"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

March 31, 2013

Easter Homilies

Easter Sunday–April 10, 1977–CNR

The readings for Easter liturgies have an interesting structure. There is always, of course, an account of the discovery of the empty tomb or of a resurrection-appearance of the Lord. Then again there is either (as in the Easter Vigil) a prophet’s vision anticipating the glories displayed or given in the resurrection, or else an account from the Acts of the Apostles of the earliest preaching of the resurrection. Finally, there is a text from the NT in which it is made clear how Christians share in the life of the Risen Christ.

Something crucial to an understanding of our Christianity is here displayed. The reference to the empty tomb and the resurrection-appearances grounds our faith in history. We do not gather around a vague, general belief that things work out in the end; we gather as the Church out of a belief that in one particular historical moment something different happened, that once at least in the succession of human moments, the inevitable drift towards death and dissolution was reversed and those ancient fates were robbed of their victory.

But what prevents such an assertion from being merely an appeal to the spectacular is its significance for the lives of Christians and of all other men. The resurrection of Christ is now seen as the key moment in the process of Incarnation which is Christianity’s distinctive principle. The movement of God towards us, his immersion into our condition, reached its fulness when Jesus of Nazareth died. And the necessary corollary of that movement–the assumption of our condition into God–is climaxed when he is made both Lord and Christ. That is why Paul could say to his people: “You have died” in Christ’s death, and why he now could say, “You have been raised up with Christ” and “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The whole of our living is now in Christ, even our life’s dying; only now there is a larger whole to our living, for death does not end our living, and our vision is not rooted to the earth but may look up to where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Two mysteries we celebrate, then: Christ’s resurrection and ours. An utter break in history’s otherwise relentless sequence of birth and death, and a ground and goal of our breathing and thinking and loving removed from our fragile grasp and control. “The right hand of the Lord has struck with power,” sings the Psalm, “the right hand of the Lord is exalted.” And because Christ is so exalted, each of us can continue with the song, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” We are treasured by our God in the love he has borne his Son, and nothing can take us from his grasp, for this is a love which this day is proven stronger even than death.

Easter Sunday – April 16, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament

“This is the day the Lord has made: let us be glad and rejoice.” This verse, which we sang in our responsorial psalm, was one of the passages in which the disciples of Jesus found some explanation of the remarkable things they had witnessed with regard to Jesus of Nazareth. Put yourself in their shoes: they had been tagging along behind him for two or three years, attracted by what he was saying, drawn by what he was doing; at times uncomprehending, at times letting their imaginations run wild: might this be the Messiah? And then come his arrest and trial; his punishment and inglorious death, and as two of them would later say, the dashing of their hope that he might be the one who would redeem Israel. They put it in the past tense: “we had hoped”; a hope they could no longer sustain, nothing in the traditional understanding of the Messiah that had room for a death in abandonment and disgrace.

One of the best scholars working on the early Church asks and answers the inevitable question:

“Why, then, did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is the one given by all early Christians actually known to us…: Jesus was raised from the dead.. The resurrection… was the only reason they came up with for supposing that Jesus stood for anything other than a dream that might have come true but didn’t. It was the only reason why his life and words possessed any relevance two weeks, let alone two millennia, after his death….” (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 658-59).

The conviction that Jesus was no longer dead, that God had vindicated him and his preaching and teaching, was what enabled the community of disciples to re-form, centered now on the initial experience of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had announced. It was natural that they turned to their own Scriptures to try to understand what had happened. They found the prophet’s text about a Servant of the Lord who became a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, whose wounds healed them, whose fidelity justified the many. They found the song in which the Psalmist cries out as if abandoned, pleads to be rescued, and declares his confidence in God. And they found the great Psalm that will provide the leit-motif of this whole Easter season:

Hark, great songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:

‘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 recount the works of the Lord.’

The Lord has chastened me sorely, but he has not given me over to death. …

The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our sight.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

That is what we celebrate today: the breakthrough, the turning-point, the initiation of the work of salvation, the vindication of the message and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Without it no book of the New Testament would have been written; without it not one of them is intelligible; everyone of them presupposes the resurrection of Christ. All the truths, all the values, all the splendid promises that make up the Christian life find their origin here: in the overcoming of death, that “last enemy” of mankind, as St. Paul called it.

