Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.”  Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But the evangelist didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day.  In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness.  The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world that is opposed by the light of Christ.

So John isn’t just telling us what time it is.  When he says, “and it was night,” he is telling us that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to its apparent climax.  This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon our Lord and he will take them to the Cross.  The darkness of our sinfulness has made it a very, very dark night indeed.

But we know that this isn’t how the story is going to end.  This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins.  But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace and Divine Mercy.  The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ.  Always.  But for now, it is night, and we can almost feel the ponderous darkness sending a shiver up our spines.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. But may we also find courage in his triumph over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of resurrection morning.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

In a lot of ways, this is a strange feast we are celebrating today. Think about it. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which in Jesus’ day would have been as big an oxymoron as one could possibly imagine. It’s like us saying that we are going to celebrate the exaltation of a lethal injection chamber. There is nothing exalted about an instrument of execution: it’s tortuous, humiliating, and as dark as one can get.

So to get from that to where we are now is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle, of course, of the highest order! God used this instrument of punishment to remit the punishment we deserved for our sins. God used the epitome of darkness to bathe the world in unfathomable light.

And he didn’t have to. The cross is what we deserved for our many sins. Today’s first reading gives us just a glimpse into the problem. The Israelites, fresh from deliverance from slavery in Egypt, are making their way through the desert. Along the way, they pause to complain that God’s food, which he provided in the desert, wasn’t good enough for them. They had chosen slavery over deliverance; food that perishes over food that endures unto eternal life.

But we’re there too, right? We often choose the wrong kind of food, get off the path, and choose slavery to our vices and sins over new life in Christ. In fact it was because of all that that Jesus came to us in the first place. God noticed our brokenness and would not let us remain dead in sin. So to put an end to that cycle of sin and death, he sent his only Son to us to die on the cross, paying the price for our sins. But that death may no longer have power over us, he raised him up, cheating the cross and the evil one of their power, and exalting the Holy Cross to the instrument not of our death, but of our salvation.

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Today’s readings

We English-speakers have just one word for time, but other languages have more; those languages recognize the different kinds of time.  Most notably for us, because it is reflected in the New Testament, the Greek language has two kinds of time: chronos and kairos.  Chronos is the kind of time you can measure.  It’s a day or a week or even the timeline of a project at work.  Kairos on the other hand can be thought of as quality time: a summer afternoon spent with your family, a visit to a sick loved one, or a chance encounter with an old friend.  This kind of time is mostly unmeasurable, and in some sense kairos is always “now.”

It’s important to keep these kinds of time in mind because the world sometimes sees time in a rather cynical way.   But that’s not how our God sees time.  Did you hear what we prayed at the very beginning of tonight’s vigil?  Listen again: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, all time belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power through every age and for ever.  Amen.”  And these are important, even brave words for us to offer on this most holy night.  Tonight’s vigil proclaims that all time is holy, sanctified by our God who has walked with us through our yesterdays, remains with us today, and forges on with us toward our tomorrows.  There is not a single moment of our life, not a single moment of our history that is not holy because every moment has been, is now, and always will be imbued with the presence of our God who is holiness itself.  That’s what we gather to celebrate on this most holy night.

But as we have walked through Lent, and especially through this Holy Week, there may even be a temptation, I think, to come to think that the world, and especially human history, was a creative experiment that went horribly wrong, that God sent his Son to clean up the mess only to have him killed for it, and then in a last move of desperation raised him up out of the grave.  But we know that’s not how this works.  Salvation was not some kind of dumb luck or happy accident.  The salvation of the world had been part of God’s creative plan all along.  Humanity, given the grace of free will had, and has, certainly gone astray.  But God did not create us simply to follow our own devices and end up in hell.  He created us for himself, and so sent his Son Jesus to walk our walk, to die our death, and to rise up over it all in the everlasting promise of eternal life.  That’s what we celebrate on this most holy of all nights.

There is a cynical view of our world that would have us believe that everything is futile and that the only possible way to endure this world is to cultivate a kind of cynical apathy that divorces us from our God, our loved ones, our communities and our world.  We are conditioned to believe that time, and life itself, is meaningless, that there is nothing worth living for, and certainly nothing worth dying for.  But tonight’s vigil debunks all of that.  Tonight we are assured by our God that our present is no less redeemable than was our past, nor is it any less filled with promise than is our future.

