Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
March 27, 2005
Acts 10:34, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9
1) Today we mark, with Christians throughout the world, the greatest day and most important event in all of history. Today the Son of God made man, who loved us enough to become one of us, and who loved us even more to give his life for us, rose from the dead, defeating death once and for all. Today all Christians can jubilantly shout with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). Because of this day, evil does not have the last word. Because of this day, death is not a period, but a comma in a book without a final chapter. Because of this day, dying is just a change of address, in which those who are and live as God’s children move to an eternal mansion full of love.
2) But the significance of this day of days is not merely supposed to be future, in terms of what it means for life after our death — as if we were just dealing with an eternal retirement plan. It’s also not merely supposed to be past, looking back to what happened to Christ nearly two thousand years ago. The most important thing for us is to consider what it means for our PRESENT, for you and me, today. The celebration of Easter today is supposed to have the same dramatic impact on us as it did on Jesus’ first disciples then, because the Jesus who arose that day is still ALIVE and he wants to fill us with the same life-giving joy that he did to his beloved disciples 20 centuries ago.
3) To capture the transformation the Risen Jesus wants to work in us, it would be good, briefly, to reflect on what it was like for Mary Magdalene, Peter, John and the rest of his disciples on the day of the Resurrection. To call them dejected, lost and profoundly saddened only begins to describe what they were going through. Their whole universe had been turned upside down. Not only had they witnessed Jesus, their friend, brutally tortured and massacred, nailed naked to a cross as a common criminal, but they also had believed deeply that he was the long-awaited Messiah, that he was God. Therefore, not only were they mourning the death of a loved one — which is already hard enough, as any of us who have lost a loved one recognize — but they were also trying to come to grips with whether God indeed had died or whether their friend, in whom they trusted, was, despite all his gifts, ultimately an imposter. Despite the fact that Jesus had told them on three occasions that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), the words hadn’t penetrated. When his critics had asked him for a sign, he told them that “no sign would be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Mt 16:4), meaning that he would spend three days in the belly of the earth just as Jonah had spent three days in the belly of the whale. But that didn’t register. Even when Jesus identified himself as the “Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25), they didn’t capture what those words meant: in order for him to be “resurrection personified,” he needed to rise again, which means that he first needed to die.
4) When Mary Magdalene, Salome and Mary, the mother of James, went to the tomb on Sunday morning, they were going reverently to anoint Jesus’ corpse. Little did they realize what a great transformation had already occurred and what a great personal transformation awaited them. The stone had already been rolled away. The tomb was empty. A dazzling angel told them that Jesus had been raised. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the Garden and filled her with exhilarating goose bumps when he pronounced her name! He appeared to the ten in the Upper Room, filled them with his joy and peace, and gave them his own mission — “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you,” bestowing on them the Holy Spirit so that they could forgive sins in God’s name. He appeared to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus and made their hearts burn as he described how the Son of Man had to suffer, and then revealed himself to them in the “breaking of the bread.” THEIR WHOLE UNIVERSE, which had been turned upside down two days before, was now turned RIGHT-SIDE UP AGAIN. And what incredible joy must have raced through all the cells of their body, the type of joy to which words can not even do justice! Everything for them would have forever changed. The resurrection was the answer to all their questions, the resolution to all their doubts, the definitive peace to all their angst, the joy to all their sadness, God’s ultimate response to the mystery of all suffering and death. Life in general — and their life in particular — not only was no longer a tragedy; their life now had immeasurable meaning. They were the disciples and intimate friends of the one who had conquered even sin and death — and they were now empowered and emboldened by him to take that greatest news ever told to the ends of the earth. No amount of disdain, threats, persecutions, torture or even death could dissuade them, because the resurrection taught them, unmistakably and unforgettably, that God is in charge and makes good on all his promises.
5) Jesus wants to bring about the same type of revolution in us today. He wants to give us the same joy he gave his first disciples, because he loves us no less than he loved them. The only thing that will stop him from doing so is if we don’t let him do what he wants to do. He who is the “Resurrection and the Life” wants us to experience in the present the full meaning of that resurrection and that life, but for that to happen, we have to recognize and structure our lives in correspondence to the fact that Jesus truly is ALIVE. Almost every Christian knows that Jesus is alive theoretically, but many Christians do not behave as if Jesus is alive practically. We can treat Jesus like a distant relative, someone whom we respect and care for, but whom for the most part in our day-to-day lives we ignore. Or we can treat him like our best high school teacher, who has obviously had an impact in making us the people we are today, but who is no longer practically involved in continuing to guide our decision making. Or we can treat Jesus like a good doctor, to whom we go when we have problems, but, outside of those times, with whom we really have no relationship at all.
6) The point I’m trying to make by analogy is this: Few Christians treat the Risen Jesus as if he is DEAD, but many Christians treat Jesus as if he is BARELY ALIVE. Today, on this Easter, Jesus wants to change that. He came, as he himself said, “so that [we] might have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10), but for us to come fully alive, we need first to allow Jesus to become fully alive in us. We need to rise with him, and live a resurrected life with him! We need to stop treating him as a concept, or as someone we turn to at our whim and convenience — or only at times of great inconvenience — but rather base our whole lives on him. For the first disciples, the joy of that first Easter didn’t end the day after Easter, because they knew that Jesus, risen from the dead, would be with them “until the end of time” (Mt 28:20). And they structured their whole lives on a deep personal relationship with the Risen Jesus, grounding all of the aspects of their lives on the basis of this living communion of love. We’re called to do the same.
