It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb. — Jn. 20:1

Twenty-nine years ago, near midnight, I walked out the door of my campus apartment. One by one, we gathered on a windswept hillside. The moon had not yet risen, far below us wisps of light wound through the parking lots and puddled around the campus buildings.

Under a vast shower of stars, rank upon rank of darkling hills arrayed before us, we tramped in a thin, almost invisible line, up to the top of the ridge. There, shivering in the cold breeze, we kindled a fire and we prayed, “The light of Christ. Thanks be to God.” The great vigil of Easter had begun, as that first Easter, in the still, dark hours before the dawn.

Easter is a feast of light. A festival of dancing fire, sparkling water and dazzling white garments. Yet it begins not under the blazing midday sun, or even amid the crimson and gold fury of a sunset, but in the stumbling murkiness of a night not quite spent, in a dim, cold cavern hewn of rock.

It was still dark. I hear in St. John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb echoes of Jesus’ own prayer. St. Mark’s Gospel tells of Jesus going off to pray, alone, “in the morning, long before dawn.” I think, too, of my own preference for prayer in these still and mysterious hours before the sun bursts over the horizon.

Why these night hours? Anthony Horneck, a chaplain at Oxford College in the 17th century, thought “midnight prayers strangely incline God’s favor.” For then, he said, was the soul “nimbler, subtler, quicker, fitter to behold things sublime and great.” In his Spiritual Exercise, St. Ignatius, too, advised prayer after midnight, when body and soul were rested and receptive.

In was in this liminal time, when the regular demands of the day had not yet crept from their beds, that Jesus met Mary in the quiet of the garden, and opened her eyes to see Him as He is, risen and glorified. He came, not striding down the streets of Jerusalem accompanied by a chorus of seraphim, but in the midnight hours when Mary Magdalene’s soul was better able to grasp the mystery of our salvation.

Seeds are planted and nourished in the darkness, reaching toward the light as they grow. Though St. John reports that Mary thought Jesus at first to be the gardener, St. Gregory the Great suggested in a homily on this Gospel, that she was not perhaps as confused as we might think: “Was He not a spiritual gardener for her?” The seeds planted in this long-ago encounter in the darkness of the garden have grown over the centuries to encompass the whole world.

We sing in the Exsultet, the great Proclamation of Easter, “This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.” We learn that night is not a time to fear, or one that obscures the truth, but the place from which joy and salvation erupt.

As I watch the Easter fire kindled again this year, not in the bleak darkness of a California hillside, but a block from Lancaster Avenue, as night edges into being, I will wonder what seeds the Gardener will plant within my soul, within the souls of His faithful, that will be nourished in the Eucharist, and bear fruit in our churches and communities. What favors will God shower upon us in these midnight prayers? What will erupt with joy from this holiest of nights?

Redeeming God, source of life and light, bless this new fire, and grant that we who are warmed by the celebration of this Easter feast, may share in the everlasting festival of your radiance, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

– A blessing for the Easter fire