Tonight we have heard stories of our salvation, God’s saving action in the world throughout all time.  Each of our readings has been a stop in the history of God’s love for us.  God’s plan for salvation, and his sanctification of time, began back at the beginning of it all.  Each of the days was hallowed with precious creation, and all of it was created and pronounced good.  Then Abraham’s faithfulness and righteousness earned us a future as bright as a zillion twinkling stars.  Later, as Moses and the Israelites stood trapped by the waters of the red sea, God’s providence made a way for them and cut off their pursuers, making the future safe for those God calls his own.  The prophet Isaiah calls us to seek the Lord while he may be found, not spending our lives on things that fail to satisfy, but investing in our relationship with God that gives us everything.  The prophet Ezekiel foretells the recreation all humanity will experience as they come to know Christ and are filled with the Spirit.  St. Paul rejoices in the baptism that has washed away the stains of sin as we have died and risen with Christ, and has brought us into a new life that leads ultimately to God’s kingdom.  And finally, our Gospel tonight tells us not to be afraid, to go forth into the Galilee of our future and expect to see the Lord.

We Christians have been spared the necessity of a cynical view of the world and its people.  Our gift has been and always is the promise that Jesus Christ is with us forever, even until the end of the world.  And so, just as God sanctified all of time through his interventions of salvation, so too he has sanctified our lives through the interventions of Sacrament.  We are a sacramental people, purified and reborn in baptism, fed and strengthened in the Eucharist, and in Confirmation, set on fire to burn brightly and light up our world.  Tonight we recall these three Sacraments of Initiation and recommit ourselves to the promises of our baptism.  Also, for the first time since Thursday, we have the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist together, drawing strength from the food our God provides.

These days of Lent have been a sanctifying journey for all of us, as we have walked the Stations of the Cross together, fasted together, celebrated the sacraments, reflected on living the Eucharist, gathered food for the food pantry, and so much more.  Christ has definitely sanctified this Lenten time for all of us, and has now brought us to the fullness of this hour, when he rises over sin and death to bring us all to the promise of life eternal.

And it is this very night that cleanses our world from all the stains of sin and death and lights up the darkness.  The Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation that I sang when we entered Church tonight, tells us: “This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.  The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”  What a gift this night is, not just to us gathered here in this church, not just to all the Catholics gathered together throughout the world on this holy night, but to all people in every time and place.  Our world needs the light and our time needs the presence of Christ, and our history needs salvation.  Blessed be God who never leaves his people without the great hope of his abiding presence!

And so, having come through this hour to be sanctified in this vigil, we will shortly be sent forth to help sanctify our own time and place.  Brightened by this beautiful vigil, we now become a flame to light up our darkened world.  That is our ministry in the world.  That is our call as believers.  That is our vocation as disciples.  “May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star.  The one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns forever and ever.  Amen.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’s readings

Dear Brothers and Sisters, how good it feels to say “Alleluia” tonight!  Ever since we put the acclamation of our Resurrection joy away some forty days ago, we have been yearning for the opportunity to celebrate, once again, the fullness of our salvation.  And this is the night!  This is the night when Jesus Christ breaks the prison-bars of death and rises triumphant over the grave!  We have kept vigil for the fullness of that promise to be revealed, and now, here we are!  How could we do anything less than shout “Alleluia” with all of our joy?!

Tonight, we have gathered in the oppressive darkness of the world around us.  The sadness of sin and death, culminating in the death of our Savior, seemed for a time to have triumphed.  We know, only too well, that it was our sins that brought Jesus to the Cross: it was indeed our infirmities that he bore, our brokenness on display for all the world to see.  So as we gathered in a dark Church or out on the dark piazza, we certainly must have felt that sadness in a special way.  But we know the whole story, don’t we?  And because we do know the whole story, even in our experience of sadness, there is that expectation, that part of us that knows that joy is on its way.

