The day and the night: Easter in St. Augustine

The Bishop of Hippo explains that at Easter Jesus overcame the darkness of the night and gave us the light of life.

With his resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ made glorious the day that his death had made mournful. Therefore, solemnly recalling both moments, let us remain vigilant in remembering his death and rejoice in welcoming his resurrection. This is our annual feast and our Passover; no longer in figure, as it was for the old people, by the slaying of a lamb, but realized, as for the new people, by the sacrifice of the Savior, for Christ, our Passover, has been slain, and the old has passed away, and behold, all things have been made new. If we weep, it is only because we are oppressed by the weight of our sins, and if we rejoice, it is because we have been justified by his grace, for he was delivered up for our sins and rose again for our justification. Weeping for the former and rejoicing in the latter, we are filled with joy. We do not let it pass unnoticed with ungrateful forgetfulness, but we celebrate with grateful remembrance what for our sake and for our benefit took place: both the sad event and the joyful anticipation. Let us remain vigilant, then, beloved, since the burial of Christ was prolonged until this night, so that on this same night the resurrection of the flesh might take place, which then, when it was on the tree, was mocked and is now adored in heaven and on earth.

It is understood, indeed, that this night belongs to the next day which we regard as the Lord’s day. Certainly he must have risen in the night hours, because with his resurrection he has also illuminated our darkness, and not in vain had he been sung with so much anticipation: You will illuminate my lamp, Lord; my God, you will illuminate my darkness.

Our devotion also honors so great a mystery, so that as our faith, corroborated by his resurrection, is already awake, so too this night, illuminated by our vigil, may shine so brightly that, together with the Church spread throughout the globe of the earth, we may think today, as we should, of not being found in the night. For so many peoples who, under the name of Christ, gathered everywhere this famous solemnity, the sun went down, but without ceasing to be day, because the light of the earth took over from the light of heaven.

Nevertheless, if anyone seeks to what this our vigil owes its importance, he may find adequate causes and answer confidently, for he who bestowed upon us the glory of his name was the one who illuminated this night, and he to whom we say: Thou shalt enlighten my darkness grants light to our hearts so that, just as, with delight to the eyes, we see the splendor of these lamps, so we also see, enlightened the mind, the meaning of this night so bright.

Why, then, do Christians keep vigil on this annual feast? This is our vigil par excellence, and our thought does not usually fly to any other solemnity than this when, moved by desire, we ask or say: -When is the vigil? -In so many days, the answer is given, as if, in comparison with it, the others were not to be regarded as vigils. Certainly, the Apostle exhorted the Church to be assiduous not only in fasting, but also in vigils. Speaking of himself he says: often in fasts, often in vigils. But tonight’s vigil stands out so much that it can claim as its own the name that is common to all the others. So, then, I will say something – whatever the Lord will grant me – first about the vigil in general and then about today’s specific vigil.

In that life for the attainment of whose rest we all weary ourselves, a life which the truth promises us for after the death of this body or even for the end of this world, in the resurrection, we shall never sleep, just as we shall never die. What else is sleep but a daily death which neither takes man out of here nor keeps him for long? And what else is death but a long and very deep sleep, from which man is awakened by God? Therefore, where no death comes, neither does sleep, its image, come. Consequently, only mortals experience sleep. Not of this kind is the rest of the angels; since they live perpetually, they never repair their health by sleep. As there is life itself, there is endless wakefulness. There life is nothing else than to be awake, and to be awake is nothing else than to live. We, on the other hand, while we are in this body that corrupts and burdens the soul, since we cannot live if we do not repair our strength with sleep, we interrupt life with the image of death in order to live, at least, at intervals. He, therefore, who assiduously and chastely and without harming anyone attends vigils, undoubtedly imitates the life of the angels – for, inasmuch as the weakness of this flesh becomes for them an earthly burden, the heavenly desires are stifled – by fighting with a longer vigil against this death-bearing burden, in order to acquire for it a reward in eternal life. He is at odds with himself who wishes to live forever and does not want to prolong his vigils; he wishes death to disappear completely and does not want its image to diminish. This is the cause, this is the reason why the Christian has to exercise his mind, keeping it in vigil, more frequently.

Now already, brethren, while we remember a few other things, turn your attention to tonight’s special vigil. I have said why we should subtract time from sleep and add to vigils more frequently; now I will say why we keep vigil tonight with such solemnity.

No Christian doubts that Christ, the Lord, rose from the dead on the third day. The Holy Gospel testifies that the event took place this night. It is clear that the whole day begins to be counted from the previous night, although it does not conform to the order of days mentioned in Genesis, notwithstanding that there also darkness preceded the day, for darkness was hovering over the abyss when God said, “Let there be light, and there was light”. But since that darkness was not yet night, neither were there days. Indeed, God made the division between the light and the darkness, and first called the light day, and then the darkness night, and the space from the time the light was made until the next morning was mentioned as one day. It is evident that those days began with light and, after night had passed, lasted each day until morning. But, after man created by the light of righteousness fell into the darkness of sin, from which the grace of Christ delivered him, the fact is that we count the days from the nights, because our effort is not directed to passing from light to darkness, but from darkness to light, which we hope to attain with the help of the Lord. Thus the Apostle also says: The night is past, the day is at hand; let us therefore put off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Therefore, the day of the Lord’s passion, the day on which he was crucified, followed his own night already past, and therefore closed and concluded at the preparation of the Passover, which the Jews also call “pure supper,” and the observance of the Sabbath began at the beginning of this night. Consequently, the Sabbath, which began with its own night, concluded in the evening of the following night, which is already the beginning of the Lord’s day, because the Lord made it holy with the glory of his resurrection. Thus, in this solemnity we now celebrate the memory of the night that began the Lord’s day and we keep vigil on the night in which the Lord rose again. The life of which he spoke a little earlier, in which there will be neither death nor sleep, he initiated for us in his flesh, so that he rose from the dead that he no longer dies, nor does death have dominion over him.

Those who loved him came to his tomb to look for his body in the morning, and they did not find it, but they received a message from the angels that he had already risen; it is clear, therefore, that he had risen that very night, the end of which was that dawn. Consequently, the Risen One, to whom we have sung in this slightly longer vigil, will grant us to reign with him in life without end. And if, by chance, in these hours which we spent in vigil his body was still in the tomb and he had not yet risen, we do not therefore behave incongruously in doing so, for he who died that we might have life, fell asleep that we might keep vigil. Amen.

Saint Augustine
Sermon 220