Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

“Do not be amazed!” – I just love that line in the Gospel. We have to get behind the sentiment of that statement today if we are to really understand what this day is all about. We believe in a God who is very surprising. All through the Bible, we can read stories of people trying to come to terms with God, and just when they thought they had him all figured out, he bursts in to their complacency and seems to say, “No, that’s not it, you just don’t get me at all, do you?”

That happens to us too, doesn’t it? God surprises us all the time. Most often, people note the bad surprises: the death of a loved one, an illness, loss of a job. But those things are not of God. God didn’t make those surprises; he allows them in this imperfect world, but they are not his will for us. What is his will for us is what truly surprises us: the grace to deal with a difficult situation with a strength we never knew we had, the help of a friend or loved one at just the right time, words spoken by a stranger or an acquaintance that help us to find the ability to journey on from where we are. And in our surprise, God says, “Do not be amazed!”

To really get how surprising this day must have been for Jesus’ disciples, we have to have been involved in the story to this point. Jesus had been doing wonderful, amazing things: healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking words of challenge and hope. The Jewish leaders of the time became more and more uncomfortable with his message, seeing it as blasphemy and a rejection of everything good and holy. More and more, their anger raged up, and many times they attempted to arrest him. Finally, the movement against him rises to a fever pitch. Judas, who perhaps thought he would get rich off this wonder-worker Jesus, grows disillusioned to the point that he is willing to hand Jesus over to them.

Jesus’ hour had come: he was put through a farce of a trial, brutally beaten and contemptuously treated. Finally he is nailed to a cross and suffers hours of agony and abandonment by most of his disciples before he gives us his spirit at last. All seemed darker than dark. Jesus is placed in a tomb that was not his own by people who had just been acquaintances. His friends have fled in fear. His mother and some women wept at the end of it all. Things couldn’t have been worse or more hopeless.

But then came the morning. Some of the women go to anoint his body for its burial, and just when they are wondering who is going to help them roll the stone away so they can get in to the tomb, they come upon the tomb, open and empty. They had to be utterly amazed – they probably didn’t even know what had actually happened. But as they stood there, mouths hanging open, thoughts reeling in their minds, the messenger appears: “Do not be amazed!” Jesus said he would rise, and rise he did, hammering home the point that hopelessness is no obstacle to God’s power, that fear is no match for grace, that death and darkness are nothing compared to God’s great love. Do not be amazed!

Even that is not where the wonder of it all stopped. In their joy, the disciples eventually recollected themselves and were able to go out and tell people what had happened. Christ, crucified, overcame death to rise to new life. In the light of the resurrection, they came to understand what Jesus had always preached and they also received the grace of the Spirit so that they could preach it to others. Their preaching shaped the Church, guiding it through the centuries to our own day.

Today we gather not just to remember an amazing event that happened two thousand years ago, but rather to experience the joy of that resurrection with those women at the tomb, with the disciples who heard about it from them, with all the people from every time and place, on earth and in heaven, all of us who have had the Gospel preached to us. We are the Church: we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as one. Do not be amazed!

And the marvel continues: the death and resurrection of Christ has had an effect on this cold and dark and sinful world. Through that wonderful saving grace, the finality of our death has been obliterated, the vicious cycle of our sins has been erased. We have been freed from it all through the power of grace, freely given if we will freely accept it, lavished out on all of us prodigal ones who return to God with sorrow for our sins and hope for forgiveness. We have truly been saved and delivered. Do not be amazed!

We have also been given the great gift of eternal life. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has broken the prison-bars of death and risen triumphant from the underworld. Because of that, our graves will never be our final resting place, pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever. Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive. We have hope in these days because Christ who is our hope has overcome the obstacles to our living. Do not be amazed!

Back on the evening of Holy Thursday, when the Church gathered to commemorate the giving of the Eucharist, the entrance antiphon told us what was to come.  It said:

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

And this morning, we gather to celebrate that that is truly what has happened. Through the cross and resurrection we are saved and delivered so to live the salvation, life and resurrection that God always intended for us to have. We should glory in the cross! Do not be amazed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

During this Triduum journey, I have been reflecting in my homilies on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve talked about the fact that this is not a popular thing to do because we as a society are not big on suffering. If we put a sign out on Chicago Avenue that said, “Come suffer with us,” I’m pretty sure we’d be all alone here in church! We certainly do suffer in this life, but no one wants it – as well we shouldn’t. The problem is that we tend to gloss over it, not acknowledge it, be embarrassed by it. Suffering becomes the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, and that’s too bad, really.

Certainly it seems odd that I would continue to talk about the Cross on this holy night. I mean, we’ve moved on, haven’t we? We came here for resurrection and want to get on with our lives. Just like we tend to rush through our grieving of loved ones – to our own psychological and spiritual peril, by the way – so too we want to rush through our Lent and particularly our Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so that we can eat our Peeps and chocolate bunnies and call it a day.

But we can’t, right? If we’ve prayed well this Lent and particularly in these Triduum days, we know how we got here to this moment. We know that we don’t get an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday, that we can’t have resurrection if there hasn’t been death, that we can’t have salvation if there hasn’t been a sacrifice.

And there sure was a sacrifice. Our Lord suffered a brutal, ugly death between two hardened criminals, taking the place of a revolutionary. He was beaten, humiliated, mistreated and nails were pounded into his flesh, that flesh that he borrowed from us. He hung in agony for three hours and finally, when all was finished, he cried out in anguish and handed over his spirit. The veil of the temple was torn in two, there was a tremor in the earth, and an eclipse of the sun. And no wonder, the light of the Messiah had been extinguished on the Cross.

Placed in the tomb, he descended into hell. Collecting the souls of the blessed ones of old, he waited while earth mourned and disciples scattered and everyone wondered what happened to this Christ.

But then came the morning. The Sabbath was over, and the sun was rising in the east on the first day of the week, and the women came with spices to prepare our Lord for burial. But they couldn’t: he has been raised! He is not here! Our Lord is risen and death is defeated! The menacing, ugly Cross has become the altar of salvation! The instrument of horror has become the Cross of glory, and we can do no less than praise our God!

Saint John Damascene reflected on this salvific reality. He writes, “By nothing else except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low: The sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world, even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God and we made children and heirs of God. By the cross all these things have been set aright…It is a seal that the destroyer may not strike us, a raising up of those who lie fallen, a support for those who stand, a staff for the infirm, a crook for the shepherded, a guide for the wandering, a perfecting of the advanced, salvation for soul and body, a deflector of all evils, a cause of all goods, a destruction of sin, a plant of resurrection, and a tree of eternal life.”

It’s so important that we enter into Lent and the Triduum every year. Not just because we need to be called back from our sinfulness to the path of life – yes, there is that, but it’s not primary here. What is so important is that we see that the Cross is our path too. In this life we will have trouble: our Savior promises us that. But the Cross is what sees him overcome the world and all the suffering it brings us. We will indeed suffer in this life, but thanks be to God, if we join ourselves to him, if we take up our own crosses with faithfulness, then we can merit a share in our Lord’s resurrection, that reality that fulfills all of salvation history that we’ve heard in tonight’s readings.

In these Triduum days, we have seen the Cross call us to service, we’ve seen it stand for our suffering, and tonight we’ve seen it help us on the way to salvation. The cross is brutal and ugly and harsh. But it’s also beautiful, if we have eyes to see it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Good Friday: Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Last night, I talked about the cross, and how, while brutal and inconvenient and ugly, it is the way to salvation for all of us. We see that so poignantly on this Good Friday, when we remember the Lord’s Passion, we venerate his Cross, and we receive the gift of Holy Communion to sustain us in these somber days. Our Lord’s complete gift of self, his act of emptying out his will so that he could fully embody the will of the Father, this is our hope and our salvation, and it is only possible through the brutal, ugly Cross.

Our world hates the Cross. I talked a bit about that last night, too. We want instant gratification, and we don’t want to go through a lot of hassle to get it. We seek instant remedies to pain, quick ways to get rich, instant service at any establishment according to our whim. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like to endure pain, we don’t like to suffer in any way. But as St. Augustine once said, “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”

Today we see that, taking up our crosses at our Lord’s command is going to involve suffering in this life. It did for Jesus, and so we have no right to assume that won’t be the case for us. Jesus never came into this world to take our suffering away; he came to redeem it. He’s not going to wave a magic wand and make your problems go away, but he will endure them with you, taking up the Cross with you, giving his life with you and for you. And most importantly, as we’ll see tomorrow night, he will redeem your suffering to eternal glory. That, dear ones, is the Paschal Mystery, and we absolutely have a share in it.

So think about your worst problem right now – call to mind whatever you may be suffering. Or call to mind the suffering of others: a loved one who is battling cancer, or a friend who is unemployed or underemployed. Perhaps call to mind those who are homeless, or those who go without much food every day, even while we dread keeping the Paschal Fast! Whether it is your suffering or the suffering of others, bring that to the cross as we venerate it shortly. And know – know – that that suffering does not go unnoticed by our God; that it never is willed for its own sake. And know that our Lord walks through it too, bringing it at last to its eternal redemption.

