Haec nox est— “This is the night!”
These words resound repeatedly throughout the Exsultet as a sweet-sounding motif filling the Church with jubilation, like the single candle which generates the lights of all the faithful. Yes, we are in medio noctis with the mourning disciples, and yet, the latent exultation of Easter morning is present already; our small candles bring the fire of tomorrow’s sunrise into the depths of our present darkness, for this is truly the holiest of nights, quae sola meruit scire tempus et horam in qua Christus ab inferis resurrexit.
This is the night in which the great salvific events in the chronicles of Israel find their ultimate fulfillment as Mary’s son Passes Over from mortal death to the eternal embrace of the ever-living Father. As Moses and the Israelites sang to the Lord their song of high praise after Pharaoh’s horses and chariots were cast into the sea, the Christian people sing the Exsultet, a hymn of Jesus’ everlasting victory. No more shall the blood of lambs be offered upon altars of holocaust; Golgotha has become the altar of all ages, and the immolation is the eternal spotless Lamb, whose blood adorns the holy beams under which the righteous must pass. Death no longer comes to strike the sons of men in the dark; rather, the Son of Man vanquishes Death by conquering the nocturnal domain. The Cross is the new Tree of Life, whose fruit is true food and drink– to eat it erases the shame of our first parents; to drink of it restores the glory of humanity. The Garden where was lain the Author of Life is the new Eden, whence comes the regeneration of the world.
On this night, Christ enters the realm of the dead and breaks out of it. In our Latin rite, the Exsultet says that Christ returned ab inferis; the Apostles’ Creed, that ancient Roman testimony, says descendit ad inferos and surrexit a mortuis. Concerning this event, the Greek rites tell a detailed and moving story, commonly called “the Harrowing of Hell”. When Jesus descended to the underworld, he found all the holy and just souls– prophets, judges, patriarchs, etc.– waiting for the glory of God (in the so-called Limbus Patrum, or “Limbo of the Fathers”). When Christ comes among them, they all come forward to greet him, lined up from greatest to last. Moses comes to see Jesus, but Jesus brushes him aside. The great patriarchs– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob– likewise come to greet the Lord, but they too are cast aside as Christ searches further into hell. The same treatment awaits other just souls. Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets are ignored; Kings David, Solomon, and Saul get no attention. Melchizedek, Shem, Noah, Abel: Jesus searches for none of these!
Finally, the Lord cries in exasperation, “Adam! Adam! Where are you, my friend?”
Many old Byzantine churches depict the Harrowing of Hell with their characteristic luminous iconography. Christ, the central figure, arrayed in majestic silver and gold, is surrounded by the holy souls who preceded him on the earth. But as he descends the inferno in triumph, he extends his merciful arms not to the ones who kept his commandments, but to Adam and Eve, the precipitators of the Fall. Even for those who brought Death into the world, Christ remains the inexhaustible fount of hope, and thus he is also inexhaustible hope for us exsules filii Hevae. As usual, what the Greeks articulate with imaginative storytelling we Latins express with crisp prose:
O inaestimabilis dilectio caritatis: ut servum redimeres, Filium tradidisti!
O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est!
All these things– fulfillment of the Old Covenant, the descent into Hell, and the ransom of Adam– happen not in a flash of worldly glory ante faciem omnium populorum, but just as happened at the first Christmas, the dead of night becomes the appointed hour of divine love; here, all the world is blind, except those who see with the eyes of faith. With these blessed eyes we see the unity of the two Testaments; behind the veil of seemingly-impenetrable darkness, we perceive the flickering flame of Christ himself, the nexus of the New and Old, who descends to the depths of hell to illuminate even those who brought sin into the world. This is the unfathomable gratuity of the Father’s love and the ineffable drama of our salvation: that to ransom a slave, he gave up his only-begotten Son. So wonderful is the mysterious grace of Easter, that we dare to shatter our nocturnal mourning by crying out, Gloria in excelsis Deo! Alleluia!
Tonight, Death loses his sting; tonight, eternal life begins.
O vere beata nox! Haec nox est!