Paschal Vigil

We began this celebration in an unusual fashion: outside in the twilight, with live fire and my humble self, performing something that bystanders might consider a sort of magic. Then we entered the church where another performance of mine took place: a long, long hymn sang a capella. Clearly a show-off to those unfamiliar with the celebration – and of poor quality at that. Then we heard five biblical readings with accompanying psalms and prayers, and eventually arrived at this point. It’s a good moment to ask what is the point of this whole night celebration; of what we have already done and of what is still ahead.

To make a bit more sense of it we have to learn (briefly) how we communicate with our surroundings and with one another. Let’s start with the environment. We perceive the world around us using our senses. Traditionally there are five of them: eyesight, hearing, smell, touch, taste – in this order of precedence or importance. Our ‘sense-ors’ send signals to the brain and it creates a virtual model of reality. Misinterpretations of those signals can create illusions; dreams are virtual reality with very little or no external input. Strictly speaking, our perception of the world outside is in fact our brains’ creation.

How do we communicate with each other? The question seems to be silly as the answer is obvious: we talk to each other using speech or writing. But when you think about it, it’s not so obvious. This morning I had the traditional Polish service of Easter food blessing. I stood at the pulpit with a number of my compatriots only in front of me and I started the service… in English. Only when I spotted astonishment in their eyes I realised my mistake, and started again – this time in the right language. We communicate with other people using information coded in ‘signs’ or ‘symbols’. Each word in the language is an encoded description of a thing or action. If one doesn’t know the language – or even the word only – the sound remains inscrutable. The same with writing. Our alphabet is a set of graphical signs with individual meaning ascribed to each of them. But it’s not universal. In English, the letter ‘W’ exclusively codes a different sound than in other languages using the same alphabet. The word ‘winter’ would be read as ‘vinter’ by non-English speaking people. Then we have the plethora of signs around us, like road signs or signposts, icons on computer or smartphone screens… The list is virtually infinite. They communicate or signal great variety of information – if we understand their meanings. Whatever we learn is in fact learning the meaning of the sign in broad sense.

Back to our celebration. Because we communicate using information coded in signs, God also speaks to us through signs. I guess that in heaven we will have a sort of direct communication with God, but as long we remain here, we – not God – need signs and symbols. This entire liturgy tonight is a set of symbols that convey God’s unconditional love and compassion to each and every one of us. In the symbols of darkness and light we see hope sparked by Jesus’ return to life. In that long hymn, awkwardly sang by me, we praised God for his patient and everlasting love made visible throughout the history, then we listened to a selection of readings, telling stories of God’s love through generations all the way to Jesus. Our Lord’s Passion and crucifixion has become the source of a completely new set of symbols; we call them sacraments, and through them God acts in our lives in various ways: baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, the Eucharist, the sacrament of the sick, marriage and priesthood. What is special about these signs? Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection that we are celebrating tonight, these signs are effective; in other words they do what they symbolise, because it’s Jesus himself acting through and in them. So now we can stand up and symbolically renew the power of baptism in us.