Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light

April 4, 2018

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P., preached the following homily at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, a warm welcome to all who join the Dominican friars on this Easter Sunday morning as we rejoice in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and as we behold and are the witnesses that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. For two thousand years the Church has recalled her Risen Lord on this day, and for nearly seventeen hundred of those years she has done so by the solemn lighting of the Paschal candle. For this pillar of light stands for the Risen Lord, victorious over darkness.

During Lent, we kept watch with Christ as he struggled with the powers of darkness which appear to triumph on Good Friday. They seem to extinguish the light. The Tenebrae services capture this moment, as one by one the candles are extinguished, until at the end only one remains, and that last candle is carried away leaving the sanctuary and the body of the church in utter darkness to mark the seeming victory of darkness over the light. But the light of Christ cannot be finally extinguished. This we see at the Easter Vigil as the candle of wax dispels the night and pierces the darkness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

But we mustn’t think of this dualistically, as if the equally matched forces of light and darkness were in a contest whose outcome is as yet unknown. While it is true that during Holy Week we recapitulate the conflict, the tension, the suffering, the betrayal and all that leads to the seeming triumph of darkness over light on Good Friday, nonetheless we already know that Christ’s victory is definitive and irreversible.

The Easter celebrations invoke the very earliest verses of Genesis to underscore this point: darkness hovered over the deep, and God separated light from darkness. The panorama on which to behold the now brightly burning Paschal Candle is nothing less the entire history of creation from beginning to end—with the darkness finally dispelled by our Risen Lord.  The Easter liturgy thus locates the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection in the broadest conceivable framework of knowledge, thought and imagination.

The victory of darkness was transitory. An ancient father reminds us that, when they come for him in the Garden, the powers of darkness carry weapons, torches and lanterns. “The sons of darkness come, bearing light in their hands through which they would reveal the true light to others.” But at a glance from the true Light, they drop their torches: for a brief moment, darkness falls to the ground. “In order that the Light might accomplish what it came for, the darkness gets back up. He gives the darkness power over himself. The Light permits himself to be seized by darkness.” Perhaps the powers of darkness imagine that they have indeed triumphed when they behold the Son of God nailed to the Cross. Who knows whether they rejoiced or—with a premonition of their ultimate defeat—wept?  We understand now that the darkness must seem to have been victorious—for otherwise how could we know that it was in fact defeated by the blazing light bursting from the tomb? “The Light permits himself to be seized by darkness, to be led away, to be hung on the cross, to be killed, in order that, stripped of the cloud of flesh, he might restore the splendor of his majesty” (Quodvultdeus, Third Homily on the Creed, 5.14-17). We are no longer in suspense about the outcome, for with our own eyes we see the light shining in the darkness. From the very beginning of Advent—to speak in terms of the great liturgical cycle that today reaches its climax—we have known that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (cf. Is. 9:2).

But what about the struggle against the darkness in our hearts? Here the outcome does not seem to be assured.   It is no surprise that the Scriptures associate darkness with sin. “The way of the wicked is like darkness” (Proverbs 4:19). Why is this?  Because sin is the absence of the holiness that should be there; vice is the absence of virtue. Lust, envy, sloth, anger, pride, gluttony – these seem like positive forces in us, but in fact they are the lack of something—the  absence of chastity, the absence of love for another’s good, and so on. Thus, sin and vice constitute and emptiness, a blank, a kind of darkness which is the absence of light, “the gloom of sin” (Exsultet).

Although we experience our struggle with sin as a contest between darkness and light whose outcome is not yet clear to us, the Paschal Candle is the sign that this contest is already in principle won for us. The conquest of this darkness in us is the work of Christ. “He called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

The struggle against our darkness is Christ’s struggle before ever it becomes ours. In our struggle against sin we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood (cf. Heb 12:4). Christ is the “pioneer” (Heb 12:1) in this struggle.  Before we ever thought about our sins, or the harm they do us and others, or the affront they are to God, before we ever thought to repent of them and beg God’s mercy and forgiveness for them—Christ had already borne them and died for them. Like the Israelites at the Red Sea who realized that “the Lord was fighting for them against the Egyptians” (Ex 14), we see that the struggle against our darkness is Christ’s struggle first.

Each of us was baptized with the light of the Paschal Candle shining over us, and our parents or godparents held in our stead a small candle lighted from that flame. As we renew our baptismal promises and renounce the darkness of sin this morning, we will each hold a taper lighted from the flame of the Paschal Candle. In this way, we embrace again Christ’s struggle against the darkness in our hearts. Holding these tapers in our hands this morning is a way of affirming that we cannot face this darkness on our own. How foolish it would be to try!  How foolish it would be to march forth against the darkness without turning to our triumphantly victorious ally, Christ, who leads us from darkness into the splendor of his own light.

It follows that we must “live as children of the light, exhibiting the fruit of the light” (Eph 5:8-9). In our witness to Christ, in the quality of our words, deeds, and overall demeanor, we are to be “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) and must “take care that the light in [us] may not be darkness” (Lk 11:35). For “if the light in you be darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Mt 6:23). At the Easter Vigil, the Paschal Candle gradually dispels the darkness of the chapel as its flame is extended to light the tapers held by all the members of the congregation— “a fire never diminished by sharing its light.” And it burns brightly still. “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the world” (Eph 5:8).

“The Lord Christ, in coming into this mortal life, did not manifest His glory, but veiled it in mortal flesh. He appeared like the pillar of cloud in the desert. But when He comes at the end of the world, when all visible joys shall be taken away, then the Lord, no longer hidden under a human form, will shine in His glory and splendor like a pillar of fire. The pillar of fire burns and gives light. To burn is its power, to give light is its glory. To burn is to judge, to give light is to make clear. To burn is the punishment of the wicked, to give light is the happiness of the just” (St. Augustine, Easter Sermon).

Our Blessed Lady never in her lifetime walked in darkness. Preserved from sin by the “foreseen” merits of her Son’s passion, death and resurrection, she is the first human being apart from him ever to have dwelt entirely and uninterruptedly in the light—she the radiant “Morning Star” (Litany of Loreto), the “woman clothed with the sun” (Rev 12:1).  She stands with us this Easter morning, united with the whole glorious company of heaven depicted above, as we see with our own eyes and become the witnesses that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

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