Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of Easter more than the “Exultet,” the great Easter Proclamation composed about the fifth century and sung on Holy Saturday night in Catholic churches across 15 centuries.
The Exultet, an ecstatic hymn of praise of the risen Christ, begins with these powerful words: “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of heaven sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.”
The stirring words of this proclamation spill over into the liturgy of the Easter season as we call to mind and celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. But Easter is not simply poetry, it is one of the greatest events of history (along with the creation of the world and the Incarnation).
There are many ways to speak of the Easter mystery. One is to reflect on the symbol of the cross and to see how it moved from being a symbol of death and defeat to a symbol of life and glory.
Christianity did not invent the cross. The cross pre-existed the Christian era. At the time of Christ, the cross already had a well-established reputation as an instrument of death and a fierce sign of life’s horrors, monstrosities, calamities and evils.
When St. Paul preached in the city of Athens, the world was thronged with crosses rooted outside cities, bearing the bodies of slowly dying criminals and victims. There was no uglier site on the human landscape.
That is why Paul’s preaching on the saving cross of Christ was folly to the men and women of the time, who were daily confronted with the ugliness and horror of the cross. To say that the cross was the road to life and an instrument of triumph was utterly laughable, utterly ridiculous to Paul’s listeners. They simply walked away.
Yet when St. Augustine preached in the North African city of Carthage three centuries later, that city too was thronged with crosses, but this time carried in processions, all of them bearing the image of the one who had triumphed over death. The crosses of Christian Carthage evoked acclamations of praise and glory, ecstatic proclamations of God’s triumphant power.
There has never been a more revolutionary transformation of a human symbol. The crosses of Christian Carthage were an utterly radical subversion of the miserable crosses of pagan Athens. And that transformation is why we gather in our churches to venerate Christ’s death and resurrection. In Christ, the cross, which symbolizes all the horrors of the world, has been transformed into the very instrument of life.
The Easter cross we Christians venerate during Easter does not deny death or misery or pain. Rather, it embraces them and sets them before us in all their starkness. The cross does not tell us that life is safe and painless. It tells us the opposite: that life is very often unsafe and too full of pain, and that our human condition is all too pathetic, heart-breaking, and dreadful. But the cross triumphs!
As we celebrate the Easter season again this year, we are invited to look on Christ crucified and to know the cross of pain and sorrow in our own hearts – and then, by God’s grace, to look at Christ risen and see in the glorious Easter cross our hope, our glory and our redemption.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.