Thursday, April 5, 2012

'This is the night'
A Holy Saturday meditation from My Peace I Give You

Holy Saturday is a particularly meaningful holiday for me because it was on that night in 2006 that I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, after being received into the Catholic Church on Holy Thursday. In the following excerpt from My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I write about how, in the liturgy of Holy Saturday, the meaning of Passover is revealed in Christ:

A Catholic friend recently asked me to pray for a Muslim woman in one of the Persian Gulf states who is considering becoming Catholic but fears being ostracized. He told me that, when she was a child, the woman had a dream in which Mohammed reprimanded her severely for all the ways she had failed to be a good Muslim. Having been taught that dreams of Mohammed are always real, the frightened girl resolved to observe Islamic law perfectly—and did, to the best of her ability.

The years went by and the girl became a woman, still striving to be faultless in the practice of her faith. She hoped that one day Mohammed would once again appear to her in a dream, to let her know he was no longer displeased with her. But he never did. Instead, not too long ago, the woman dreamed of Jesus—who spoke to her quite differently than had Mohammed, my friend said.

Now, as a Catholic, I am thankfully not required to believe that private revelations are "always real—otherwise I would have saved the prayer card a strange woman gave me depicting "Our Lady of Bayside, Queens." Just the same, the message the Muslim woman received in her dream of Christ struck me to the core.

Jesus said to her, "We only keep the good stories."

That is the voice of a loving father speaking to his child. I hear in it the promise in the Book of Revelation that God himself will dwell with human beings: "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more" (Rev 21:4).

When I was a child, reading the Passover story, I remember being surprised to read God’s words to the Jewish people that the month including Passover "is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year" (Ex 12:2). It didn't seem to make sense, because Passover and the Jewish New Year's Day, Rosh Hashanah, occurred several months apart. Yet, I did get the feeling it meant there was something new about the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, just as it was said at the Passover Seder that my family observed each year: "This night [is] different from all other nights." It was to be an absolute beginning.

Years later, on the third evening of Passover in 2006, I would experience an absolute beginning of my own. It was Easter Vigil, the night I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. In my mind, I am back there now. The light of the Paschal Candle shines from the pulpit; a share of its flame flickers on the candle I hold as I listen to the chanting of the Exsultet (Easter Proclamation).

The Exsultet is a communal purification of memory—a "This Is Your Life" for the People of God. It recalls the most painful and damaging events of humanity’s past, revealing their true meaning within the context of divine providence. The effect is like that of a camera panning back from an extreme close-up, revealing that what first appears to be a blotch of murky darkness is actually the center of a stunning sunflower. In the light of Christ—represented by the Paschal Candle—the Jewish people’s dark period of slavery in Egypt is revealed as a necessary chapter in the world's most beautiful story. God's liberation of the Jews presages his ultimate liberation, freeing all humanity from sin and death. Past pain becomes prologue to future joy:
These, then are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.

This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.

This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.

This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
Why is this night, Easter Vigil, different from all other nights? Because the Resurrection begins the restoration of all things in Christ (Rev 15:2).

As the Exsultet’s joyful strains fade into memory, the priest blesses the baptismal font. I see the vertical line of the Paschal Candle, representing the supernatural life of the risen Christ, intersect the horizontal line of the water's surface, representing the natural life of humanity. The symbolic union moves me to reflect upon how my own baptism, six years prior, built upon the life that began with my natural birth. It marked the start of my active participation in God’s providential plan for me.

Thanks to my baptism, my life is no longer limited to a horizontal dimension, measured by how close or far I am on the journey toward death. It always has a vertical dimension, measured by how close or far I am on the journey toward heaven—a heaven that can be tasted on earth via the life of grace. These dimensions are my personal latitude and longitude, my spiritual global-positioning system; together, they form a cross.

In the Paschal Candle's glow, I see more deeply how God’s loving presence has always been with me, like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of the darkness of slavery. And I begin to ponder how God permitted evil to enter my life only so he might draw from it a greater good. A verse of the Exsultet returns to mind: "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Jesus can truly say, "We only keep the good stories," because all the good stories end in him.

Read more in My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.

Illustration: William Blake, "Christ Appearing to His Disciples After the Resurrection."