I would like to add one more thought about light and illumination. On Easter night, the night of the new creation, the Church presents the mystery of light using a unique and very humble symbol: the Paschal candle. This is a light that lives from sacrifice. The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up. It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself. Thus the Church presents most beautifully the paschal mystery of Christ, who gives himself and so bestows the great light. Secondly, we should remember that the light of the candle is a fire. Fire is the power that shapes the world, the force of transformation. And fire gives warmth. Here too the mystery of Christ is made newly visible. Christ, the light, is fire, flame, burning up evil and so reshaping both the world and ourselves.
“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,” as Jesus is reported by Origen to have said. And this fire is both heat and light: not a cold light, but one through which God’s warmth and goodness reach down to us.
The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect. It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees. So the whole of creation plays its part. In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light. But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church. The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.
Let us pray to the Lord at this time that he may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world (cf. LG 1). Amen.
Easter Vigil Homily, 2012
Reflection – We were all quite happy this year to see the bees restored to the new English translation of the Exultet. The light of the candle is once again “fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.”
What an extraordinary image this is, what a poetic genius the anonymous Latin author of this hymn was, and what a powerful interpretation Pope Benedict gives it in this Easter homily.
When you look at the Paschal Candle in your church, do you think of it as a summons to become involved in the community of the Church? I have to admit, that thought has never remotely crossed my mind… but it will now.
‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…’ That’s a catchy and very sweet song, but the theology in it is lousy, you know. The light is not mine. It would be better to sing ‘This little wax of mine, I’m going to let it burn.’ Or, ‘This little life of mine, I’m going to let it die….’ so that Christ’s life in me may shine out.
And that all our little waxes may melt together to create, not just flickering flame that burns for a minute and then dies, but a torch, a fire, a blazing firebrand illuminating the night of the world not for a minute but for millennia. This is the Church.
Each of us is a ‘mother bee’ (yes, I know that only the queen bee is literally a mother in the hive), bearing in our lives that little bit of wax, that little contribution of sacrificial love that goes into the Candle. To each of us, in ways impossible to understand, predict, or control, the light and fire of Christ comes. We grow warm, we melt, our lives are taken up into this light and fire. We become part of the light of Christ shining into the darkness. This is our Christian faith; this is Christianity.
I was serving at a retreat this past weekend where a speaker challenged the retreatants, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” My own answer, which I gave in my homily yesterday, was that it means we believe that Jesus is alive, that He gives His life to us by the gift of the Spirit, and that this life given to us is one of love and mercy for the whole world.
This little light of His – I pray that it may shine, may it shine, may it shine, may it shine. There – I fixed the theology, even though I ruined the rhyme. Can’t have everything.