Suffering is the way to glory for all of us who take up our crosses to follow our Lord. Pope Saint John Paul II said it well: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.”

The Cross of Jesus is brutal, ugly and harsh. It embodies the horror of all our suffering. We might hate to look at it, hate to take it up, but there is no glory without it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Church sees this evening’s Mass as the beginning of a three-day Liturgy that embodies our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. These three days are the Paschal Mystery, in which we see our Lord’s love and Divine Mercy poured out freely on sinners – which is to say, of course, on you and me. No one in this church has merited this Divine Mercy; it is freely given, and if we have prepared ourselves properly this Lent, freely received.

At the beginning of every Liturgy there is an introit or entrance antiphon. It’s a brief scriptural verse that provides the mindset, if you will, that the Church wants us to have as we pray that Liturgy. For these three days, the Church gives us an adaptation of the fourteenth verse of the sixth book of Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Church wants us, appropriately enough, to focus on our Lord who is, after all, the whole reason we’re here tonight, and for the rest of these days. More specifically, the Church wants us to reflect during this most holy three-day liturgy on our Lord’s Cross. And quite honestly, that’s kind of inconvenient. It’s hard to gather people together to celebrate the Cross – it’s not pretty and it doesn’t portray the glitzy kind of happy message that beckons Christians to church.

It’s always been that way. In the early days of Christianity, they knew the cross all too well. They saw it on almost a daily basis. What had been intended to provide an ignominious and painful death to the worst criminal offenders soon enough became the way to execute all those who were politically inconvenient, most especially Christians who refused to take up the worship of pagan gods which was required by the government of the day.

But even now, quite honestly, who wants to look at the cross? We don’t like pain or grief or anything like that. We take a pill for every malady, even braving a horrifying list of side-effects. To those who have experienced the death of a loved one, we offer meaningless platitudes like “everything happens for a reason,” and then we expect them back at work in no more than three to five days, functioning and behaving just as they did before. We anesthetize ourselves with drink, or drugs, or hours in front of the television or computer, or immersing ourselves in work, so that we don’t have to confront the difficulties in our relationships, or family lives, or whatever else might be on our plates. So for us, reflecting on the cross is just too painful, and glorying in the cross – well, that’s just ridiculous.

But we know the Truth: we know that it is only by our Lord’s Cross that we have won salvation; we know that we too have been called to take up our own crosses and follow our Lord; we know that we have been given an example and that we need to follow it – we know that if we don’t glory in the Cross, we can never have a resurrection. And so during these three days, I’d like to suggest some ways that we can reflect on the Cross and glory in it, that we might come at last to Easter glory.

Today we see in the Cross our call to service. But by service, I don’t mean the light and fluffy things we see as service – it’s not a quick service project, or writing a check to do our little part of handling a need. Those things are nice, but they don’t really measure up to the example our Lord gives us today. Our Lord’s service was one of kenosis – the Greek word for “emptiness.” Our Lord emptied himself of his own will so that he could completely embody the Father’s will. He did that to save us from our sins. So the service our Lord calls us to today is one of emptying our own will out so that we can be filled by God’s will.

Jesus emptied himself of his will to be served by serving in the most menial of ways. At the banquet, it was not the host who washed the hot, dirty and tired feet of the guests – it was instead the task for a servant or slave. But because none of those at the Last Supper thought himself low enough to take on that task, our Lord did it, and one wonders if Peter’s reluctance to have his own feet washed was because he didn’t want our Lord to stoop down and serve him, or if it was because he knew it meant that he had to do the same thing. How willing are we to empty ourselves of our entitlement and instead to serve the poor and needy among us?

Jesus emptied himself of his will by giving his body and blood to be our Eucharist – our reason for thanksgiving – and to sustain us on the journey to eternal life. He didn’t come just to give us directions to heaven. He came to bring us there, nourishing us along the way, helping us to get up when we’ve fallen, giving us food for body and spirit. He knew that it was only his Body and Blood that would overcome our profane human nature, that would give us enough a share in his Divine nature, that we could find our way to heaven. How willing are we to empty ourselves out, completely giving ourselves for others?

Today the Cross we glory in is one of service – and it’s a service that is a complete giving of self for another. It’s love beyond words. It’s mercy and grace given with wild abandon. It’s an emptying out of self-will so that God’s will can be accomplished now and in the life to come. That Cross can be heavy and inconvenient and even repulsive at times. But it’s the only way to heaven.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.