Easter Vigil – March 28-29, 1964 – Santa Susanna, Rome
If you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, appears, then you shall appear with him in glory (Col 3:1-4).
These words of St. Paul are the Epistle of this evening’s Mass.
“This night has made us greater than we know” (Newman). What we have become this night only God’s Spirit fully knows; but “this is the Spirit we have received from God” (1 Cor 2:12), and he will help us understand what God has done for us this night.
Jesus Christ took up man’s condition before God: in “a form like that of our sinful nature” (Rom 8:3), in “the form of a. slave” (Ph 2:7). Living our life, he showed us both how great is God’s love for us and how we are to return it. In him we learn both what God is like and what man is like (Pascal), for they are one and the same in him. He became a slave, though he was Son, and underwent the slave’s most terrible bondage, death. And this night we discover that he has taken that bondage away, or rather transformed it, so that it is now the way to the freedom only God’s children possess. “This is the night,” as the Deacon sang, “Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.” “And all the Christians of the world, this night sets free from earthly vice and sinful gloom, restoring them to grace, uniting them to holiness.”
For Christ’s “purpose in dying for all was that men, while still in life, should cease to live for themselves, and should live for him who for their sake died and was raised to life (2 Cor 5:15-16).” That is what Christ’s victory over sin and death means; that is what our rising with Christ means: Living for him, no longer for ourselves, so that he is the new center of gravity of all that we are and all that we do. That is why we seek, that is why we set our minds and hearts on the things that are above; for that is where Christ is and in him our real life is now hidden. We are different men because Christ has risen tonight. We see all of reality in a different light, because Jesus has risen tonight. We stand before God, we stand before man, different men tonight, because Jesus has risen and taken us with himself to the Father.
It is very real, what God has done for us tonight. For tonight he has raised his Son to full glory; and with him he has raised each one of us, who throughout the weeks of Lent said no a little more totally to all in us that did not resemble Jesus Christ. Only a few minutes ago, before God and our brothers here, each of us repeated our Baptismal promises. We renounced Satan, and all his works and vanities; but there was more, just as there was more to Christ’s saving work than his death. Three times also we professed our belief: in God our Father; in Jesus Christ, his Son and our Brother; in the Holy Spirit, living in our very selves. Dead to sin, we proclaimed our life to God, and dared to pray to him in the way Jesus prayed to his Father. There is our death and resurrection with Christ–very real things–saying no to ourselves, saying yes to God, saying “Father” to God. It is exactly what Christ’s death and resurrection were: saying no to himself, yes to God’s will; living eternal life with the Father.
“This night has indeed made us greater than we know.” No longer is Jesus God’s only Son. Tonight he has become “the eldest of a large family of brothers” (Rom 8:29)–all God’s sons. For tonight we have been made like Jesus. Tonight Christ’s work is accomplished: slaves have been set free, children have been born to his Father. We are those freed men; we are God’s new children.
We turn now to speak our thanks to God, for that is what the Mass is. No longer do we thank him only for the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. “Whenever you do these things,” Jesus told us, “it is in memory of me that you shall do them.” The great events for which we give thanks are the death and resurrection of Christ; and tonight as we recall them, they take place again in us. Children of God, let us now go before him to thank him for his Son and for this night, which makes us able to say to him with Jesus, “Our Father.”
This is the first sermon I ever preached to an actual congregation (as distinct from the audience of my classmates in homiletics class). I was the celebrant at the Easter Vigil in the church of Santa Susanna, the “American church” in Rome.
Easter Vigil – April 2. 1972 – CNR
The whole of a Christian’s religious experience centers upon this night. In this celebration are concentrated the great symbols of the old Testament experience – creation and restoration, Exodus and covenant, water and light, death and resurrection. Out of the mystery we recall have sprung the New Testament’s redefinitions of death and life, folly and wisdom, weakness and strength, defeat and victory.
But, if the Easter mystery is the sum and center of the religious tradition in which we stand, it is no less the center and concentrated meaning of our own personal religious experiences. The biblical images and symbols would have no appeal, would not be valid, were they not also the embodiment of the drama of our lives before God and neighbor. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would not be celebrated were they not the mystery of our lives also.
That is clearest this evening in the reading we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he draws out at length the parallel between Christ’s death and resurrection and the Christian’s baptism. Baptism means a death and burial, essentially the same death and burial Jesus underwent, death to sin, once for all. And baptism means also resurrection, renewal, the end once and for all of death’s power, our ability to walk in newness of life, and a promised ultimate resurrection.
That careful parallel, I suppose, has lost much of its original force for us who were not baptized as adults. Its impact is felt, nevertheless, in important moments of religious experience, when one is given to see one’s life in its true light, when one experiences something like real death to what was evil in it, when one has real sense of resurrecting power that is not one’s own. There are moments in which one is more acutely aware of what it means to be a Christian, of how much it might cost, and one finds oneself still saying Yes and now struggling for the deeds worthy of the will. This is not magic; it is the stuff of our spiritual existence, the self-same struggle Paul was describing.
All of these memories and hopes come together in this night’s celebration. The celebration, embodying the memory, grounds the hope. The power we proclaim in victory, that raised Jesus from the dead, raises us yet. It raises us in hope, confident that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead can yet work his wonder of life out of death, of strength in weakness, of evil overcome, of dawn breaking in upon the darkest of nights. For the memory we say “Amen”, for the hopes, “Yes”; and our simple prayer only brings us back again to the Lord Jesus: “He is the Yes pronounced upon all God’s promises. That is why, when we give to God, it is through Christ Jesus that we say ‘Amen”’.
Easter Vigil – April 14, 1974 – C.N.R.
A few lines from the reading we have heard from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans concentrate all the meaning of the multiple symbolism of light and Exodus and new hearts and the fresh water of the Spirit with which we have begun. “We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no more power over him. His death was death to sin, once for all; his life is life for God. In the same way, you must consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That is what we are celebrating, the once-and-for-all of God’s act in Christ and the victory it promises us who believe.
Death and sin are no small enemies. Sin corrodes our lives even while we live them; death casts a shadow of dissolution back upon our most vital and energetic activities. We do not speak about insignificant matters when we talk of sin and death, and we make no small claim when we proclaim that they have been overcome in the Lord Jesus. They are not strangers to us, these two, sin and death; but the faith expressed this night is that there is something else we may meet, a forgiveness that can dissolve sin and a love stronger even than death.
We have enough experience of the one pair, sin and death; today we are given to rest peacefully in the joyful confidence that they are not the only word, for we are rebuked for”seeking the living One among the dead. He is not here; he has been raised up.” It is the one great and utterly new thing in history–One who lives, who is not among the dead, who is not here. Is not where? Is not here, the “here” that is defined by hatred, selfishness, lust, despair, alienation–for this is the region of living death, and death has no more power over him. If not here, then where? Not far off, that someone may say, “‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down); but “near you, on your lips and in your heart,” (Rom 10: 7-8), in the heart that receives the word of faith and the lips that confess his Lordship. It is not a matter of place and distance; it is a matter of sin or love, death or life. He is among those who, having been baptized into his death and buried with him in baptism, now too may live a new life. He is not among the dead; he is among the living, who have themselves died to sin and live for God, and therefore are where he is.
We do not, then, celebrate an alien, incomprehensible, distant mystery; we celebrate what life, what our lives, can all be about, are all about–the longed-for light in darkness, freedom in slavery, peace in distress, joy in bitterness. He is not among the latter; he has been raised from the dead; and–greatest miracle of all–we may join him in that great “there” beyond merit or expectation or even hope. Ourselves alive, we shall find him among the living.
Easter Vigil–March 30, 1975–CNR
In the beginning, there was only the dark and silent abyss. Then a word was spoken, and out of the word sprang the light of life, and the primeval chaos surrendered to meaning and to order. But chaos had its revenge, and it was not long before the words of men became the Babel of peoples at war with their God and with each other. And when the Word was spoken again and echoed in the words of the man Jesus, chaos did not so easily give way. Its darkness fell upon the earth again, and its silence too, more awful now for being the stillness after speech, darkness after light. That dark silence prevailed for three days, and then was heard again the Word, “Let there be light,” and there was light and speech: “He is not here; he has been raised.” The eighth day of creation: and God looked upon what he had made, and behold, it was very good.
We gather in that light, creatures of that new word. We have gathered this evening in darkness, and seen the light spring up in silence, and rejoiced in the new word spoken to us and put upon our own lips. The darkness and light are symbols, surely;-but if we are at all serious, we know that we cannot say that they are “only symbols.” We have had–each of us–our own experience of darkness, at least as threatening possibility, even as chaotic fact; and we would not have gathered here and recognized the joy on one another’s face had we not also–each of us–had experience of light, uncovering a new world to us, a new community, and a new self, too.
Not, of course, as if the story had come to an end, as if chaos were utterly banished. We have, all of us, yet to face that final dissolution of what God made good; and we do not pretend that death will not cast its shadow forward in the form of pain or grief or remorse. But if we can enter into Paul’s words, then we have already experienced that last enemy, for we have been baptized into Christ’s death and were buried with him–the ground has already closed over us–chaos has done its last and worst, and it has not prevailed, and we may walk in newness of life. “Who shall accuse us? It is God who has acquitted us. Who shall condemn us? It is Christ–Christ who died, and more than that, was raised from the dead–who is at God’s right hand and pleads our cause. And what can separate us from the love of Christ?…There is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths–nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:33-39).
My sisters and brothers, that is the light in which we may walk–the “last enemy” is already undone. Let us let that light dawn upon ourselves; let us reflect it to one another; let us let it draw others to Christ; let us follow after it, to the Source from which it springs, the Father of lights, to whom, with the Son and Holy Spirit, be endless glory and praise. Amen.
Easter Vigil–April 18, 1976–CNR
I fear that it approaches the banal to say that this night is the dawning of our hope. Besides the obviousness of the remark, there is above all the fact that such words come so easily and they are not always accompanied by the reality. But words are, perhaps, all we have, and of this night we may say what Augustine said about speaking of God, “Woe to those who speak not, when those who speak say nothing.”
But there is, of course, more than words. There has been the darkness with which we began. We have seen light burst forth, driving darkness away. And we have had pictured before us a band of slaves escaping prison, a forsaken wife restored to a covenant of peace with her husband, a storm-battered and unconsoled city restored and made as beautiful as precious jewels, a penniless band of the hungry and thirsty invited to a rich feast, gentle rain falling upon a parched and barren land, clean water purifying the unclean, a new heart and spirit, made of flesh, able to feel and to love and to obey, instead of an old and stony, walled-up self–all of these scenes opening out upon the women who came to perform the last services of an old religion, but became the first witnesses of the new thing which God was doing. And to such good news we have tried in our own way to respond with our songs of welcome and thanksgiving and praise.
We have ourselves, in one sense, so little to do–only to let the power of these symbols and images, songs and praises, work upon and within us, to let there be something in our hearts like what took place at the tomb. That is why Ezekiel’s prophecy is so central, for what we most need are those new hearts and spirits, and for us to have them is no less a wonder than the transformation of the flesh of Jesus into the New Man of God’s making. We owe great thanks to God if that is what has been happening during this Lent and during these holy days, and if that has not happened yet, it is not too late, God can still raise from the dead, the promise still is held out to us, and He who promises may be trusted.
Such is the power held out to us today, and it is the great and chief message of this night–that our futility and rebellion have limits, that they have done their worst and have not succeeded, that out of the ashes of our works God raises up a transfigured life, forgiving, accepting, welcoming, delighting in us, the brothers and sisters in whose lot he has fully shared and whom he does not leave behind as he returns to the Father. Paul called him “the eldest in a large family of children,” and we are the other members of that family, we and all believers, those now alive and those also who see him face-to-face, one grand family of the living who have a common Spirit who teaches them to call God their Abba.
Such is the power of this night and its promise. God grant that it may be fulfilled among and in us all, and upon all for whom this night Christ has dawned in splendor.
Easter Vigil–April 10, 1977–Seminary
This liturgy concentrates in itself almost all of the great symbols of Christian faith and worship. Out of the primeval darkness God called forth the light of creation; and into the light of our darkness, he has called forth the light of the rising Christ. Israel passed safely through the waters of the Red Sea; and our Christ has passed safely through the destruction of death. What the prophet offered as free food and drink, we will receive as Christ’s great gift in his Body and Blood. And the purifying waters of the other prophet will come upon us also to recall the gift of the Spirit God has poured out upon us. Such are the great gifts for which we thank God on this sacred night.
They are the gifts which all mankind receives in Jesus Christ. For we do not celebrate merely the fate of a holy individual of long ago. When Jesus of Nazareth suffered, it was our infirmities and guilt he carried and our sins he took away. When Jesus of Nazareth died, it was our death he died and in him, St. Paul says, all of us died. And when Jesus of Nazareth was made Lord and Christ, it was all of us, too, who were raised from death and given his life. Our death was destroyed when he died, and our life restored in his resurrection.
That is why we are not here as observers of a rite that does not concern us; we are celebrating the truth about our own lives–our story is being told. That is what Paul especially teaches when he draws the direct and exact parallel between Christ’s death and resurrection and our baptism: we were buried with him so that we might live a new life with him, and we must regard ourselves as dead to sin and alive for God in Christ Jesus. What happened when light was drawn from darkness, when slaves were set free from Israel, when Jesus broke the bonds of death, is what has happened and can happen for us.
How difficult we find it to believe that! How sure we are about the inevitability of darkness and death! Take that word of Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” But do we not usually reserve that word for dealing with tragedies we do not understand, the sufferings of the innocent or an early death? But for Isaiah it was a word, not for resignation, but for hope. It is spoken in the context of a promised forgiveness, and is followed immediately by the description of God’s powerful Word which does not return to God without accomplishing the end for which it was sent. This word, and every other word we have heard this evening, is not a call to accept the inevitable; it is exactly the opposite: the announcement of the end of inevitabilities.
For what is more inevitable than death? And yet even death is undone this night: death has no more power over Christ and no more power over us. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. And, if death is overcome, so is every shadow of death, whether in suffering and pain, or in weakness and sin. How can we search for the Living One among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.
That is the truth we must permit to dawn on us this evening–that we too need not remain among the dead, that we need not remain as we are, that we too can be raised. However long its reign may have been, whatever there is of darkness and slavery in us can be overcome. Light can dawn and we can know ourselves to be free. As thirsty as we may be, there is a living water to quench our thirst. As stony and immovable as our hearts may be, they can be softened into hearts that can feel again and respond again and love again. We can be where Christ is, not among the dead, but alive and among the living.
And what is true of each of us is true also of our families and communities, where the reign of sin and death is seen most clearly and felt most acutely. The hearts of fathers can be turned to their sons and those of sons to their fathers. Misunderstanding and rivalry and alienation are not inevitable, nor are jealousy and anger, fear and frustration, iron necessities. If the dissolution of death can be undone, then even we can be forgiven and, more, even we can forgive. Light can dawn on our lives together, too, and the Body of Christ can live by his life. Families and communities, too, can rise from the dead.
When St. Paul spoke of Christ as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, he referred to the example of the farmer bringing to Temple the first bushel of wheat he had harvested. That is the promise held out by the joyful message of this evening: that the resurrection of Christ was not the end of God’s life-giving work, but, in a sense its beginnings. And there is a harvest of the Spirit which must follow it, in our resurrection into love, joy, and peace, into a fellowship in the Spirit, a foretaste of the life into which Christ has already entered, and has entered in order to bring us there to be with him and with the God of the living.