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  • Writer's picturePastor Maggie

An ancient blessing

Pastor Maggie's homily from this year's Easter Vigil. Loosely based on Genesis 1.


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I love Easter Vigil. One of the things that I enjoy most about Easter Vigil is that with its fire and water and incense and movement between spaces it’s primal in a way our other celebrations aren’t. It calls to deep parts of us that our modern life often glides over. Holy Saturday is that in between moment. It’s not Good Friday, with its shock and grief. Nor is it Easter Sunday, with its victorious joy. Holy Saturday is the uncertainty of everything in between. Holy Saturday is not knowing how the test results are going to come back. Holy Saturday is knowing you need to find different work, looking for a new job, but not seeing the right thing yet. Holy Saturday is packing your life up in boxes ready for a move, but still not knowing where you’ll make your home. Holy Saturday is sitting in the waiting room while a baby you know you will love is getting ready to be born. It’s the tension of standing on the threshold between two different versions of your life—not really in the past and not in the future yet either. You can see both of them, but neither of them are now. I think we live a lot of our lives in this middle place, and Holy Saturday is an opportunity to practice existing somewhere between grief and joy.


What struck me about the liturgy this year is the way we consider the night. I think we as modern people have a very different relationship with night than our ancestors did. The Industrial Revolution (so think starting in late 1700s and really cranking along by the mid 1800s) fundamentally changed people’s relationship with night. Pre-industrial peoples believed the night was full of dangers, illnesses, and spirits. We don’t think of these folks as silly or dumb, because in a couple hundred years, when people look back, we know we will seem silly and dumb. Right? People then just conceive of the world differently based on their knowledge and experiences.


Night had always been a place of terrors. There are cultures around the world who for have always had gods and imps and spirits who ruled the night and took special pains to haunt and bedevil people. The Greeks had Nyx, the Babylonians Lilith; east of Jerusalem, the Essene people of Qumran (writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) had an “Angel of Darkness”. And speaking of bedeviling, Christianity had its own nighttime boogeyman—the Devil.


Nighttime was scary. Not just for kids, but for adults too. Unlike other animals, we humans don’t see as well at night. Imagine being out on the road at night with only a lantern for illumination. Imagine hearing a horse heading your way. Do you hear how loud the hooves are in the quiet of the night? How would you know if the person (or people?) on horseback coming toward you is a friend or a danger?


And you might think that the moon could help you, but no luck there either. In the minds of many pre-modern, European people, the moon was responsible for madness and disease. The moon was thought to alter the amount of moisture in a person’s body, including their brain, and drive people to insanity. In one London parish, at the end of the 1500s, during a 15 year span, 22 deaths were attributed to the influence of the moon.


People believed that the moon also brought plaguelike damps, and with nightfall, noxious vapors came from the sky and brought on fevers and colds and other contagious illnesses. They thought the evening air entered the body through the pores and that this invasion caused damage to healthy organs.


Night was risky. It was full of demons and devils and spirits and illness and danger. You survived it by staying inside. You kept the windows tightly closed so nothing could sneak in. You lit candles to stave off disaster, for, as Plato once declared, “Evil spirits love not the smell of lamps.” You stayed inside, you lit candles, and you didn’t sleep alone. Not only were beds too expensive to have one for every person in a household, when you woke up in the dark at night, there was someone there to help keep you safe and to talk to until you fall asleep again. (There’s a really great book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, if you want to learn more about the nightlife of the pre-industrial western world.)


Why am I bringing this up? I would guess that most of us don’t think about these things much anymore. Our nights are filled with lights—inside and outside. I would guess that most of us have a light making device in our pockets right now. There is entertainment available after dark—movies and restaurants and tv and games and the whole of the internet. Many of us choose to sleep alone, and for the most part, we sleep without fear. Many of us even sleep wearing earplugs to drown out the noise of a world that continues moving, despite the night.


And so, in our ignorance, we could easily overlook how deeply the primordial fears of night shape our Vigil. A perfect example is the Exsultet Tom sang earlier this evening. It’s full of images of nighttime terrors—the bleakness of the underworld, the need to dispel wickedness, the sacrifice necessary to avoid an evening visit from the Angel of Death, the gloom of sin and separation.


This song is a historic part of the church—a tie to the 4th century Spanish and French Christian communities in which it originated. And though the way it describes the story of salvation might not be how we would describe it now, might not be theology we’d sign off on as 100% our own, it is an important part of the story we tell. It reminds us that there is something in this world bigger than all the scary things. It reassures us that we don’t have to be terrorized by the night. It reminds us that this night is different because we celebrate the ancient Genesis blessing—“let there be light!”—as the Christ-light glows warmly for us, “restoring joy to mourners, driving out hatred, fostering concord, and bringing down the mighty,” as the Exsultet says. Whether from the humble work of bees, or the humble work of a carpenter and his community, the light on this night reminds us that God is always speaking light and life to us.


And so, as we stand on this threshold, neither in what was or what is to come (but maybe thinking about beginning to lift our foot to step into Easter Resurrection), I want to offer you these blessings:

 

Where uncertainty obscures your path: Let there be light.

Where confusion muddles your mind: Let there be light.

Where your heart is fractured: Let there be light.

Where you can’t tell friend from stranger: Let there be light.

Where you feel lonely: Let there be light.

Where anxiety invades: Let there be light.

Where fear grips you: Let there be light.

Where overwhelm threatens you: Let there be light.

Where you feel weighed down: Let there be light.

Where it seems as though the night will never end: Let there be light.

 

Whether you are stuck in the past, or looking ahead, remember that in this moment, these blessings are seeping into your pores, finding their way to your heart to offer you hope and healing. Remember that on this night, things of heaven are wed to those of earth, bringing Christ’s dazzling light to you, for you, and in you, so that even when the night seems deepest, you will never again need fear the world and its many terrors.


Let there be light. Let there be light. Let there be light. Amen.

 

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