As we have gathered over the last three nights to let the story of our salvation unfold, we have had an ever-heightened sense of yearning for the story to come to its fruition.  And tonight, we are treated to an even greater dose of that.  Tonight, we have heard stories of God’s desire to bring us back to him.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  We have recalled that God created everything to reflect the resplendent goodness that is God; we have seen Abraham, on the cusp of inheriting the promise of eternity for all his descendants, called upon to sacrifice his only son to show his love, only to have it all turned on its head when God promises to provide the lamb for the sacrifice, that lamb that is the foreshadowing of a Savior; we have seen Moses lead the people out of the Egypt that has held them slaves to sin, through the desert of desolation and yearning for God, safely through the waters of the Red Sea which flowed back to wash all their sins away, that journey that is the prefiguring of the sacrament of Baptism; then the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel have called us to come to the water, to be nourished freely and cleansed of our impurities.

Tonight we have heard in reading after reading, that God will absolutely not ever abandon his loved and chosen ones to sin and death.  We have heard that God initiated the covenant and pursues it forever, never forcing us to accept his will, but willing that we should follow him and accept his mercy.  God has provided the lamb of salvation, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.  God has gone to the cross and been in the tomb and descended to hell – there is nowhere that is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, there is no place, no depth to which God will not go to redeem his beloved creation.  God’s mercy endures forever!

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are, because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, evil and sin and our fallenness are redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so Korrin, our Elect, in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life, triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over her, and sing Alleluia when she is reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

Our joy will continue to overflow as she and Brian, our candidate for full Communion with the Church, are Confirmed in the Holy Spirit and fed for the very first time with the Eucharistic Bread of Life and Cup of Eternal Salvation.  God’s mercy has once again triumphed and brought two wonderful young people into the family of the Church and the community of our parish.  God’s goodness shows forth all its splendor in so many wonderful ways on this most holy of all nights!

This is the night that redeems all of our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  On this night, everything is turned upside-down; sin and death no longer define who we are as human beings; the forces of evil search in vain for darkness in which to cower, because the bright morning star has washed the darkness away.  On this night, the waters of Baptism kill death, wash away faults and wickedness, give refreshment to those who are parched for holiness, and bring life to all who have withered in the desert of brokenness.

And so, may the flame of our joy, blazing against the darkness of the world’s night, be found still burning by the Morning Star:  the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ our Lord, God’s only Son, who coming back from even from the depths of death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’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.

We have come to the pinnacle of our vigil, this mother of vigils, focused now as we have been since our Liturgy began on Thursday night, on the Cross.  Over these past days, the Cross has become an icon of God’s love, the ladder to eternity, the linchpin of grace.  That horrible Cross was, on Holy Thursday, the threat of obscurity to a people under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  That same Cross became on Good Friday the delight of Satan, whose evil laughter we could almost hear when our Savior died.  Tonight, as we have kept vigil, we have seen that the Cross has become the altar of God’s most conclusive act of self-emptying, opening the door of grace to all of us who have already died the death of sin.  The Cross is proof that there is nothing the princes of this world, nor the prince of darkness himself, can do to thwart the salvation God offers us.  We should glory in the Cross!

As we have kept Vigil here on this Holy Night, we have heard the stories of our salvation.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  Salvation history has brought us to the fullness of this night, not just a memorial of the Resurrection, but a real sharing in Christ’s triumph.  This is the night when Christ makes the ultimate Passover; leading us through theRed Sea of his blood, poured out for us, holding back the raging waters of sin and death, and guiding us, his brothers and sisters, into the Promised Land of salvation.  This is the night when the fire of his love blazes for all eternity to provide an enduring light in our dark world.  This is the night when our faith tells us that we are not the same as the rest of the world; we are a people set apart from all that drags humanity down to death.  This is the night when death itself is defeated by Christ our God rising from the depths of the underworld!

This night brings our human experience into focus.  Our Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, sung at the beginning of our time together, proclaimed: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!  O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”  Maybe it makes us bristle a bit to think that sin was necessary to merit the Sacrifice of our Lord.  But the Church has always taught that God permitted evil in the world in order to triumph over it.  Saint Augustine writes, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to allow no evil to exist.”  And Saint Thomas Aquinas recalls the words of Saint Paul and the ancient text of this very Exsultet to explain: “But there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin.  For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Romans 5:20): ‘Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.’ Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: ‘O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!’”

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, the evil of our sin is redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so our Elect in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life,  triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over them, and sing Alleluia when they are reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

This is the night that redeems all our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  This is the night that even the Cross, that instrument of cruelty and death, is transfigured, redeemed to the praise and honor and glory of God!