The promises, of course, are not just promises of a future victory over our own deaths, but of a victory even now. In the reading from his Epistle to the Romans that was used at the Easter Vigil, St. Paul says that by our baptism we have ourselves been joined to Christ in his death and given new life through his resurrection, the shedding of an old self, the being clothed in a new self, being given a new self. And our second reading at this Mass repeats the theme: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Thank of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is [now] hidden with Christ in God.” We have died with Christ; we have been raised with Christ; our true life is with him, in him. So that Easter is the celebration of the power of Christ’s resurrection even today in the lives of sinners transformed to become the daughters and sons of God.

This day has made us greater than we know, John Henry Newman once said in a lovely Easter sermon. It is a day for celebration, for awe, for thanksgiving; above all it is a day for joy: “This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Easter Sunday – April 8, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament

We celebrate today our origins, our beginnings. There are two senses in which this is so, the first historical, the second personal. Historically, Christianity is unintelligible apart from belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. A small group of people had begun to follow after that itinerant preacher who proclaimed that the Reign of God was about to manifest itself and called people to start living in its light and by its power. Some of them began to suspect that he might be the long-awaited Messiah, began to hope “that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Those nascent hopes were shattered when he was arrested, tried and executed, and that should have been the end of it all, as it had been for other similar prophets and their movements, who have passed into historical oblivion.

But this case was different. The movement did not end, and the name of Jesus of Nazareth is still remembered two thousand years later. He is remembered because those first disciples became convinced that he had been raised from the dead, and that this conquest of death established and revealed him as indeed the Messiah, as Lord and Redeemer. There is no other explanation, simply on purely historical grounds, for why Jesus of Nazareth was remembered, for why he is still remembered. It was this conviction that led his followers to begin to preach him, to call their fellow Jews to recognize him as Messiah, and then to call Gentile peoples to join in the communion of life that his resurrection opened. From generation to generation the same word of life has been passed on: “What we have seen and heard we announce to you so that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”

The Psalm we sang as our response to the first reading, Psalm 118, became one of the most important Old Testament texts by which the early Christians tried to make sense of the dramatic events in which Jesus’s life climaxed. The Psalmist is being surrounded and attacked; he is falling, fallen–words in which the early Christians saw Christ’s passion predicted. But then he cries out: “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.” And then comes the passage, often cited in the New Testament, in which they heard Christ’s resurrection proclaimed: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” From the trash-heap of history onto which human beings cast Christ and would always cast him, God has picked up his Son and made him the most important stone in the building which he would construct out of us human beings in the course of human history. It is to form part of that building that St. Peter’s First Epistle invites us: “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious, and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Which brings us to our own personal origins as Christians. All over the world, last night, at the Easter Vigil, thousands of men and women were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and today hundreds and hundreds of millions of Christians will renew their baptismal commitments that are their own share in that death–as they reject sin–and in that resurrection–as they declare their faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. This is where our Christian lives take their origin, the waters from which we were born, are born. Today we are also celebrating this victory over death. This is what St. Paul is describing: “You have died with Christ; you have been raised with Christ; your life is hidden with him in God.” Paul is describing Christian conversion here: the shifting of the love that drives our lives away from ourselves, away from this world’s satisfactions and pleasures–this is how we die with Christ–to God and a life lived in accordance with the powerful work of mercy that has been accomplished in our regard too–this is how we have been raised with Christ. We now already are living a life that has conquered death, because it is the life of the risen Christ himself that we are living. We too can say: “The right hand of the Lord has struck with power. I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord.”

