Out of Darkness
(Easter Vigil Gospel: Luke 24:1-12; Easter Day Readings: Acts 10:34, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9)
Whenever I'm conducting a child's baptism, and we get to the point where someone lights the child's baptismal candle from the large paschal candle in the sanctuary, I always tell the same story. I tell the congregation about Saint Aidan, the Irish monk who brought the Christian faith to the north east of England in the seventh century.
In most of the pictures and statues of Aidan he's shown standing with a torch in his hand. The "message" conveyed by that symbolism is that the source of the light is Christ, while Aidan, as a missionary, is his torch-bearer, carrying Christ's light into regions of darkness.
During the Easter Season we have a similar symbolism in the new paschal candle, which we bring into the church in procession at the start of the Easter Vigil, and in the small candles that we light from the larger candle when we renew our baptismal promises.
The big Easter candle stands for Christ himself, shining in the midst of the darkness of a sinful world. Our job is to carry Christ's light, like Aidan: to be enlightened by the truth of Christ's message and to burn with the flame of faith.
This connection between the celebration of Jesus' resurrection and the sacrament of baptism was established early on in the Church's history. When converts to the Christian faith were baptised both they and the communities who received them had a strong sense that they were taking a momentous step. They understood themselves to be giving up a way of life devoted to self-interested goals to join themselves to Christ and to follow the path of holiness.
That's still how we understand Baptism, and so it's natural for us to resort to this symbolism of darkness and light because Christianity is a religion of redemption. It's all about being lifted out of our sin and moral failure and being made whole through contact with God. And the most obvious time to emphasise that is the time of someone's baptism, when they're starting off on this journey out of darkness into the light of Christian faith.
When Saint Aidan arrived in the pagan kingdoms of Northumbria he assumed, as a matter of course, that the people were living in darkness because they hadn't yet been told about God and his great saving actions, culminating in the mission of his Son. Missionaries like Aidan also assumed, then, that proclaiming the message of salvation was a matter of urgency: people had to be informed about God's great works and brought into the light as quickly as possible. There was a whole world to be won over to the gospel, and time is short.
Missionaries like Aidan took their convictions from the Bible and from the Christian Tradition, and those sources, including own Christian scriptures in the New Testament, don't on the whole place much faith in our ability to direct our intelligence and our moral conscience towards truth, towards goodness, or justice, or love - or any positive value. When it comes to our human capabilities, taken by themselves, the main sources of our faith paint quite a pessimistic picture.
A Christian sense of optimism comes not from any trust we have in our own resources but from recognising the fact that God has come to our rescue.
When Jesus was putting forward his high standards of holiness and the disciples reacted with amazement, and said, "nobody can be saved, then!" he told them: "no, for men this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible".
In fact that sense of optimism even finds expression in the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil, which goes as far as saying "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" - poetic language, brimming over with the conviction that with Christ sin and death are defeated, and everyone now who wants to be rescued, can be.
Isn't that the essence of what we celebrate every Easter?
To finish there's one more thing I'd like mention briefly, again going back to the example of Saint Aidan and evangelising figures like him.
Like all the Church's great missionaries, Saint Aidan, as I said, had a burning sense that the people he went to evangelise were living in darkness and needed to be brought into the light. But there was no trace of superiority or condescension in his attitude.
He believed of course that the values and purposes of people's lives, if they were passed in ignorance of God, were inferior to lives directed towards the splendour of God's grace and holiness. But for individuals like Aidan, that was quite different from believing that people themselves are inferior. It was more a spur to try as hard as possible to persuade them to accept the faith.
In our circumstances now I think we've got to adopt the same attitude. Many church members today it seems have all kinds of doubts and difficulties with the Christian faith, all sorts of criticisms to make of the institutional Church - and these become obstacles that prevent them from embracing the faith wholeheartedly.
But speaking for myself, any doubts and difficulties and criticisms I have are reserved for our modern culture and modern way of living, which seems to me to be overwhelmingly shabby and shallow - graceless in the literal meaning of the word and open, instead, to all the worst tendencies of our fallen nature. Compared with that shabbiness and shallowness there's no competition - in my mind, anyway - with the depth and richness and beauty of Catholic Christianity.
The genuine evangelising stance we should adopt isn't contempt for people, who in many ways are the products of the culture they grow up in, as we all are to some extent.
Any missionary zeal we have should come from a sense that we value people more highly than they often value themselves; we entertain loftier aspirations for them than they often entertain for themselves. In other words, our attitude should be what it has always been: come out of the darkness and step into the light.
Those are a few of the thoughts that occurred to me, as we start our celebration of Easter again this year, and as we all prepare again to renew our personal commitment to the faith and the way of life we took on at our own baptism.