One of my earliest memories as a child involves standing outside the church entrance in the darkness of night during the Easter Vigil, amid a sea of friends and family and fellow parishioners, and watching in wonder as our parish priest set aflame the great bonfire by which the community anticipates the resurrection of Jesus. The dramatic specter of flames rising into the night sky, the sensory interplay of fire and smoke, and then the oil, incense and water that comes out to play during the Easter Vigil, when new members are baptized into the community, makes a powerful impression on a child’s imagination.
In one of my favorite meditations in all of Thomas Merton’s writings, Merton describes that moment when Christians and Catholics around the world gather before the tomb of Jesus on Holy Saturday evening, “watching in the night.”
The first voice that speaks in the silent night is the cold flint. Out of the flint springs fire. The fire, making no sound, is the most eloquent preacher on this night that calls for no other sermon than liturgical action and mystery. That spark from cold rock, reminds us that the strength, the life of God, is always deeply buried in the substance of all things. It reminds me that He has power to raise up children of Abraham even from the stones. . . .
The fire that speaks from the stone speaks, then, of his reality springing from the alienated coldness of our dead hearts, of our souls that have forgotten themselves, that have been exiled from themselves and from their God—and have lost their way in death. But there is nothing lost that God cannot find again. Nothing dead that cannot live again in the presence of His Spirit. No heart so dark, so hopeless, that it cannot be enlightened and brought back to itself, warmed back to the life of charity.
“There is nothing lost that God cannot find again, no heart so cold that it cannot be warmed back again to the life of charity”—these words sum up well the climate of hope, mercy and imminent expectation that Merton finds springing forth vividly from the pages of the New Testament, above all in the darkly enigmatic resurrection accounts. Merton sums up well what I felt as a child, if implicitly, imperceptibly, without words to understand it, as I watched the flames of the vigil fire dance into the night sky.
Why do you seek the living among the dead? The women had come to the tomb at daybreak to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices and perfumed oils according to the Jewish custom (Luke 24:1-5). Who among us has not longed, like the friends of Jesus, to touch or feel again the consoling presence of some beloved companion now lost to us? Visit any cemetery, stay for a while, and observe the people who linger in silence by particular grave markers. What draws them there? Does the presence of the beloved endure beyond death? Why do we seek the living among the dead?
The question itself almost seems to mock anyone who would profess such an irrational hope. “They are not here” insists the voice of reason. “They are not anywhere.” Yet the heart that has known love persists: “They are here. It is true, I can neither see nor touch their body. But I can feel their presence.” To say in one breath that the dead are not here, in this earth, this place of burial, may be to suggest in the very next breath that they are here: we simply need to know where to look, and how to listen.
The resurrection accounts, like the dramatic lighting of the Easter Vigil fire, gesture to something deeper and more elusive than “mere history”: our collective memory and experience that life somehow reverberates beyond death, and that love endures beyond any earthly power to extinguish it. “He is not here . . . . He is going on before you” (Mark 16:6-7).
In the face of overwhelming societal injustice, the ongoing crucifixion of whole classes of people and the apparent defeat of hope for so many in the world, our acts of remembering the dead—of telling the story again, of sharing it with our children—and of resisting the forces of death and darkness that have stolen them away, are not only courageous and beautiful, they are efficacious, rekindling and galvanizing in us something more powerful than death. For fire destroys, but fire also brings light, sometimes terrible, awe-inducing light, breaking open seeds of new life in fields of death. But there is nothing lost that God cannot find again. Nothing dead that cannot live again in the presence of His Spirit.
In this season of cold hard-heartedness, of meanness and vitriol toward all those “others” who have become projections of our own fears and hatreds, it seems we need more than ever to remember the story of Easter, to rekindle the embers of life and love that lay frozen within the deepest “substance of all things,” beginning with our own frigid hearts. Let us draw near to the fire, and ask God to burn away all that keeps us from loving and letting ourselves be loved. To remember is to return from exile to ourselves and to our God. To resist the bleak coldness hovering over the land is the beauty and rejuvenating power of Easter.
For behold, “deep waters cannot quench the fire of love, nor floods sweep it away” (Song of Songs 8:7). The telling of the story is preface to the story we make with our lives. In the mystery of the Triduum, we remember and celebrate what is to come.