Saturday, July 9, 2016
LIGHTING THE DARKNESS
I have spent the past few days editing what I hope will be my next book (if Morehouse agrees to publish it), entitled Children of Joy: A Benedictine Journey from Easter to Pentecost.
Yesterday I edited the final meditation, for Pentecost Sunday. I was hoping to finish this huge undertaking before our community retreat begins on Monday, July 11. I was also hoping to finish it before my good friend and brother in St. Benedict, Fr. Mark Payne, O.S.B., breathes his last. In a coma for the past few days, he was kind enough to oblige me by holding on to life, almost miraculously. Now I can turn to important things such as planning his funeral mass and grieving the loss of such a close friend.
As I write this on Saturday morning, I'm aware that the tower bell might start tolling at any minute.
A TIMELY PROJECT
It was more than appropriate, then, that I should spend the past week occupied with reflections about the Resurrection. So, for my post this morning, I’d like to share one of these chapters with you:
“I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark.” (Jn 12:46)
Leading the Easter Vigil procession carrying the tall newly-lighted Easter candle, I stop just inside the main door at the rear of the darkened church, and chant in a loud voice into the interior darkness, “Christ our light.”
From the shadowy figures inside the church and from the people following behind me on the sidewalk, a hundred voices respond, “Thanks be to God,”
Each year, when we proclaim this call and response into the darkness, I feel as if we are defying the powers of evil, challenging them to try to overcome the feeble Easter flame that was kindled and blessed by the abbot a few minutes ago.
I carry the candle high as I lead the procession slowly up the center aisle, passing the vague shapes and inky shadows of the people in the congregation; I stop halfway along to chant again, at a higher pitch, “Christ our light.” And once more the response comes from all around me, “Thanks be to God.”
I lower the candle so that the servers and people closest to the flame can light their own small candles, and I watch as they begin passing the “light of Christ” along to people around them.
Then, lifting the candle high again, I continue making my way slowly up the center aisle, as the single flame is multiplied a hundred times, and the white walls of the church gradually begin to take on a gentle yellow-orange glow, an eloquent and overpowering symbol of Christ’s new life.
The words of Psalm 27 take on extra meaning as I repeat them in my heart: “The LORD is my light and my salvation whom should I fear?”
I steal a glance to my right and then to my left to watch people handing on the flame of the paschal candle in the same way our ancestors handed on the gift of faith that they had each received from believers before them, in a process that has been going on for two thousand years.
Within a few minutes, the darkness in the church has given way to the joyful glow of Easter light. Jesus said at the Last Supper, “I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness,” and now, thanks to the Light of Christ, I can recognize individuals in the congregation: mothers, fathers, babies, teenagers, teachers from our schools, and my brother monks.
As I watch a few people still passing the flame to latecomers at the farther reaches of the church, it occurs to me that all of us hand on the flame to people around us every day. Not just preachers and catechists and Christian parents, but all of us are called by our baptism to announce the good news to one another.
Jesus even teaches us how to go about passing on the light, telling his followers, “You are the light of the world.” It’s an easy enough thing for me to h0ld up a lighted candle and invite people to light their candles from mine, but the true challenge of the Gospel is to become the flame myself, and let myself be consumed by loving deeds done for others. I am called to proclaim Christ precisely by being consumed like an Easter candle -- to become Christ in every selfless thought, word and deed.
After arriving in the sanctuary, I turn and face the congregation, and am thrilled at the sight of two hundred flickering flames spreading the light from wall to wall until it seems there is no place else for the flame to spread: Easter has to remain captive within these four walls. Then I hear Jesus’ voice repeating, “You are the light of the world.” For me, this means “You are the light of your brothers in the monastery, you are the light of the congregation at St. Augustine’s Church at 8:30 mass for each Sunday, you are the light of the two classes you teach each day….” As the list keeps getting longer, I realize that there is no way that the flame can be contained by the walls of St. Mary’s Church.
Suddenly I imagine hundreds of tiny flames pouring, like a river of light, out of the front doors of this holy place and spreading out over the whole city. I see people passing the flames up the long hill, into the new townhouses and the old crack houses, to brothers and sisters in the new stores and the old storefront churches.Thousands and thousands of flames of Easter joy keep multiplying as the light is passed around our city, and beyond it into the neighboring towns and suburbs, as each person who receives the flame hurries to pass on to their friends and families the news that Christ is risen in our hearts and in our lives, risen in our families and in our friends, risen in our workplaces and in our homes.
At once, I’m back in church, still facing the congregation and the hundreds of small but powerful flames, and chanting for the third and final time, at an even higher tone, “Christ our Light!”
Voices fill the church with the response, but the sound seems to be coming from outside the walls as well, from every direction, from men and women, from rich and poor, from saints and sinners. The response echoes like a triumphant shout of victory, swelling into an earth-shaking, roar: “Thanks be to God!”
Please pray for Fr. Mark, his family, and us monks.