This night, the Church exults not only in the victory of Christ. It shows us how his victory crowns a long process of development. The rising of Jesus is an astonishing event, of course, but no surprise. The Lord has carefully prepared it. If our eyes see, our ears hear, we find it foretold ‘in Moses and the Prophets’. When Cleopas and his friend, dragging their feet towards Emmaus, met the Lord on Easter Day, what did Christ do? He told them ‘the things in all the scriptures concerning himself’. In this Vigil, he does the same for us. The readings we have heard show the Lord to have been constantly at work among his people. He follows them always, a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, even when he goes unnoticed.
A trend in western piety has tended to insinuate that God had left his people almost to their own devises till Christ came. It portrays him as an angry God, with Christ coming, at last, as a pure lamb of sacrifice sent to propitiate his wrath. It likes to speak of Adam’s guilt. He, Adam, stands condemned before us: a renegade we’d sooner disown than claim as our father. But can this be so? In the light of what we know about God, would he condemn the work of his hands, the apple of his eye, made ‘in the image of himself’? Happily, the theology of wrath is not the only voice we hear, even here in Western Europe, where we are rather obsessed with apportioning degrees of guilt.
In the late twelfth century, a different view appears, more authentic and more ancient. We find it literally set in stone, just over the north porch of the cathedral of Chartres. In a sculpture of extraordinary beauty, we see Christ and Adam meeting: creature and Creator, the fallen and the One who raises up. Adam kneels by Christ’s feet. His head rests on the Saviour’s knee. Christ, with his right hand, supports that head; with his left hand, he caresses it. His face, looking down, surrounded by a cross-imprinted halo, is solemn yet mild. Who would have thought that stone could give expression to such tenderness! There is no violence in this encounter, only peace. The two, estranged a while, are resting in each other, relieved, serene, contemplative. The mysterious bond between Adam and Christ that St Paul expounds for us is made visible at Chartres. Each has waited for the other. Each has suffered. Each has longed.
The twelfth-century sculptor harks back, I just said, to a venerable tradition. Among its most authoritative witnesses is a third-century Syriac treatise called The Cave of Treasures. Though virtually unread today, many a Father of the Church knew it by heart. The treatise is a Midrash, that is, theology in story form, and interprets the destiny of Adam. It speaks of the glory in which he and Eve, his wife, were clothed before they fell. So splendid were they that the angels prostrated before them. It speaks of their friendship with God, of God’s joy in them, of the unselfconscious grace that marked life in Eden. It speaks of the grief God knew when our parents refused to believe that what he asked of them was for their good.
They knew better, they thought, so they trespassed. Their eyes were opened. They saw what in truth they were: mere dust, stripped of glory! The God who, till then, had been their friend became a menace in their eyes. They fled. They hid. When found, they could not look on him. They did not beg his pardon. They could not, therefore, remain in the garden of trust. They exiled themselves to a desert of thistles and thorns. The God who shuts the gate behind them, though, is not a wrathful God. He is a Father who grieves, whose maternal heart prompts him to console even as he sanctions.
This is how, in the Cave of Treasures, God takes leave of his child: Grieve not, Adam, on account of leaving Paradise for judgement’s sake, for I shall lead you back to your inheritance. See how I have loved you! For because of you I’ve cursed the ground while preserving you from the curse. Since you have transgressed my commandment: yes, leave, but do not grieve overmuch. In the fullness of time I have fixed for you as an exile in the land of curses, I shall send my Son to you. He will accomplish my salvation. Go forth, Adam. I have clothed you with my mercy.
Having forfeited his glorious robe, Adam goes into exile clothed with mercy. The Master of Chartres saw that mercy and portrayed it. There’s nothing fanciful about it. What else is the sense of the chronicle of saving events, of promises of grace that, this night, we have read? How great, how faithful, brothers and sisters, is God’s love for us! How amazingly that love is attested and sealed in Christ’s Pasch! May his mercies be our song forever! And may we never forget: the robe of mercy with which we are clothed is fitted to each one of us particularly. Our God does not abandon us, nor does he play games. He longs for our return, and would have us, too, rest our head on his knee. Christ has come. He has fought. He has conquered. Our salvation is now accomplished. The door to Paradise is open once again. Let us enter and give thanks with rejoicing. Alleluia!