PASCHAL VIGIL 2023
Jesus’ death is torture for me!
I prefer his life to his death….
While he was alive,
he brought only three dead persons back to life.
Now, thanks to his death,
all the dead come back to life,
and trample me
as they rush out through the gates of hell.
The 4th– century monk-poet St Ephrem the Syrian puts these words of grievance into the mouth of Death personified. Death is finally aggrieved! Alleluia! These inspired words express well the fear that troubles priests and Pharisees the day after Good Friday: “This last imposture would be worse than the first”, they say. At the very moment they believe they have finally gotten rid of Jesus, the authorities too sense how much more dangerous he might be dead than alive. Without realizing it, these staunch defenders of tradition are the first to experience the disruptive novelty imposed on Death by this dead man. Death is now robbed of the ability to silence its victims by plunging them into the “land of forgetfulness” (Ps 88:13). Alleluia!
Death, then, is no longer now the realm of silence and forgetfulness. By his death, Jesus restored the dead to speech, enabled them to speak again to our memory, to converse with us in the secret room of our interiority.
But this is still not enough: Jesus has not only taken away from Death its power to silence, but also the privilege of having the last word. The mystery of Jesus’ death has forced Death itself open and put a loud question mark after its irrevocable finality. Jesus has cracked Death open and forced its rigor and haughty pride to sit humbly in the expectation of unheard-of newness. Alleluia! Because of the ever-greater power of the way Jesus has loved us into the very jaws of Death, Death, though real, is no longer an absolute. When a God embraces Death out of love, Death is wonderfully and shamefully relativized and can no longer be a tyrannical tormenter. The power of Jesus’ love turns Death into a tame, whimpering creature:
Death and life have contended
In that combat stupendous:
The Prince of Life, who died,
With what trepidation priests and Pharisees must have waited for the third day! Perhaps more than the guards at the tomb, they will have kept vigil on that night, tormented by the absurd doubt that wrested from Death its last word. They wonder in a daze: What if, just maybe, that outlaw really will rise again? … Then they shake their heads: Impossible! Yet that unmentionable doubt would not let them sleep. At the same time, NO! It would not be enough for that motley crew of fishermen to steal his body to make the crowd believe that their Teacher had risen. Where would that ragtag gang of bumpkins have found the courage to offer up an empty tomb as the only proof of resurrection? Only gullible people would believe it! Yet, though they cannot admit it, there is obviously more behind their request for guards to keep tight watch over the tomb of the Nazarene. They feel that slim but persistent doubt (What if? What if?) worming its way through their conscience and capable of picking the lock of Death’s omnipotence.
This doubt is not yet faith, much less hope; but it is enough to keep Death from continuing to be the despot it had always been. Death, after tonight, can no longer, ever again, be the definitive door slammed on the abyss of despair, perdition and nothingness. Death, just maybe, can now become the gateway flung open to the newness of Him who is the Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:25).
This is the night
When Christ broke the prison-bars of death
And rose victorious from the underworld.
(Fr. Simeon, OCSO, Easter Vigil Homily)