On Light Shows and the Light of Christ: A Reflection for the Easter Vigil

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I think most people would agree that Disney World has nothing significant to contribute to the spiritual life, and if it does, that something is certainly not in any proportion to the astounding cost one pays to walk its suspiciously happy streets.  Having visited there recently with some dear friends, however, I am less inclined to poopoo the spiritual possibility nestled therein.

As far as my people-watching skills could tell, there were really two sorts of people present during my visit.  The first was far more common:  they were the folks that–well aware of  how much they paid for their families–were at Disney World to be entertained.  They paid for a product and demanded a very damn good one in return.  I do not blame these people in the slightest, and suspect very many of them go home frustrated.

The second sort of person seeks less entertainment than they do an imaginative experience for themselves and their families.  They go to Disney (paying just as much money, I should add) seeking entry into a world that is otherwise – one where perhaps magic, princes, princess, and evil sorcerers may exist.  Especially during the Magic Kingdom’s nightly light show, this sort of person, the one who desires to be elsewhere, can actually achieve their goal of feeling like they are in a different world.   In a mind-blowing use of high-tech projection, Disney’s master artists bring Cinderella’s Castle to life, making it seem like its bricks were falling from the sky, changing colors, and being rebuilt to the heavens.  It was not only stunning, but also almost made a believer out of me.  Their use of light was playing on deeper, more magical sensibilities deep within me.

As we approach this evening’s Vigil Mass, itself a display of lights, I wonder if we can’t see a similar, yet far more transformative (and let’s be honest, cost-effective) logic at work.  This use of light reshaping space and heart is an ancient practice of our Church.  Yet whereas Disney makes use of flashy and complex graphics to convince us of a temporary illusion, we employ the simplicity of candlelight to remind us of a profound truth.

What’s more, this truth is a baffling and outrageous truth:  one that claims the man Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead – and that his raising was not just a wicked cool thing that happened, but is in fact an event of the utmost significance.  Through this resurrection God undoes the fear and power of death, exposes the isolating power of sin, and reveals the unapproachable light that pervades the darkness of existence.  But our liturgical practice confirms that this is not a truth of which we can be convinced; there is no historical way of proving very much that happened two millennia ago.  It is, however, a truth of which can be reminded.

From the one Paschal Candle ten or one hundred or one thousand other candles are brought to life, and collectively they do what one could not:  they bring the entire building to a dim, but calming light.  This reminder is less than titillating.  It is not a light show meant to wow us and transport us into an escapist fantasy.  Rather, it aspires instead to tell us of the world that we already live in, a world where darkness has already been dismissed by the loving God—where love and life have triumphed over death, even if said darkness and death still manage to be present.

For us, it is not easy to remember that our world has been recreated as such, to remember that Jesus’ life actually effected something so drastic.  The world is still plagued by and riddled with our sin.  But when we go to our churches this evening, when we see the steady growth of light and clarity that comes as a result of the Paschal Candle’s eruption into our shadow – it is then we are invited to a truly imaginative spiritual experience, one that is not entertaining or even dazzling.  Rather it is an invitation to cultivate that sort of vision which sees the world as headed towards resurrection and eternal life, as truly dear and consequential in the eyes of God.

This eschatological intuition is among the great fruits of the Easter Triduum, but it is not a spiritual state that should be nurtured merely three days per year.  To fully appreciate it, I believe, we need those Disney-like experiences–those initial exercises of believing, even if it is only make-believing, that the world is otherwise.  Talking mice and happily-ever-after are not real categories, of course.  Too much belief in them would surely be pathological.  Keeping an open mind to magic, however, can be the first step to having an open heart to grace.  And open hearts, like open tombs, are what this weekend is all about.

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