By JAMES MONTI
From the early days of the Church onward into the Middle Ages, there existed a popular tradition among the faithful that imparted to the solemn liturgy of the Easter Vigil an incomparable splendor, creating an overwhelming sense of eager anticipation. For it was believed that when Christ came again to judge the living and the dead He would come during the Easter Vigil.
Early Christians especially were captivated by the thought that there would eventually come an Easter Vigil like no other — that just as Holy Mother Church was donning her festal attire to celebrate the Resurrection, unveiling anew the splendors of her sanctuary in the blazing light of the Paschal candle, the tapers of the faithful and the candles of the altar, her Divine Bridegroom would suddenly arrive in untold glory to take her and all the faithful by the hand to the eternal marriage feast of Heaven.
This belief concerning the Second Coming of Christ is first mentioned by the ecclesiastical writer Lactantius Firmianus (+320), who describes the vigil as a night of watching for “the coming of our God and King” (Lactantius Firmianus, Divinarum institutionum, book 7, chapter 19, in Samuel Brandt and George Laubmann, editors, L. Caeli Firmiani Lactanti: Opera omnia: Pars I: Divinae Institutiones et Epitome divinarum institutionum, CSEL 19, Vienna, F. Tempsky, 1890, p. 645).
A late ninth-century pontifical from northern France (the so-called Pontifical of Poitiers) speaks of the belief that Christ would come at midnight during the Easter Vigil as an “apostolic tradition,” adding that the clergy and the faithful in Jerusalem took this possibility quite seriously each time they attended the vigil (text in Aldo Martini, editor, Il cosiddetto Pontificale di Poitiers, REDSMF 14, Rome, Casa Editrice Herder, 1979, p. 219).
Indeed, there are certain aspects of the Easter Vigil liturgy that suggest such a concept. The candles in the hands of the faithful bear an unmistakable resemblance to the lamps of the wise virgins in Christ’s parable concerning His Second Coming wherein He arrives as the Bridegroom at midnight (Matt. 25:1-13), just as the vigil was celebrated in the dead of night.
By her presentation of a whole series of readings tracing the events of salvation history from the beginning of the world, the Church seems to be inviting Christ to come and write the final chapter of the epic of our redemption, the invitation we find on the very last page of the Bible: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’” (Rev. 22:17). The white garments of those newly baptized at the Easter Vigil resemble the vision presented in the Book of Revelation of a vast multitude from every tribe and nation arrayed in white, holding palm branches as we do on Palm Sunday, who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10,13-14).
In the Latin text of the ancient hymn of the Paschal candle, the Exultet, we encounter twice in its opening lines the word “fulgor,” the Latin term for lightning, bringing to mind our Lord’s prophecy likening His Second Coming to the lightning that flashes from one end of the sky to the other, from east to west (Matt. 24:27). In the current English text of the Exultet, one of these two instances of “fulgor” is translated accordingly, speaking of the Church being “arrayed with the lightning of his glory” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, 2011).
But over and above these symbolic associations, the night of Easter and the Day of Judgment are theologically linked, for it is precisely because of what took place on the first Easter night, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, that on the last day our bodies will likewise be raised from the dead. And significantly it is in the midst of His Passion, standing before the high priest Caiaphas, that our Lord boldly proclaims His triumphant Second Coming “on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
At the very outset of the Easter Vigil there is a moment when the association with the end of time is most powerfully experienced. In the course of solemnly preparing the Paschal candle before it is lit from the bonfire, the celebrant inscribes the wax with a cross and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, saying as he does so, “Christ yesterday and today / the Beginning and the End / the Alpha and the Omega” (The Roman Missal . . . 2011).
It is in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, a book all about the end of time, that Christ identifies Himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6; also 1:8, 22:13).
In a twelfth-century antiphonary of the Augustinian monastery of Klosterneuburg (Salzburg, Austria), and in many other medieval office books compiled afterward, we find an antiphon for Easter Sunday and the Easter season which likewise evokes this identification of Christ: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, and the Morning Star; I am the Key of David, alleluia.”
The account of the Crossing of the Red Sea from the Book of Exodus (Exodus 14:15-15:1), which is considered one of the most important readings of the Easter Vigil, wherein we see God Himself going into battle against the Egyptians, foreshadowing the holy battle of Christ on Good Friday, likewise anticipates the battle scenes prophesied in the Book of Revelation that will ultimately lead to Christ’s final victory over His enemies at the end of the world:
“. . . They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14); “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 20:16).
It is evident from the earlier-mentioned association between the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Easter Vigil that this Paschal liturgy also has a very definite nuptial dimension. This comes to the fore with the fourth reading of the vigil (in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite), from the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 54:5-14), which speaks of God as the loving “husband” of His people.
Here again, we can see a parallel with the end of time, for in speaking of the coming of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) the Book of Revelation overflows with marriage imagery, with the new Jerusalem described as “the wife of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9), likened to “a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2), and “clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” (Rev. 19:8).
In view of all this, couples preparing for the Sacrament of Matrimony should be instructed concerning the nuptial imagery in the Book of Revelation and in the Easter Vigil liturgy so that they may perceive their reception of the sacrament as a living image of “the marriage of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7).
For centuries, especially from the late fifteenth century onward, the dramatic custom of suddenly unveiling the high altar in all its Easter finery by the withdrawal or dropping of a veil or curtain concealing it at the intoning of the Gloria, accompanied by a burst of pealing church bells and music, seems also an anticipation of the day when the Risen Christ will show Himself in all His unutterable majesty and splendor to the entire world on the Day of Judgment.
Our Own Good Friday
Of course, no one knows when the Lord will come again, but it is entirely possible that He could do so on some future Easter night. The remembrance of this beautiful idea can deepen our understanding of the Easter season, and act as a counterbalance to the many things that could virtually extinguish the light of Easter in our souls.
For our joy in celebrating Easter is sobered and checked by the realization that although Christ has already risen and sits in glory at His Father’s right hand, our fate still hangs in the balance.
Those of us in this present life have yet to face the Good Friday of our own deaths. And even as we celebrate Easter, our hearts remain heavy with concerns for those we love, concerns for those who are ill, and for those who are away from God. There is likewise the grief of being separated from our loved ones who have already passed from this world.
Yet if in our participation in the Sacred Liturgy of Easter we can think ahead with hope to the day when all these sorrows shall be behind us, when the risen Christ will at last wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:4), we will find a way to rejoice despite the very real darkness in our present lives.
Reflection upon the beautiful early Christian idea that Christ might come during the Easter Vigil serves to remind us that sooner or later He shall indeed come. By thinking thus we will find in the spiritual and sensory splendors of the Church’s Easter liturgy a foreshadowing of the unimaginable glory of Christ’s Second Coming “on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64), with the Easter Vigil, in a sense, serving as a “dress rehearsal” for that very real day yet to come.
So it is that amid the night shadows of earth’s sorrows, as we spend our lives keeping watch with Christ, let us anticipate with joy that dawn when the long night of time will give way to the eternal day of Christ our Light.