness, when every-day life is curtailed, tonight we commemorate the greatest hope there ever was, or could ever be. Our celebrations have a familiarity marked by the usual symbols of our liturgical faith. Yet at the same time they are characterized this year by something unfamiliar, even frightening. I want to reflect briefly on both.

First, our eyes are quite naturally drawn tonight to the paschal candle, blessed and crowned with the light that is a sign of the abiding presence of the Lord in the world and in His Church, come what may. That light, as the great love-song of the Exsultet reminds us, dispels the darkness of the night. It does so in the most literal sense: even the smallest flame burns with an absolute intensity. In the darkness of the night that surrounds this place, then, the light of the flame that burns within, atop the paschal candle, is a sign of contradiction piercing the veil of darkness and offering us a physical light by which we might see. 

That light also illumines in a mystical sense: it is by it (that is, by Christ) that we come to know in its fullness the revelation of God to man. In the sacred rites the candle is lit before we hear the narrative of salvation in the scriptures. It is thus in the light of the Resurrection that we come to see the great works of the Lord God that first led the Israelites from slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land, and now lead us from bondage and captivity to sin to the promised land of heaven.

But on this night the light also takes on a particular meaning. It is in fact nothing new but like a man standing in a dark room, in these dreadful times perhaps our own eyes are becoming more keenly aware of its truth. Now more than perhaps ever before in our lives we are conscious of the pure radiance this light offers; the hope that is absent in so many part of our world in these days is present in that light, is present in Jesus Christ and in the life of His mystical body, the Church.

The word virus shares its origins with the word venom. Certainly we are in these days more and more reliant on the heroism of medical professionals who are working to end the suffering and death the present coronavirus presents. At the same time we should calmly consider what these circumstances have revealed: a virus that kills not the body, but the soul. Two great churchmen have put this well. Yesterday in the Papal Preacher, Father Cantalamessa, said that this pandemic has “abruptly roused us from the greatest danger individuals and humanity have always been susceptible to: the delusion of omnipotence.” Earlier in Holy Week Cardinal Robert Sarah put it like this: “a microscopic virus has brought this world to its knees, a world that looks at itself, that pleases itself, drunk with self-satisfaction because it thought it was invulnerable. The current crisis is a parable.” 

All of the evil in the world is a result of sin, and all sin stems from that original act of disobedience, the ‘happy fault’ of Eden’s garden—an act of defiance by man towards God, spurred on by the venom-infected-spittle of the serpent. Tonight the New Adam breaks the grip of sin of our humanity; the New Eve crushes the serpent’s head. Sin is overcome; death is put to death; the ‘virus’ of the serpent finds its antidote, its cure. Our prayer, of course, is that the virus that kills the body is swiftly consigned to the history books, but what is the use of that if what it has revealed—the sickness of our soul—is not also healed by its own medicine?

This year, then, our Easter feast presents us each with a familiar challenge in a new way: first, to open our hearts more and more to the light of Jesus Christ: a light that dispels the darkness; a light that by its heat cauterizes the wounds of sin, thereby allowing them to heal. This is not straightforward in a time when our access to the sacraments is limited, and when the normal activities by which we participate in the life of the Church are not possible. But the Lord does not abandon us, and nor should we in our distress abandon Him. This is the time to find consolation in the scriptures, to deepen the life of prayer and devotion in our family homes, to rediscover the freedom of a virtue-oriented disciplined life, and to find in the treasury of the Church’s liturgical life a new, albeit unusual way, to drink from the streams of grace which God continues to offer us in and through His Church.

Secondly we are called to be so consumed by that light, so fervent in our renewed devotion to the Lord, that others who might otherwise fall into despair, through us might come to know Him. As Saint John Henry Newman put it, to become so united to the Lord that others might “look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus.” In our homes, in the quiet and unseen places of our lives, our faith must now be strong; our hearts must now be full of hope for a world that not only cries out for physical healing, but which (perhaps yet unknown) cries out also for the true healing that comes only from the Divine Physician. He is the hope of all the world, and we—at all times, and perhaps now most especially—are his heralds. Conscious of this gift, and of the privileged work that by it is entrusted to us, tonight, and from tonight, our hearts sing in joy at that knowledge. 

Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluia.