Easter Sunday – April 24, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
Our responsorial Psalm today, Psalm 118, has been an Easter song from the earliest days of Christianity. It was cited by St. Peter in one of his earliest proclamations of Christ’s resurrection, and it provided the central metaphor in what may have been an early Easter homily, which we know as the First Epistle of St. Peter. The very first Christians searched the Hebrew Scriptures for prophecies, for anticipations of the dramatic events of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and this Psalm was one of those that enabled them to make sense of those events.
The Psalm is sung, first, as a triumphal cry of Christ himself: “The right hand of the Lord has struck with power, the right hand of the Lord is exalted. I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” God’s right hand has been so powerful as to overcome Christ’s own death and to raise him from the dead. This is the great reversal set out in the next metaphor: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Sinful and short-sighted humanity had been building in accordance with its own blueprint, and Jesus of Nazareth did not fit into that plan and so was cast aside. But God, having his own plan and his own blueprint, reached down and from the scrapheap of history raised Jesus up and made him the most important stone in the building God wishes to construct. And this, finally, is the reason for the exultation of the Church: “This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad!”
Several of the Easter sermons of St. Augustine have come down to us. In one of them he addresses those who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil and alludes to the darkness-light metaphor that was so prominent a part of the imagery of Lent and that burst so brightly on our consciousness in the early part of the great Vigil, when the darkness of the night was overcome as the Easter Candle was lit and that light, without ever being diminished in itself, was shared from person to person–”on fire individually, they make a single flame” (Augustine again)–and the whole congregation processed as a Church exulting in its Easter light, the subject of the Exultet, the great hymn chanted to the Easter Candle.
Turning to the newly baptized, Augustine recalled the words of St. Paul, “You were once darkness, but now light in the Lord.” Once they were night, Augustine paraphrased, but now they were day, and to them applied the words of our refrain: “You are the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” All the biblical light-imagery applied to them. Had not Jesus himself said to his disciples: “You are the light of the world”?
People who are converted as adults can very well appreciate such dramatic metaphors as those of darkness and light, and death and life. There are people for whom coming to Christ has made that clear a difference, dividing their lives between a “before” and an “after’ as sharply as the passage from night to day. It may be that there has been nothing so dramatic in the religious experience of the majority of us, so that it may require an effort on our part to bring home to us the difference that Christ in fact has made and makes in our lives–perhaps by imagining how things would look if we did not believe in God and in Christ; if our world was without grace, without forgiveness, without mercy; if we did not accept the fundamental moral values and goals of Christianity; if we did not hope for a life beyond the grave. We would be inhabiting a different world, and we would be different persons within that world.
In a minute I’m going to ask you to renew your baptismal vows. I’ll ask you the questions that someone else answered for most of you when you were infants. But you’re not infants now, and the renewal of those vows need not be a mere rite, mere words on lips but not coming from the heart. The first questions ask that we turn away from the night of our sins and failures; the second set asks us whether we will walk as in the day, in the light that is our faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By our answers to those questions, when genuinely meant and firmly uttered, we can enter fully into this day that the Lord has made, we can ourselves become the day that the Lord has made, and we can rejoice and be glad in it–because Christ’s resurrection has become the truth about our lives, too. The Lord’s right hand has struck with power, and we shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord.