15 Apr 2017

Easter Vigil at the Holy Sepulchre - Homily of Archbishop Pizzaballa

The traditional Easter Vigil, through which Christians in all parts of the world penetrate the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, entering into the joy of his glorious life, is celebrated in the early morning of Holy Saturday in Jerusalem. This Vigil, which the Church considers “the mother of all holy vigils”, is usually held at night, but here it is brought forward to the morning hours for reasons of local necessity according to the provisions of the status quo. The 19th-century liturgical arrangements which still govern in the church require this celebration as before the reform of the Holy Week liturgy by Pope Pius XII in 1955, the Easter Vigil was celebrated on Holy Saturday morning.The celebration takes place in the same place as the Anastasis, before the Aedicule of the Empty Tomb, discovered Easter morning by Mary Magdalene, and proclaims the gospel of the Lord who rose gloriously from the dead.

Easter Vigil
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Jerusalem, April 15, 2017

Dear brothers and sisters,

May the Lord give you peace!

We are gathered at the Great Celebration of the entire Liturgical Year. We should say gathered at the “night of nights” or “the great vigil”, but instead we are in the early hours of Saturday. The liturgy throughout the rest of the world on this day celebrates silence and waiting. In fact, there are no liturgical celebrations throughout the day. Around the world, the tomb of Christ and the mystery of his death are “guarded”, in a great and wonderful silence, but not like the watch guards of the Gospel that we just heard. There is no fear in us, not even a tremor (28:4), because in our heart we already know what awaits us. The whole Church is taking care of this waiting, in the certainty of the glorious day of resurrection. Therefore, it is an expectation filled with serene hope.

In Jerusalem we lose this moment of silence and waiting. We seem eager to rush at once towards the joy of the risen One. Besides, the entire Holy Week has been a race. From the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. From the Upper Room and to Gethsemane and from Gethsemane to Calvary and the Tomb, the Holy City liturgies make us run all over the city, like the disciples and the women of the Sepulcher, as if in wanting to stubbornly emphasize our belonging to these holy stones; liturgies spelled out by times and ancient and complicated processes that must fit our races to those of other Christian Churches that celebrate the same events in the same places, and also of the other non-Christian communities of Jerusalem, also here to pray in the House Prayer for all peoples, as the prophet Isaiah says (56:7).

I like to think, as partial justification for this racing and this impatience of ours, which cannot be otherwise, it cannot be but this way. Like two thousand years ago, so also today in the world one cannot have Easter, if it’s not first celebrated in Jerusalem. Christ rises in the world, in churches and men’s homes, after the Sign of the empty tomb is announced here in Jerusalem.

And now we come to the meaning of our celebration. What then are we celebrating today in this morning vigil?

We celebrate four Passovers, four passages: the exodus from Egypt and from our slavery; the passage of the Lord among His people as a sign of their release; we celebrate the Passover meal, the memorial by means of which the Jewish people to this day commemorate the salvific event (“With your loins girded, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand; you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover” Ex 12:11); we celebrate the Passover of Christ, His passage from this world to the Father (Jn 13:1) and finally celebrate the Passover of the Church in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Moreover, the Word of God that we’ve heard, and the signs and symbols that we saw and which we will mention in this celebration place before us the whole history of salvation: the fire and the light, the water and the bread are accompanied by the contemplation of God’s work in us, from creation to the resurrection of Christ and up to the time of the Church, with the letter to the Romans.

Fire is a sign of God’s presence: it blazes in the burning bush that spoke to Moses (Ex 3:4); it’s the pillar of fire that accompanies the people in the desert (Ex 13:21), it’s the flame that burns perpetually in the Jerusalem Temple, and which now becomes the light of the risen Christ, a perpetual presence in our midst, God-with-us forever.

The water, on which the Spirit of God hovered initially (Gen 1:2) and which by the flood deluges the world of sin, became a symbol of washing, of purification, of God’s desire to make us forget our infidelities and to make us new creatures: “I will sprinkle clean water upon and you will be cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness… I will give you a new heart” (Ez 36:25). Water and fire are also a sign of the Spirit who, given by the Father and the risen Son and descends first on the Apostles, through baptism now dwells in us and makes us a living presence of Christ in the world.

Soon, indeed, by means of the baptismal liturgy, sin and loneliness will be erased by the sign of the water with which we will be sprinkled and by the sign of the Paschal candle, the light. Together, the two signs are to indicate we are new creatures, a new presence of God in the world.

And in the bread that we will break, we will celebrate the eternal covenant, the everlasting pact, the sacrifice for our redemption, the memorial of the death and resurrection.

What riches! Too great to be simply narrated. It must indeed be celebrated in song, in the ancient Exultet, the proclamation that wonderfully rejoices for the marvels God has done in our history.

This liturgy, then, tells it all. But it is not only the theological and liturgical account of a story. It is an event that still speaks to us today. What does it tell us?

So we reread this story, as every year, asking ourselves, what does it say to us today? What does it tell me?

We should have started our liturgy in the dark of the night. In this case, we can only imagine the darkness. It is significant that we should start there. It is the darkness of our hearts. It is the darkness of the drama of our existence, the darkness of our more real questions, those which we do not know and that alone we cannot answer: what is the point of death? Why evil? What real hope can there be for our lives? Who can give us salvation? What does it mean to be redeemed?

A word of the prophet Ezekiel, which we often found in the Liturgy of Lent, can perhaps in itself sum up all these questions, all this darkness, “Our crimes and our sins weigh us down; we are rotting away because of them. How then can we live?” (Ez 33:10). How then can we live?

The Paschal Vigil is first of all the place of real questions, it’s the moment where we dare to ask questions about life. Even in the Jewish ritual, there was the moment for questions, where the youngest of the home, simply, asked: why this feast? Because…?

And, we must not hide it from us, the answer we do not already know beforehand, it is not given once and for all; we need an answer that touches life, which makes us truly understand how this event that we celebrate has something to do with our existence. This is why we are here.

Listening to the lengthy Word of God that we just proclaimed, we have not immediately found an answer straightaway, ready-made: we instead heard a story that starts from very far away, a complex story, with ups and downs, with very different episodes among them. What unites these events? What makes these deeds one big picture?

These events have a common thread, namely, that it is not about anything other than the history of God with men. We listened to the account of creation (first reading) where it all starts, where God, in order to love, opens a way in space and in time, the sowing period with words, and everything is created.

In order to enter into this history, there is only one path, of obedience and total trust (second reading). But if we enter this door, we accept everything by losing, afterwards we find it multiplied a hundredfold and returned forever. Love aims high, right up to heaven.

The way of love passes through the impossible (third reading): one thing alone God does not accept for His people, that they are slaves. So he descends and becomes a traveling companion, and from that moment every impossible thing becomes possible.

Every love story knows the time of crisis: Israel repeatedly stumbles in its unfaithfulness (fourth reading). Yet God does not give up, does not abandon forever. And when we are far away, he shouts out His most beautiful declarations of love: “Though the mountains leave their place
and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Is 54:10).

The path of love knows other ways than we expect: His thoughts are not our thoughts (fifth reading). And it goes further and manages to call even the stranger, the different, and the distant. Love is for all.

Love, then, likes to share tastes and desires: for this reason God delivers His law to Israel, He opens His treasures, so that Israel may know what is in God’s heart (sixth reading).

And now, finally, God does not just give us His law: the prophet announces days when the Lord will give us just everything, He will give us his Spirit (seventh reading).

The path of love leads us to here, to this heart-wrenching desire to belong to each other, God and us.

The Old Testament leads us to recognize that we need this Spirit to be able to live in communion with God, that by ourselves, this life is impossible for us.

We’ve heard the story, but we’ve not found our answers.

We’ve understood that God does not abandon, that He remains faithful, that He always opens a way, but it’s still not enough, if the fact remains that man is unable – by himself – to receive and enjoy this immense gift.

How then can we live?

This story, moreover, seemed to come to an end precisely in the mystery that we celebrated a few days ago, when man, facing a new and final offer of love from God, spoke a further no, and put the beloved Son, the heir, on the cross. It could’ve been the last act of this drama: and darkness would have been total.

Well, the Paschal Vigil shows us an unexpected conclusion.

The fulfillment, the end of this story is the Eucharist that we are celebrating.


Because the Eucharist is the life of the Risen Christ given to us, and we nourish oursleves with a new life, which has already passed through death, and therefore has no more fear of dying. And a life that has no more fear of dying, is not afraid to love and will be able to receive the gift of love without any fear of getting lost.

The Lord entered into death, He entered into our “no” and into our sin; but since He entered there full of love, He did not remain a prisoner there and came out of it alive. But that will not yet be everything, if this new life was only his own problem. Rather, this life, in the Spirit, through faith and Baptism, is totally given to us: we have been immersed in it, and it is as if we were dead and risen with Him.

For this reason, in the first centuries of the Church, Baptisms were only celebrated during the Easter Vigil, and that’s why now we recall our Baptism: because the central event of our lives is this passage that, only by faith, has caused us to enter into God’s own life, and that allows us to celebrate the Eucharist, namely, the life that we are already given and towards which we are proceeding, so that it may always become more full in us. The Eucharist is this unbroken passage towards a new life, the life of God in us: it is an unceasing Passover.

So, the only possible answer to all our questions cannot be but a new life, which takes on all the evil, all the pain, all the sin that still continues to exist, and immerses it in the life of Christ, which is a life of total communion; and immersed in Christ, everything loses its power of death, because it can no longer turn us away from God: we can continue to live because of Him.

So the promise that the prophet Ezekiel announced in the seventh reading of this ‘morning’ is now fulfilled: “I will give you a new heart, I will put within you a new spirit, I will take from you the heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you…” (Ezek 36:26-27).

All this was accomplished in Christ, all this is given us to live and celebrate.

May it be given us to celebrate it in life!

Christ is risen, he is truly risen. Alleluia!

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