The Easter vigil is an evening, a night, of deep silence. Silence pervades it.
A deep silence: outside of every possible word that could ever be spoken; outside of every space ‘in which’ anything could be. Before time had its own minor beginning…Before any where was anywhere.
The silence we are in tonight is the morning of the world of time and space. We are daring to break the silence to sing the matins of the morning. We know the utter incompleteness of every attempt to explain anything…
The silence becomes an atmosphere. The silence is the guardian of the Beginning. On this Easter morning, we thrill to that Beginning. It would make a Trappist talk out loud.
Beginning – it is the first word of Mark’s gospel. The first line of that gospel reads: Beginning of good news of Jesus, Son of God, the Anointed One. There is no initial ‘the’ in that line. Beginning outright, not the beginning or a beginning. There are small beginnings all over the place in Mark’s story, but there is only one outright Beginning. Arche. Not proton. Not the first of a series. (Nothing ever comes second, or third…) An absolute NEWNESS. Like the Beginning of the book of Genesis. Breshith…. It has the suddenness, the unpreparedness of the One and Only Absolute Origin.
The silence is not its preparation. It has no preparation. It is always Beginning. The silence is its guardian.
That is why I have never been sure about that first line of Mark. I have often wondered if it is in the wrong place in the text, as Jesus’ public ministry becomes visible. I have pondered the possibility of its being better placed at the end of the gospel. Beginning is much the same as Rising from the dead. It is another word for it.
Beginning – it is more than a sense of living as we know it, it includes and is more than a sense of dying as we imagine it. It is of another order than living and dying. There is an Otherness. Words like creation, and covenant, or any other words are limp when faced with It. The only thing we can call it is ….Resurrection….Beginning.
In the early part of John’s gospel, disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus. He greets them with a question: What is it that you seek? Quid Qaeritis? At the end of that gospel, Mary of Magdala approaches the place where Jesus has been buried. He greets her with a question: Who (not what) is it that you seek? Quem quaeritis? No thing, no what, can be in that silence, in that Beginning….only a person who is beyond both living and dying.
In the early middle ages, in the monasteries, at the Easter Vigil, there was a sung dialogue between the women who came to the tomb and the angels who were already there.
Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Whom do you seek in the sepulchre, o followers of Christ?
Jesus Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, o heavenly ones.
Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.
He is not here; he is risen, as he foretold. Go, announce it – he is risen from the sepulchre.
A little later, this was expanded. Four monks enter the sanctuary as for a liturgy. One is in white. He comes near the sepulchre. He holds a palm in his hand. He sits quietly. He is the angel of the tomb. The other three monks come, with thuribles and incense. They seem to be seeking something. They come to the sepulchre. The angel sings:
Whom seek ye at the sepulchre, o followers of Christ?
They respond in unison:
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o celestial one.
The angel responds:
He is not here, he is risen, as he foretold.
Go tell everyone he is risen from the dead.
The whole monastic community does as the angel bids.
Alleluia! The Lord is risen today
The strong lion, the Christ, the Son of God.
Give thanks to God, and sing Alleluia!
The angel then says to them,
Come, see the place where the Lord was laid. Alleluia, Alleluia!
He then lifts the veil and shows the place bare of both cross and crucified, with the cloths lying there with which the crucified was wrapped. The monks pick up the cloth and spread it before the eyes of all, as if making known that the Lord has risen and is not now wrapped in this linen…or anything else. They place the cloth on the altar… They begin the Te Deum…
They did a similar thing at the Christmas liturgy.
Quem quaeritis in praesepe, pastores, dicite?
Whom do you seek in the crib, shepherds, tell us?
Salvatorem Christum Dominum, infantem pannis involutum, secundum sermonem angelicum.
The Saviour, Christ, the Lord, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, as the angel said.
Adest hic cum Maria matre sua….Nuntiate omnibus, quia natus est.
He is here with his mother Mary…Go, tell everyone, he is born.
He is born.
PUER NATUS EST NOBIS
FILIUS DATUS EST NOBIS
CHILD IS BORN FOR US
SON IS GIVEN TO US
[Bishop Gilbert had been 37 years a monk in Pluscarden monastery…]
“….I ask myself what those 37 years have done to me, brought me….. It’s simply a realisation, a glimmer of realisation, a small beginning of a realisation, of Christ. Putting it liturgically, I could say it’s the discovery of Easter, of Christ’s Passover from death to life, his Resurrection. …. What a monastery gives a monk or a nun is only what the Church gives each of her children and offers the world. And what is that? What is it? It’s what the women found when they found the tomb empty that Sunday morning in Jerusalem. It’s what Peter and Paul and John found. It’s what the remarkable galaxy of people who wrote the New Testament were stammering to express.
It’s what the Liturgy in its simple power and beauty keeps alive in the world. It’s not a ‘what’, it’s a ‘who’. It is the person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, and the power of his Resurrection. The whole of Christianity, its faith, its worship, its ministry, its mission, everything life-giving in what Christians do, springs from that early Sunday morning, that empty tomb. It springs from the Resurrection of Christ, his victory over sin and death. What can the Church do – for us who belong to her, for those around us? What can she give? What can she bring? There’s only one answer: Easter. The person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, and the power of his Cross and Resurrection, and the fullness, the everything that unfolds from that.
The priority of priorities is Christ. He is God the Father’s priority: his beloved only-begotten Son. He’s the ‘first-born of all creation’. He’s the ‘first-born from the dead’. He’s the one the Holy Spirit is always working to bring alive in our hearts. And so what other priorities can we have – as lay believers, as religious, as clergy – than immersing ourselves ever more in and then proclaiming, celebrating, living the reality of Christ? May Christ be real to us! That is the thing.”