“During this holy night, the Church endeavors to convey the meaning of the mystery celebrated in the Easter vigil, the mystery of the Lord’s Resurrection. She does so in the language proper to her, which is the language of symbol. Three great symbols dominate the liturgy of this night of the Resurrection: light, water, and the “new song”, that is, the Alleluia.
First, light. This is one of mankind’s primal symbols. Whether in the North that thirsts for light or in the South that is intoxicated by light, for men everywhere it has become the image of the mysterious divine power that they know sustains them in existence. In fact, at one time light was much more than an image to people. Augustine himself was still so deeply moved by the resplendent beauty of light that he dared write: “Christ is not called ‘light’ in the same way that he is called ‘cornerstone’. The latter name is applied to him by metaphor, whereas the former is meant in a literal sense” (De Genesi ad litteram IV, 28, 45). Earthly light is the most direct reflection of God’s reality and gives us our best glimpse of him who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16).
During the two great holy nights of the Church year, Christmas and Easter, the symbolism of light fuses with the symbolism of night. On both occasions, the Church uses the interplay of night and light to show symbolically what the content of the feast in question is: the encounter of God and the world, the victorious entry of God into a world that refuses him room and yet in the end cannot prevent him from taking it.
This Christ-centered drama of light and darkness, of God and the world as they encounter each other, begins on Christmas, when God knocks on the door of a world that rejects him even though it belongs to him (Jn 1:5-11). But the world cannot prevent his coming. He himself becomes “world” in becoming a man. His coming seems a defeat of the light, which becomes darkness, but at the same time it is the first, hidden victory of the light, since the world has not been able to prevent God from coming, however carefully it may have barred the doors of its inns.
Now, on Easter, the drama reaches its central act and climax. The darkness has used its ultimate weapon, death. In orderly judicial fashion, it has declared Truth and Love to be the chief criminals of world history and has condemned the light-bringer. But the Resurrection effects the great reversal. Light has won the victory and now lives on invincibly. Most important of all, it has made a bit of the world its own and transformed it into itself.
Of course, with that the drama is not yet over. Its end is still to come; it will arrive with the Parousia of the Lord. It is still night, albeit a night in which a light has been lit. When the Lord comes again, the day will last forever.
This great drama of history, in which we live out our own lives, is the background for the liturgy of the Paschal candle with which the celebration of the Easter vigil begins. The church building, in the darkness of night, where you cannot see anything and people stumble and bump into one another—is this not in fact an image of our world? A world that, despite all our scientific knowledge and all our social achievements, is still in deep darkness. In fact, it often seems darker than ever. Despite all our specialized knowledge, the meaning of the whole has become increasingly incomprehensible, even for the believer who often enough is dismayed by the seeming absence of God, who cannot be found in worldly commotion. Who can fail to be deeply affected by the monstrous eclipse of God that we feel in Reinhold Schneider’s Winter in Vienna? And who can deny that, amid all the everyday conveniences that cover all questions with a security blanket, he suddenly senses from time to time something of this eclipse of God that seems at a single stroke to call everything into question? Who is there who is not forced like Cardinal Newman to utter a plea into the night around him: “O God, you can bring light into the darkness! You alone can do it!” And who is unaware of how men come into conflict and are stumbling blocks to one another in this night that covers the world and so often conceals, not only the ultimate things, but even what is near at hand (our neighbor!)?
As we wait in the pitch-dark church for the Easter light, we should experience the consoling realization: God is aware of the night that surrounds us. In fact, he has already kindled his light at the heart of it. “Light of Christ!—Thanks be to God!” The night enables us to appreciate what the light is. It is brightness that enables us to see; that shows the way and gives direction; that helps us to know both others and ourselves. It is warmth that strengthens and quickens, that consoles and gladdens. Finally, it is life, and this tiny quivering flame is an image of the wonderful mystery that we call “life” and that is in fact profoundly dependent on light.
Soon the entire church is radiant with the bright light of the candles everyone is holding. Then it is no longer merely a celebration of the Resurrection; it is a foreshadowing of the Second Coming of the Lord, whom we are advancing to meet with lamps lit. It is a glimpse of the great eschatological feast of light, an anticipation of the wedding feast of God that is illumined by the gleam of countless candles. Something of the joy that marks a wedding should overwhelm us on this night so bright with candles.
And also, of course, the question: “Will I be one of those who sit at God’s table? Will my lamp have enough oil for the everlasting wedding feast?” But perhaps it is even more Christian to ask ourselves the right questions about the present. The world is indeed dark, but even a single candle suffices to bring light into the deepest darkness. Did not God give us a candle at baptism and the means of lighting it? We must have the courage to light the candle of our patience, our trust, our love. Instead of bewailing the night, we must dare to light the little lamp that God has loaned us: “Light of Christ!—Thanks be to God!”