Easter's Vigil: Many flames divided, yet never dimmed

Benedict XVI's last Easter homily pays tribute to nature's presence in the life of the Church

We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. (Rom. 6:9)

Unlike Easter Sunday Masses and services, the Easter Vigil—the most important moment in the Christian calendar—begins in the dark.

At the onset of tonight’s Vigil, one of the catechumens—a father in his thirties—turned and looked behind him. From his front pew, he surveyed faces lit by the glow of hundreds of solitary candles that were being extended to kindle others. He had been an individual separated by shadow; now he was united by a flame that, while divided, was far from dim.

The glorious truth about this moment—this communion of souls aglow as God is praised in the singing of the ancient Exsultet—is that each of us at the Easter Vigil is entirely different in our gender, age, size, health, backgrounds, skills, sufferings, and joys. And none of us know if that new Paschal Candle will be the one lit for our funeral this coming year. But in that moment of light, that happy moment, we are unified by those solitary, uniform flames.

And if some of the candles went out—if a poison or a lack of oxygen extinguished flames in one corner of the church—you’d notice.

"The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world." Benedict XVI

Ecosystems are much like a parish family standing in the dark holding candles while gazing at the elevated Paschal Candle. They’re a unique collection of living organisms that illuminate each other—and that need God, the source of all life. If organisms go extinct, you’d notice—well, maybe you or I wouldn’t notice right away if an odd species in some far corner of creation died off. But in time we would—especially if the rates of extinction were to accelerate.

As I gazed at the candlelit church tonight, I thought briefly of recent news of global extinctions. This thought reminded me that our need for Christ is as real as ever because humanity’s reach has exploded with our technologies and our appetites.

We should be clear on this: Species are being extinguished and there are many reasons why. Some are natural. Some aren’t. For instance, a demand for rhino tusks has that species in danger. Sometimes invasive organisms, brought from one ecosystem to another by the migrations of man, are the cause. Sometimes toxins stress—or destroy—particular species, and crucial ones, like the bees that make the wax for our Paschal Candles.

And then there’s climate change.

Alterations in how the planet distributes thermal energy and moisture impact how plants and animals move, feed, interact, and reproduce. Recent studies not only show how this may be happeningfor instance, because of extreme weatherbut also that we may be underestimating the mechanisms and speed of extinctions because of climate change.

Death, it may seem, is winning. But there have been other times when death appeared equally, if not more, victorious. ​

Easter is a good time to consider all this because the Resurrection is the authoritative victory of life over sin and death. Thus, if we wish to truly take part in the Paschal mystery—that is, if we truly wish to protect the light of those around us, and our own—then we must not only educate ourselves about ecological matters, but we must have the courage to act swiftly, decisively, and without fear. After all, of what should a people who proclaim He Is Risen! be fearful?

Moreover, the good news of Easter is that the victory is already won. We must merely participate in it, as did our early brothers and sisters in Christ.

By that I mean, when the first disciples of Christ witnessed the Resurrection, they reoriented everything about who they were. They re-interpreted their scriptures and re-thought the nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they changed the day of the Sabbath and abandoned ancient temple sacrifices for the sacrifice of bread and wine at the command of the Christ.

They re-wrote the book of their lives, and so must we.

Indeed, we must do so because we are commanded to love God and our neighbors—and extinction is an affront to the Creator and it is a danger to humans—individually, culturally, and globally.

That dad who was entering the Church tonight in baptism—the one who was admiring the beauty of so many souls holding their candles before them—told me a story after Mass about fishing for his daughter’s dental retainer in a restaurant garbage dumpster in the rain on a cold night. His young girl was distraught at losing the retainer in a discarded napkin, and he did what a good father does—he entered the darkness and reclaimed the good that was lost.

What this dad did, God the Father has done for us. In Christ, God sent His Son to enter sin and death so to reclaim our lost goodness, that is, to reorient our human condition towards life.

Now it’s up to us to respond.

If we are truly an Easter people, then we must value all life, because all life is part of the tapestry of the cosmos and it is not ours to extinguish. We are to be a people that transmit, sustain, and encourage life, not destroy it. We must be a people that lives so that others—here, now, and in the future—may live. And to do that, we need to protect viable ecosystems.

From the Christian context, we must ensure that no corner of creation is without the life of Christ—the true life that cannot be dimmed, the life that gathers, that heals, and that offers ever more life until the end of the ages.

Indeed, we must pay heed to the Holy Father, who in his homily for this year's Easter Vigil said this:

The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect. It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees. So the whole of creation plays its part. In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light. But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church. The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.

Let us pray to the Lord at this time that he may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world. Amen.

Truly, Easter is a time for all creation. It is a time to protect ecosystems by truly orienting our lives, our appetites, our economies, and our cultures to these ancient, true words:

Exult! Let them exult! The hosts of heaven, exult,

let Angel ministers of God exult,

let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud

our mighty King’s triumph!

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,

ablaze with light from her eternal King,

let all corners of the earth be glad,

knowing an end to gloom and darkness!

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.