If any of you should ever be tempted to think that Christianity is a gloomy religion; if others should make this complaint about us, the most effective response will always be to think of Easter, to think of the first Easter when death was overcome for us all in Christ the Lord, to think of the Easter that was our own baptism, to think of the daily Easter that is a life lived in the joy and peace of the resurrection. It should be possible, necessary, for us to say everyday: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”

Easter Sunday – March 23, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament

“This is the day the Lord has made: let us be glad and rejoice in it.” This verse from Psalm 118 serves as one of the great motifs of this day, indeed of the whole of the Easter season. The early Church saw in this Psalm a prophetical anticipation of the great event that gave it rise–the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be Lord and Messiah. They understood him to be “the stone which the builders rejected,” which they threw aside as useless to their purpose–his arrest and conviction and execution–but which God had picked up from their scrapheap and made the cornerstone of the building He wished to build–his resurrection. The imagery is vivid and marks the turning-point in the whole history of salvation: an utterly new beginning.

Christ, of course, was to be “the first born from the dead,” (Col 1:18), the first living stone of God’s new Temple, to which the Apostle Peter invited us to join as ourselves “living stones,” cut and fashioned to his likeness, comprising “the spiritual house, holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). And from very early times, this feast has been the chief occasion on which men and women were baptized into Christ and by that sacrament died with Christ and with Christ were raised to a new life. St. Augustine applied our Psalm verse to these new Christians, said that they themselves, who once had been in darkness, were now “the day the Lord has made” because they had been brought into the light that reveals a whole new world, for them an utterly new beginning.

In another Easter homily, St. Augustine spoke of this day as bringing “the death of death” (mors mortis). Already realized in Christ, this same death of death is promised to us as well: one day, he said, death will die in us, too. I wonder whether John Donne might have known of this sermon of the great Father of the Church. You will recall the lines that end his sonnet on death: “One short sleepe past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” Or perhaps you recall John Milton, who wrote of death’s receiving “death’s wound.”

It is not, of course, that there is no death, but that death has already been defeated, lost its sting, because Christ has been raised from the dead. What has been defeated decisively once in Christ is defeated already in hope for us, too. And if death, that last enemy, as St. Paul called it, has already been defeated, then there is no lesser evil that cannot be met and defeated by our faith, hope and love, whether the evil of illness or bereavement or tragedy or betrayal or failure. Whatever evil can be brought against us, St. Paul asked: we have on our side“Christ Jesus, who died, or rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.” And nothing, he was convinced “can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”

All that is what we are celebrating on this day that the Lord has made. Accompanying all our prayer and joy this season is the word “Alleluia.” The word means, “Praise God.” St. Augustine described heaven as one long, unceasing, never tiring “Alleluia!” Perhaps we can think of this season as choir practice: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Easter Sunday – April 12, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament

“This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad!”

That verse is taken from one of the Psalms used most frequently during this season of Easter, a practice in which the Church today continues what the very first group of disciples began on the first Easter day. The wonder of the day had led them back to their Scriptures for texts in which they might find anticipated the events they had just witnessed: the arrest and execution of the one whom they had hoped might be the Messiah, and now the astonishing reports that he had been raised from the dead and now was vindicated as Lord and Messiah.

Among the texts they found was the one we sang as our response to the first reading. It is the exultant prayer of one who had been under attack and who had fled to the Lord for refuge and been heard:

The right hand of the Lord has struck with power,

the right hand of the Lord raises up.

I shall not die, but live,

to proclaim the works of the Lord.

The Lord did not surrender me to Death.

The stone which the builders rejected

has become the chief cornerstone.

By the Lord has this been done,

it is wonderful in our eyes.

This is the day the Lord has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.

That verse can also be translated: “This is the day on which the Lord has acted,” and that would have an Easter meaning, too: this is the day on which God has done the decisive thing, overcoming death, what St. Paul called “the last enemy,” and in so doing has overcome every lesser evil. And because of this victory, a new day has dawned, so that the other translation is also valid: “This is the day the Lord has made!”

St. Augustine reflected on this same Psalm one Easter day. He recalled the act by which God had created light out of the primordial darkness, and then he asked whether there was not another day that the Lord had made in which his Church was to rejoice and be glad; and he answered:

It was said to those who believe in Christ, ‘You are the light of the world.’ If ‘light,’ then ‘day,’ because he called the light the day. Yesterday the Spirit of God here moved over the waters, and there was darkness over the waters when these new-born [one can see him pointing to those baptized at the Vigil] still were bearing their sins. But when their sins were forgiven them by the Spirit of God, then the Lord said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’ Behold ‘the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ We are speaking to this day in the words of the Apostle: Oh day that the Lord has made, you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord…. Walk then as children of the light.”

