It happened 40 years ago in 1983, when I was a young Mill Hill Missionary in western Kenya. My Parish Priest, Fr Pat Connolly, was a very experienced, committed, and wise old Mill Hill Missionary who taught me – by example – how best to serve the people who had welcomed us among them.
We were two priests looking after 8 large mission stations*, covering a very large rural area. For Holy Week and Easter, we decided that Fr Pat would look after the central mission Church, and I would go out to the furthest, most remote area to do the same, at a place called Yogo.
The fire of faith
On Good Friday, I informed the great throng of people present that we would begin the Easter Vigil with a fire. From which, we would light the Easter candle as a symbol of the Resurrection. ‘Please bring a small piece of wood with you to make up the fire,’ said I, with a picture in my mind of a twig or two.
However, when I arrived for the Vigil, I was confronted by an enormous pile of burning wood that would put most bonfires to shame. For in their generosity the people had brought huge branches, not small twigs!
The fire was raging, the flames lit up the darkness of the night, and the whole crowd glowed with anticipation. Approaching the fire to light the Easter candle was challenging, so intense was the heat. With the help of the catechist, risking our own health and safety, I eventually managed to light it.
‘Ler mar Kristus!’ (The Light of Christ) I proclaimed, to which the whole company sang ‘Nyasaye erokamano!’ (Thanks be to God). It was a moment of intense joy that reverberated all through the four-hour Vigil Mass. We processed into the Church: a simple building without doors and windows, but did contain benches and a wooden altar.
There was only one light inside, a paraffin pressure mantle lamp – called a Tilley lamp for those too young to remember – which generated an incandescent bright white light. It was placed on the altar, and as the Mass continued, it attracted every flying bug you could think of: beetles, moths, cockroaches – all shapes, colours, and sizes. My bright white vestments appeared to be quite attractive to them too.
Fire, heat, light, Baptismal water, the Eucharistic banquet, singing, dancing, and countless creepy crawly reminders of the beauty of God’s creation: all this pointed to the great gift of Easter – LIFE IN ABUNDANCE.
‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God – it will flame out,’ as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, for ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things … the Holy (Spirit) over the bent world broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.’
The impossible made possible
The mystery of the Resurrection invites us to believe that the impossible in our minds is made possible by God’s power in our hearts.
Easter is not only about remembering a one-off event two thousand years ago but challenges us to accept God’s generous gift of abundant life and live it according to God’s Will.
Jesus, the crucified one, lives, and is with us here and now. He enlightens us so that we can see that God is clearly present and active in those places where hope has been abandoned; that God give us the power to confront injustice, violence, poverty, and oppression; that people who do evil will ultimately fail, and flounder and fall; that no sin is unforgiveable; and that death does not have the final say.
‘If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain,’ wrote St Paul (1 Cor 15:17). He met the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. At first the light blinded him, yet later he was to spend his life proclaiming Jesus as the Light of the World.
Each of us has met the Risen Lord somewhere, sometime in our lives, even if we are not quite sure where or when. The mysterious seeds of eternal life are planted in each one of us and will by God’s grace bear fruit in due season.
Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus – that Jesus is alive here and now – gives us life, to live the gifts of God at the service of others, to protect and honour God’s creation, and to dismiss false promises that lead to fleeting superficial happiness.
In this crazy, mixed up, violent, contradictory, beautiful, amazing, mysterious world, in the words of wonderful Pope Francis: ‘Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope!’. Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!
I wish you all a happy, life-giving, and hope-filled Easter.
* Forty years later, these 8 mission stations have become busy parishes, all with their own Kenyan Priests, Sisters, schools and health programmes, thanks to you and your support of Missio. On their behalf, THANK YOU.