Fr Sean Gilbert is an Anglican Priest in the Church of England, serving his curacy at Christ Church, St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex. This post is adapted from the Holy Saturday reflection he wrote in response to his week as part of the CTBI delegation to Sicily and Lampedusa.
This is the night where darkness and light meet one another. In the beginning there was darkness, and then God brought light. This is the night where light shines forth, to dispel the darkness and our fears. We do not need to be afraid.
From Maundy Thursday and Good Friday we have followed the path of Christ to his arrest, his death and his resurrection. Refugees and migrants seek safety and peace: their story is from darkness into the light.
The Easter Vigil begins in darkness. It is the darkness of the closed-up tomb where Jesus’ body lays on Holy Saturday. The stone has been rolled in front of it. No light enters. It is utterly dark. Jesus’ torn and beaten body is laying in the tomb — the women are planning to bring spices to help preserve his body in the morning. But now, it is Saturday in the dark, airless, deathly still tomb.
I met a group of young men on Lampedusa island, called the ‘Door of Europe’, south of Sicily. These teenagers told their story of darkness on the Mediterranean crossing. One guy called Gambi took me back in time to his journey over to Italy …
There are over 300 people on a small fishing boat. It is night. He and his friends are stuck in the hold of the boat, which is meant for keeping the caught fish: not really fit for humans. He is jammed alongside many people. It’s dark, there are engine fumes choking them. It is suffocating.
He cannot see anything, he cannot recognise anyone, he is fighting for his life. Suddenly there is something wrong, the boat lists to one side and the people are scared and start shouting. The boat has started to fill with water and it quickly reaches up to his waist. People start to panic, there is no way out and the faces of people cram into the hatch to try and get some air.
Three of Gambi’s friends have drowned. He tries to help but there is nothing he can do. The water rises up to his neck and all seems lost. He prepares for the very worst.
On Holy Saturday Christ descends into Hell and darkness, and this story is an image of Hell. Christ, his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him. Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Even in the worst possible moment for Gambi, there is life.
The hatch is opened, hands reach down to collect everyone from inside the boat and Gambi is blinded by bright and white light.
A few German rescue ships have come to help. They collected all the people from the sinking boat and put them on board. Those who had survived the sinking boat are exhausted but safe.
A joyous and triumphant shout goes forth from Gambi’s lips. He is surrounded by light and life, in the presence of those who has saved him. He cries out in wonderful praise: “I love the Germans!”
This is the night where we praise God, who has conquered death and sin and brought all people into a new and wonderful resurrected life.
The Exsultet, which is sung during the beginning of the Vigil, beautifully proclaims this rhythm of dark and light, of night and dawn, of death and resurrection:
“This is the night…when you brought our ancestors, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt….
“This is the night…when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life….
“This is the night…when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave….
“How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn…..
“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”
Even in the darkness of our lives — darkness that comes and goes like the night — we are reconciled to God. Our baptism is the sign of this reconciliation, when we are marked as Christ’s own forever.
Jesus said to them: “Do not be afraid.”
Almighty Father, your Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with him in baptism, may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen