Scriptures: Matthew 27:33-56; Matthew 28:1-10
Ask a bunch of church type people what their favorite celebration of the Church year is, and inevitably most of them will tell you that it’s the Paschal Triduum. That period from the evening of Holy Thursday to the Evening of Holy Saturday, celebrating the giving of the Eucharist and the establishment of the Church on Holy Thursday, observing the memorial of our Lord’s Passion and the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and cutting loose – in a Liturgical way of course – with the Vigil of all vigils – the great Easter Vigil Mass with its service of light, proclamation of the Exsultet, extended Liturgy of the Word, Baptism of catechumens and celebration of the Eucharist – that three-day Day of all Days is by far the most incredible of all the days of the Church year.
I remember my very first time going to the Easter Vigil Mass. I was in high school, and a friend of ours was being received into Full Communion with the Church. I was hooked – the joy of that night was palpable, all the more so in welcoming someone who was a friend into the Church which was my home. If you’ve been close to anyone received into the Church like that, you know what I mean.
Typically, the Church lets it all loose on these wonderful days. We pull out all the stops, have all the best music, exquisite decorations, incense, processions, reverence beyond anything we display all year long. And for good reason. As the Exsultet sings,
This is the night,
when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slav’ry,
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night,
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin.
This is night,
when Christians ev’rywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night,
when Jesus broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
These are the central mysteries of our faith. Without the Cross and Resurrection, none of the rest of it makes any sense. Without the gift of salvation, the Incarnation is just an act of divine curiosity or snooping. Without salvation, even the creation of the world is meaningless. But salvation was always God’s plan from the very beginning. There was never a time when God was making it up as he went along. Age after age, we were sent prophets and given miracles and we constantly turned away from God. We had created this huge chasm between us and God that kept us apart. But all those prophets and miracles prepared us for the coming of our God, for the incredible act of divine grace that would re-create the world in astounding ways.
Many have noted that this was an awfully strange way to save the world. Certainly our God did not have to debase himself to take on our corrupt human nature, but he did. He didn’t have to come and take on all our human frailty, walking our walk and living our life, but he did. He certainly did not have to die our death, the most miserable, humiliating death reserved for the lowest of the low and the commonest of criminals, but he did. And because he did, God raised him up, destroying death and its miserable chains forever. Because of this great act, as the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for funerals tells us, “For those who believe in Christ, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly life dwells in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
I think Godspell appropriately gets the earth-shattering nature of the Cross, but pretty much soft-pedals the Resurrection. As the Gospel readings show us, both events included violent earthquakes. That’s because in those two events, everything changed – everything. But the movie does make a strong point that even though God died – and make no mistake, God did die on that Cross – even though God died, God lives forever through the Resurrection: “Long live God!” Curiously the singing at the end of the movie moves from “Oh God, you’re dead” to “Long live God” to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” to “Day by Day.” I think that’s interesting, and I think there’s something very right about it.
In the Resurrection, Christ lives forever, paving the way for us to do the same. And because he lives forever, we need to prepare the way for the Lord day after day after day, or “Day by Day,” if you will. The end of the movie mimics the rather cyclical nature of our Church year. And it is very true that the Salvation event, the Paschal Mystery, brings us back to the Advent of Christ in whole new ways. Preparing the way of the Lord is not something we do just in the four weeks of Advent. It is the project of a lifetime, the project of the ages of the Church, a project to be lived out day by day as we see God more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.
At my mom’s house we have one very simple ornament for the Christmas Tree. Among all the others, you’ll find it hanging on a back branch to remind us of the truth of it all. It’s a nail, a spike really, hung from a green ribbon. It reminds us that at Christmas we celebrate something that doesn’t get wrapped up until the Easter days. The wood of the Christmas tree and the wood of the manger become the wood of the Cross. Birth leads to death leads to Resurrection leads to re-creation. All things are made new. The misery of a dark world is replaced by Christ, the light of the world. The grace of this wonderful mystery makes possible our flame of faith. The Exsultet says of that flame:
May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.