We today are still living in this Day the Lord has made. If we have made our Lenten way behind our Lord, then we too can sing, as true of ourselves: “I shall not die but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” The very ancient hymn that St. Paul quoted is then true of us: “Awake, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you.’” Jesus himself said that resurrection was not something reserved for the last day when he said to Martha: “I am resurrection and life; anyone who believes in me, even though he die, shall live, and anyone who lives and believes shall never die at all.” In our second reading, the Apostle echoes Christ: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God…. You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” A life stronger and surer than death has already begun in us. The Day that will have no end has already dawned. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Easter Sunday – April 4, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen

“This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Words we have just sung, words we should take to heart on this great day: the day the Lord has made, and has made bright with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is our great day, the day from which our Christian life took its origin and continues to take its origin, out of faith that God raised the crucified one, Jesus of Nazareth, from the dead and made him Lord and Messiah. All Christian life, all Christian living, arises with Christ, and has no meaning, no substance, apart from the great event we celebrate today.

This verse, which we sang in our response to the first reading, is taken from Psalm 118, which we might almost call an Easter Psalm, because it so vividly conveys the meaning of this day, which is why from very early on it was used by Christians to express what they believed had happened in the death and resurrection of Christ. In his resurrection “the right hand of the Lord had indeed struck with power,” and Christ can exult: “I shall not die [forever], but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”

Then comes the vivid imagery in which God’s great act was anticipated: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” We have all seen sites where men are constructing some kind of building, let us imagine it is a house. There is always a scrap heap nearby, or today a dumpster, on which the workers throw pieces of stone or brick or lumber that for some reason can’t be used in the type of house they’re building. They have their plans; they know what’s needed for this house; and if a stone or a brick can’t be fitted into their plans, they throw it aside, onto the scrap heap, into the dumpster.

This is what was done to Christ. Humanity had its own idea of what it wanted to construct, and when because of his teaching he was found not to fit into their plans, didn’t fit in the house they were already building, they threw him away, as useless, on the scrap heap of history, a stone rejected by the builders. But what we are celebrating today is that God picked up that stone and made it the most important stone in the building he, God, wants to build. In the First Epistle of St. Peter, which will be our guide through these days after Easter, Christ is described as “a living stone, rejected by men but approved and precious in God’s sight.” That stone, Christ himself, defines what sort of building we ought to be constructing by our lives, individually and collectively; we have to be shaped in order to fit with him. We are to be, as the same passage says, “living stones also, built as an edifice of spirit, into a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.” All the elements of Old Testament worship are here applied to us as the Church: we ourselves, all of us together, in virtue of our baptism into Christ, are the new Temple, the new priesthood, and the new sacrifices. All of humanity are to be at once a new priesthood offering their lives in the Spirit within the new Temple built around Christ the cornerstone.

This great day, then, is about our resurrection also, about our being shaped in the image and likeness of Christ, having died with him in our repentance and having been raised with him into the new life of his holy Spirit. Christianity began with the recognition that Jesus, who died on the cross, had been raised from the dead. Christianity begins today, continues to exist today, when ever new people recognize and welcome the power of that resurrection in their own lives and commit themselves to living lives in grateful imitation of Christ. Jesus Christ defines for them what they ought to be doing with their lives, and they undertake to do it, not reluctantly, not out of mere obedience to an imposed duty, but freely, eagerly, generously. Even when there are dark days in the life of anyone of us, or dark days in the life of the Church, as we seem to be experiencing these days, we remember the darkness that came upon the earth when Christ died, and we believe that the same light that scattered that darkness on Easter Sunday can also disperse whatever shadows have fallen into our lives and enable us to walk more confidently, more surely, by Christ’s light.

This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it–and not just today, on Easter Sunday, but every day. Every day can be, ought to be, a day in which we may rejoice and be glad.

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 had has struck with power, and we shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord.

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: