The Gospel reading tonight began with the words, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning . . .” (Matthew 28:1) The reading describes the experiences of two women who were disciples of Jesus. They went to his tomb, and found that it was empty. An angel told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. As they were leaving the vicinity of the tomb they encountered Jesus who gave them a message for the Eleven apostles.
I quoted the first line to you because of its relationship to the Easter Vigil we celebrate tonight. The current form of the Vigil begins on Holy Saturday night, after sunset. This current form is an accommodation to modern sensibilities. The original form of the Vigil was a proper Vigil: it was a night watch. It began at night, shortly after midnight, and continued until dawn. That is the meaning of “vigil,” a watch through the night until dawn.
Catholicism has always put a very high value on symbolism. In the Scriptures, and in Catholic theological imagination, the darkness of night time is a symbol of the darkness of unbelief. In John’s Gospel Jesus described himself as the light of the world, and said, “If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:9-10) Saint Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “All of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness.” (1 Thes 5:5)
The Easter Vigil begins in the darkness of night, referring to the darkness of unbelief that is characteristic of a life without faith in Jesus the Crucified. During the night the Church proclaims “Resurrexit sicut dixit,” that is, “He (Jesus), has been raised just as he said,” the joyful message proclaimed by the angel at the empty tomb. (Matthew 28:6) Originally, the Vigil ended at dawn on Easter Sunday, a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus and a promise of resurrection for all creation.
The current form of the Vigil is a recognition of the fact that few people would be interested in waking early enough (or staying awake late enough), at night in order to participate in a liturgy that would end at dawn. While I won’t feel the least bit guilty about sleeping until it’s almost dawn tomorrow, I do wonder about the cumulative effects of making accommodations to our religious practices. There is a point at which our accommodations will dilute our worship and belief into mediocrity and indifference.
All of us make accommodations, for our personal convenience, from time to time. A few years ago, during Lent, some friends of mine invited me to dinner on a Friday night. As those friends are Catholic I assumed that we would be going to a seafood restaurant. Eating at a good seafood restaurant is hardly a penitential practice befitting Lent, but I was willing to make that slight accommodation for the sake of spending time with good friends. I was in for a surprise; my friends had made dinner reservations at a steakhouse.
At the time, they were experiencing a period of disaffection that happens occasionally to Catholics. They felt the need to live dangerously by flaunting some minor penitential practices. I didn’t want to chastise them about their obdurate behavior, as that was probably what they were expecting. Neither did I want to be seen in public violating the Lenten prescription to abstain from meat, as I’m always eager to appear more virtuous than I really am. Fortunately, the steakhouse listed one fish entree on the menu; unfortunately, it tasted so bad that it fulfilled both the requirement for Lenten abstinence from meat and the Lenten spirit of penance.
Do these kind of minor accommodations make a lot of difference in one’s faith life? Probably not. Ignoring the Lenten fast either by eating meat or by eating at a really good seafood restaurant probably doesn’t even register on God’s radar. On the other hand, there is certainly a point at which our accommodations, either for self or others, become the real sin of faithlessness.
There is, on the other hand, another danger to be avoided in religion. While half-hearted faith is a failed faith, a rigorous faith is no better. Catholicism is rife with rigorism. Lent is intended to be a time of repentance, but for some it is an opportunity to make a very public show of personal piety. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is intended to be an opportunity for repentance, but some use it to bolster their self-righteousness. The Eucharist is intended to be our participation in, and weekly renewal of, the new Covenant in the blood of Jesus; for some, participation in Eucharist is an act of pride and exclusivity.
Both impenitence and rigorism are variations on the same theme; both are expressions of too much self-concern. It will always be necessary to struggle with the two opposing values of sensible practice and faithful practice. Faith, however, isn’t the “happy median” between laxity and stringency; faith is described by the Scriptures as a choice to rely solely on God’s power. There is a way to have certainty about where we place our faith and about the efficacy of our faith. Tonight’s third reading provides instruction about the certainty of faith.
Chapter Fourteen of Exodus recounts Israel’s victory over the army of Pharaoh. Israel’s victory consisted in doing little more than obeying God’s commands. Pharaoh had complete confidence in the invincibility of his army; the People of Israel had only their trust in God. An impressive number of chariots, horsemen and infantry was laid waste by the trust that Israel put in God’s power.
Just as the story of Israel’s victory is actually the story of God’s victory over the faithlessness of Pharoah; the story of our victory in baptism is the story of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. In the third Responsorial Psalm tonight we sang, “In saving waters, we sink like a stone. To God be praise and glory!” Israel’s victory over Pharaoh (and faithlessness), began with a cry for help, and ended with a song of thanksgiving to God. In the same way, our victory over sin and death begins with an acknowledgment of our own weakness, and is completed with a song of praise for God’s mercy.
The measure of real faith is an uncompromising focus on God. Faith in the One, True God is not focused on ourselves, neither on our comfort nor our strength. Faith does not celebrate our own accomplishments or virtues. Faith cries out for, and rejoices in, God’s action on our behalf.
How can we know when our sensible accommodations have degenerated into lukewarmness of faith? How can we know that our religious practice is too rigorous? The metric is the same for both situations. We have only to ask this question: what is made visible in my actions? Is it my own confidence or is it God’s power?
In a short time, we will renew the vows of our Baptism. All of the penance, fasting, prayer and almsgiving of Lent have led up to that moment in which we reject evil, and affirm our faith in God. When you stand in the light of the candle you will hold for that renewal of faith, keep one thing in mind: the Scriptures’ definition of a life of faith. St. Paul described that life of faith in his Letter to the Romans. “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.” (Romans 13:11-13)