“Christ is risen and shines upon us” like a pillar of fire. When they were in Egypt, the children of Israel were not yet formally the chosen people whom God had promised to raise up from the descendants of Abraham. They were only the raw material for it: not really a people at all at that time, but only a disorganized mob of slaves with no leaders, no rights, and no laws. God was the one who freed them from their exterior slavery, and that was a foreshadowing of what he would later do to free all humanity from the interior slavery of sin. Throughout the darkness of the night, the Israelites were led out of Egypt by a pillar of fire, and it was to the waters of the Red Sea that they were brought. Passing through those waters they gained freedom from their slavery to Pharaoh; and by the covenant sealed in sacrificial blood on Mount Sinai, they became God’s chosen people.
Last night at the Easter Vigil, we too saw a pillar of fire – the paschal candle – lighting up the darkness. It too led a people to waters, waters blessed last night for the renewal of our baptismal promises. All who pass through the waters of baptism are freed from their slavery to Satan; and by the New Covenant sealed in sacrificial blood on Mount Calvary, become God’s chosen people of the New Testament. The pillar of fire which guided one people at the first Passover, becomes a Paschal candle in all the churches of the world, symbolizing Christ as the Light of the world. Majestically it burns in the midst of the church, the shining focal point of every gaze, giving light like Christ, who came to enlighten everyone born into this world.
The paschal candle is also a symbol of the risen body of Christ. For it bears in its body the marks of the wounds, or incisions, interpreted by the prayer, “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord guard us and protect us”. It is also marked with the Cross, the instrument and sign of Christ’s victory, and with the Alpha and Omega and the digits of the current year of salvation, to remind us that “”all time belongs to him and all the ages”, and that “to him belongs glory and power through every age and for ever”.
At the offertory of this morning’s Mass, it is the paschal candle which will be solemnly incensed – another sign of honor as if to a person. This is how the people of God in this time and place honor Christ as our glorious and risen Lord, who conquered death and hell, and opened for us the gates of heaven.
In the Exsultet, the Church cries out to the Father, “O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son! O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ!” Then comes the most startling phrase in the entire liturgy of the Church. O felix culpa: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” One of the more literal-minded Abbots of Cluny, St Hugh, was so disconcerted by this phrase that he actually had it removed from the Exsultet scroll used in his monastery!
And yet this startling outburst is fundamentally true. It doesn’t actually mean that Adam’s sin was something good in itself; but it does point to the fact that God’s wisdom brought out of something intrinsically evil a good which otherwise would never have come about – the grace which we celebrate today. And this redeemed state of humanity is even better for us than our state before the Fall. To call this a “happy fault” is really to say the same thing as St Paul: “Adam was a figure of the one who was to come. But the two are not the same, because God’s free gift is not like Adam’s sin. It is true that many people died because of the sin of that one man. But God’s grace is much greater, and so is his free gift to so many people through the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:14-15, Good News Bible).
Now, the light coming from the Holy Sepulchre is a “glowing fire”, “a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light”. So it should be with the faith and love of Christians enlightened by Christ. Our souls now live with the life received from the risen Christ. Our Christ-light, our Christ-life, we must now spread to others; and the more we can share it with others, the more brightly our own flame will burn. And may Christ, who came back from death’s domain, shed his peaceful light on all humanity, for he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.