As they awaited the beginning of the Easter Vigil on April 15, the people gathered at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington gazed from the quiet darkness of the church out into the fading daylight of the city, where 26 people preparing to be received into the Catholic Church stood on the front steps, surrounding the Easter fire.
As he blessed the fire, which represented the resurrection of Christ, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the celebrant of the Mass, called upon Christ’s presence throughout time, saying, “Christ yesterday and today; the beginning and the end; the alpha and the omega; all time belongs to Him and all the ages to Him be glory and power through every age and forever.”
As the Pascal candle was lit, the cardinal said “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” He then processed into the church, accompanied by priests, deacons, and catechumens. The light spread to every person standing in the congregation, holding candles, as the dark cathedral was gradually illuminated. The cathedral’s Schola Cantorum choir led the congregation in singing “Adoramus te Christe.”
“With the eyes of faith, what we recognize tonight is nothing less than the passing from darkness and death into light and new life,” the cardinal said in his homily. “…This is the Liturgy’s way of telling us that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Risen Lord, breaking into our world can actually be made visible…if enough of us allow the light of Christ to shine through us.”
Once the procession had reached the altar, the congregation continued holding their small flames as they listened to the Easter proclamation, remembering “how God in times past saved His people and in these, the last days, has sent us His son as our redeemer,” the cardinal said. Throughout the proclamation, which recounted God saving the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and saving everyone from their sin in Jesus’s death and resurrection, the congregation proclaimed together, “This is our Passover feast.”
“Just as He led the chosen people out of Egypt…so He leads anyone who places his faith in Him out of darkness and sin and into the promised land, into the world of light and truth,” the cardinal said in his homily. “This time God’s presence would not be in flashing lightning or pillars of cloud – in something outside us – but this time rather by His very Spirit within us, transforming us, making us into who we can be.”
People gathered at the Easter Vigil continued to travel through God’s saving power over time, as the Liturgy of the Word moved from the creation story in Genesis, to the parting of the Red Sea and escape of the Israelites in Exodus, to the book of Isaiah, the book of Ezekiel, and an epistle from the book of Romans. Finally, after singing “Alleluia” for the first time since before the season of Lent, the congregation listened to the joyful Easter Gospel where Jesus appeared to His disciples and encouraged them to go out to spread the good news of His resurrection.
Later on in the liturgy, Cardinal Wuerl administered the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion – and the congregation entered into the present moment of God’s saving power in the world by welcoming 26 people into full communion with the Catholic Church.
“Tonight those who will be baptized, receive Holy Communion and also the Sacrament of Confirmation, complete a journey that six weeks ago you announced to me at the Rite of Election that you intended to make,” said Cardinal Wuerl in his homily. “You intended to enter into the mystery of the risen Lord and become part of His body visible here on earth.”
Just as they were invited into the mystery of Christ through receiving the sacraments, all others gathered in the church were invited to renew their baptismal commitment and “to rejoice in the grace that is ours that we have received through the death and resurrection of Jesus,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Wuerl reflected on how the evening’s liturgy also called upon the congregants to experience the fullness of God’s mercy.
“Tonight is the story of the new creation coming to be not only in the world but in each one of us, in you who are about to be baptized, in you who are about to be brought into full communion in the Church, and in every one of us in this cathedral,” Cardinal Wuerl said.
The change that is taking place cannot be seen, because it is spiritual, said the cardinal, but “because we cannot see it, because we cannot feel it, does not mean it is not happening.”
The Easter Vigil liturgy, he continued, helps the congregation to understand what they cannot see, by using signs and symbols, along with the Scripture, which “explains to us who we are and God’s relationship with us.”
“All of the readings we have listened to this evening describe for us how it is that we become a part of a new creation once the original creation was tainted with sin and the effects of sin,” the cardinal said.
Following the homily, the Baptismal Liturgy began with a litany of the saints, calling upon the intercession of those holy people. The 15 people who were baptized each had water poured upon them as a sign of cleansing from sin, as the cardinal baptized them, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Each person was clothed with a baptismal garment and presented with a baptismal candle. The 11 others who being received into the Church were then confirmed and anointed with Chrism.
The congregation moved into the third and final part of the Mass – the Liturgy of the Eucharist – which the cardinal said in his homily “allow us to be part of that reality” of Christ’s death and Resurrection, with all of the history of the Church being brought together in one moment.
“Here in the Mass, in Holy Communion, the bonds of time and space and history dissolve,” he said. “The Jesus who died and rose – the Pascal Mystery of His death and resurrection – are made present to us. All the confines of centuries simply disappear.”
After the Consecration of the Eucharist, the newly initiated members of the Church processed up to the altar, where they received the Eucharist for the first time, which the cardinal said is “a sign of unity of the faith.”
This same liturgy took place at parishes across the Archdiocese of Washington - with more than 1,100 people being welcomed into the Church - and throughout the entire world, where people joined together to celebrate the risen Lord.
“Tonight the words, ‘Christ is risen, Christ is truly risen. Alleluia, Alleluia!’ take on special significance for you, because tonight as a result of these sacraments, not only is Christ risen, but you are risen in Him and His new life as part of His new creation,” said the cardinal.