It was a night of watching by the Lord. This is one translation of a verse in today's first reading. It is another way of thinking about what is happening in the night. It may be the night of faith or the night of hope, the night of love or the night of birth, the night of sickness or the night of death, the night of mystical encounters or even the night of sin. Whatever the night in which human beings find themselves, it is a night of watching by the Lord. Like a parent anxious about its sleeping child, or its sick child, or its child worrying about the next day's events, so the Lord watches over Israel and pours gifts on his beloved while she slumbers.
And not just on Israel. There is the temptation to hear the story of the Exodus as a nationalist epic, a celebration for the children of Israel who are led to freedom, while the Egyptians (also children of the same God as Israel's own prophets teach us) are clobbered, routed, massacred, in the returning waters of the Red Sea. The Lord who watches over Israel, what is he to the Egyptians? It presents a difficulty, especially on Easter Night, as we sing the triumph of the Lord over the enemies of his people.
But the people leaving Egypt and seeking freedom include, we are told, 'a crowd of mixed ancestry'. That is a relief, for which of us, at this stage of the genetic melting pot that is the human race, can claim to be of pure ancestry? In Nazi Germany as in apartheid South Africa, human beings drove themselves (and each other) mad by trying to determine who was 'pure' and who was not. In each place, arbitrary criteria were eventually introduced, sub-divisions within racial categories, to try to take account of the inevitable mixing of the races. In the apartheid museum in Johannesburg the visitor learns about this and other forms of madness. How did people ever end up at the point they did? How did they begin thinking in a way that inevitably led to that? Paul Wittgenstein, a brother of the philosopher, was told that one of his children was 'Jewish' because she was born after a certain date whereas the other, a child of the same parents, was not, because she was born before that date.
That way madness lies. Instead the God of Israel, who is the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, always described his covenant with a particular people as a promise of blessing for all the nations of the earth. Within Israel this universalist meaning and destiny of her election was sometimes lost to sight. Even still there seem to be people in all races and creeds who need to think of others as excluded by God before they themselves can feel properly included.
What do we see in regard to all this when we see Jesus? He stands in the place of Israel, that is very clear. He represents the children of Israel. He is Israel, the child of the covenant, the bearer of the promise, the one to lead the people to salvation. He is the servant of the Lord. But he is also the Egyptians since in passing through the waters of the new Red Sea, he is drowned. He places himself in the situation of the enemies of the children of Israel at the same time as he is himself Israel. And so the reconciliation becomes possible, in him and through him, the peace that is made through his blood on the cross.
This is the world's darkest night, this night of Calvary, for it seems as if in this night, as his children sleep, God is dead. But within the dark mystery of the Blessed Trinity a new kind of victory is conceived. The waters close in, the depths swallow their victim, the sun and the moon are extinguished. From this most holy night, in which Jesus passes from death to life, a new creation emerges. This victory is not won in arms or battles, this triumph is not at the price of humiliating and oppressing an enemy. The children of Israel, any crowd of mixed ancestry, the Gentiles too, have justice proclaimed to them, a new kind of justice established on a new kind of reality. The children of Israel, any crowd of mixed ancestry, Egyptians and all other Gentiles, now hope in his name, the only name given to human beings by which they might gain salvation.
World Youth Day is a sacramental anticipation of the kingdom that is coming. Children of all races, more or less mixed, more or less pure, watch with the Lord in the vigils of the night. They will be praying for all humanity. They will be seeking to deepen their love for all humanity. They will be learning about the Son of David, the prophet like Moses, the new Elijah and Joshua. He steps up from the depths of darkness, from beneath the waves of sin, and shines a new light. He introduces a new dawn, leading justice to victory, and bringing, out of that deepest darkest night, a new and everlasting hope.