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 Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

Chicago priest and theologian Robert Barron speaks of what he calls a “beige” Catholicism. This is how he describes the Church during the years following the second Vatican Council. It was a time, he says, when “Christianity’s distinctive qualities and bright colors tended to be muted and its rough edges smoothed, while points of contact and continuity with non-Christian and secular realms were consistently brought into the light and celebrated.” Now, to be fair, Vatican II did indeed rightly bring to light the points of contact we have with our protestant brothers and sisters, and even our non-Christian friends. We do, in fact, have some things in common. But the downside of this emphasis was this kind of “beige” or blasé religion which challenged no one. “As a result,” Barron says, “the Christianity into which I was initiated was relatively bland and domesticated, easy to grasp and unthreatening.

So what we were left with was a Catholicism in which one could come and go, there were no demands made of anyone so that they didn’t feel bad, and everyone was welcome to gather around and sing “Kumbaya.” And there may be a time and a place for all that, but it’s not what our religion is ultimately about.

And so we have today this relatively strange feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, sometimes called the Triumph of the Cross. This feast enters into our Liturgical year and rips us from our complacency to gaze on the awful, disfigured body of our Lord, writhing in pain, nailed to the cross. There is nothing beige about this moment. We are forced to look at this horrible scene and try to figure out how it can ever be glorious. What is exultant or triumphant about such a horrible, painful, humiliating death?

Now, to be fair, we have looked at the cross so many times in our lives that it may no longer be shocking to us. But in order to recapture the significance of this feast, indeed in order to recapture the significance of our faith, we must look once again at the cross and be repulsed. The book of Lamentations is a wonderful invitation to the cross: “Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering, which has been dealt me when the LORD afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath.” (Lamentations 1:12) If the thought of our God nailed to a cross and suffering an agony that can only be relieved by death doesn’t evoke strong feelings in us, then we cannot possibly ever come to a true acceptance of our faith.

What we should see on that cross is that our faith is not so much about our quest for God as much as it is about God’s relentless quest for us. As Fr. Barron says, his quest for us is a quest even to the point of death. And that’s the triumph we see on that horrible cross. The truth is that our God simply loves us too much to let sin and death have any kind of permanent hold on us. So he sent his only Son into our world to walk among us, to live our life and bear our temptations and frustrations, and to die our death in the most horrible and shocking way possible so that we could be relieved of the burden of our sins and come at last to everlasting life.

That’s the message of today’s Gospel. That one verse, John 3:16, which we see on placards and posters at so many sporting events, has been called the “Gospel in miniature.” “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” And sadly, we can get pretty bland about that too. We can accept the fact that our believing brings us to eternal life to the point that we never give it a second thought. But the cross makes that kind of beige faith impossible. It shows us that the eternal life of our expectation came at a price; a horrible, painful, humiliating price.

We are an Easter people who dwell, as well we should, on the Resurrection of our Lord. But we must not ever forget that the Resurrection would never have been possible without the Cross. Without the Resurrection, the cross is definitely that awful reminder of a meaningless death. But without the Cross, the Resurrection would never be the joyful relief that it is. We are never a Church that is about just one thing. We are always about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Which is good news for us because, as I’m sure you can tell me, every day of our lives isn’t Easter Sunday. We experience all sorts of death: the very real death of a loved one, failures of all sorts, sickness and infirmity, broken relationships, disappointments and frustrations – all of these are deaths that we must suffer at one point or another in our life. No life is untouched by hardship at some point. This feast, though, reminds us that God’s love can embrace all of that death, take it to the cross and rise up over it. Our life’s pain is not the end for any of us; those who believe in Christ can have eternal life, as John the evangelist eagerly reminds us today.

And so, as much painful as it is to look with horror on the cross today, our eyes of faith can also see great beauty, exaltation and triumph. But we have to see both things. If we cannot bear to walk through the pain of the Cross, we’ll never get to the joy of the Resurrection – it’s both or nothing.

So this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has us seeing anything but beige. Instead we see the black darkness of sin and death, the red blood of Christ shed for that sin, and the gold glory of the Resurrection. This feast must find us bending the knee at the cross of Christ, and proclaiming with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord – Lord of our pain and Lord of our triumph – to the glory of God the Father.