7) St. Paul tells us in the beautiful second reading how practically to bring this new relationship about. He tells us: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:1-3). He tells us that if we are to have a resurrected life with the risen Jesus, we need to seek the things that are of Christ, thing things are above, the things of heaven, the things that last forever. Our minds must be focused on those things above. Our hearts must be focused on those same things and therefore our treasure must be in the things above, because, as Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). So often our goals, desires and ambitions are all on the things of earth, without any reference to the things above. We worry about our bodies and physical appearances, our jobs and salaries, our many material possessions, the success of our favorite sports teams, the travails of various celebrities, but we’re not really concerned with becoming holy, with deepening our friendship with Christ, and with bringing our friends to Christ. We can become more concerned with pleasing others than pleasing God. We can spend more time hoping that Curt Schilling is ready to pitch the home opener than we can about whether he is ready for the Lord’s second coming. We can expend more effort in helping our kids or grand kids can get a good job or get into a good university than we can trying to help them become a saint.
8 ) St. Paul tells us in that passage two things that are essential to seeking the things that are above.
a. The first is to realize that, in order to rise with Christ, WE FIRST HAVE TO DIE. He says, “for you have died.” More precisely, we have to die to the things of this world, so that we no longer find in them our life-principles. Death focuses us on what’s most important, because the only thing we can take with us into the next world are acts of love. Someone who has died and risen in Christ is someone who will have these priorities, who will treasure what Christ treasures. St. Paul tells us in the same letter to the Colossians (immediately after the passage we read at today’s Mass) what specifically needs to be killed in us for Christ to rise: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). … You must get rid of all such things — anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices” (Col 3:5-9). We’ll never be able to seek the things that are above if our eyes, minds and hearts are enslaved by the things St. Paul mentioned.
b. The second essential reality is to realize that OUR “LIFE IS HIDDEN WITH CHRIST IN GOD.” Very often we can look at life in reductive and earthly ways. We can look at it merely as something a hospital heart monitor can detect. Or we can look at it in terms of what for us constitutes the “good life,” a life of fun and pleasure and the absence of as much suffering as possible. St. Paul wants to help us to remember always that Jesus constitutes the summit of our life. If our life is in him, we will never lose that life; if our life is not in him, then we are already dead and one day we will truly die. St. Paul likewise gets very specific about what this hidden life in Christ looks like in the same epistle to the Church in Colossae: “You have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal… Christ is all in all! Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. … Above all, clothe yourselves with love. … Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. … Be thankful… Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:10-17).
9) Christ has left us a means above all others by which we can grow in this “hidden life” with him. It is the supreme way he made for us to die with him and to rise with him, to enter most fully into the Paschal mystery. It is the Mass! Through the Mass, we share in time in the eternal actions of his passion, death and resurrection. In the Mass, Jesus both speaks to us and feeds us, and he who is the Truth incarnate specified how indispensable each of those actions is for us to enter into his risen life:
a. About his word, which we hear at every Mass, he says: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). What an incredible promise! Its realization starts with our hearing God’s word, and of course to do that we first have to show up. But merely hearing it is not enough. We have to listen to it attentively, because literally our life depends on it. Then, as Jesus says, we have to believe it, and if we truly believe it, it will change our lives as we base them on the rock-solid foundation of God’s revelation. The word of God is the first means by which we pass from the death to life.
b. The second means is to receive the Eucharist, which we have the awesome privilege to do each Mass provided that we’re free from sin. One year before Jesus gave us his body and blood for the first time during the Last Supper and on the Cross, he told us clearly how indispensable it would be for us to enter into his risen life: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:48-51). After many of his listeners questioned how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat, he got even more specific: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have NO LIFE in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:53-57).
10) If we wish to enter into eternal life, to enter into heaven — and who of us doesn’t?! — then Jesus gave us the means in the Mass. Out of love for us he has given us this means. He says to us about the Mass what he said to the apostles about it on Holy Thursday: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you!” (Lk 22:15). He has eagerly desired it, because he knows we need it to pass from death to life, to pass with him to heaven. That’s why he lovingly made it a commandment for us to keep holy this day and through the Church he founded taught clearly that, except for a very serious reason, it is a mortal sin to miss even one Sunday Mass. When we miss Mass for anything short of a very grave reason (like serious illness or a heavy snow-storm) then we’re choosing to make something else more important than God — we’re building a golden calf, we’re preferring our own Barabbas — and that kills us. Looked at from another angle, if we truly believe in Christ and wish to spend eternity with him, how would we ever allow ourselves casually to miss Mass, as if anything else in the whole world could be more important than hearing God’s word and receiving his sacred body within us? And if we really loved our kids, or our spouses, could we give them any greater gift than bringing them to receive the gift of God?
11) But Jesus is asking more of us than merely showing up for Mass. He’s asking for us to pray the Mass and enter into this mystery of life with all our minds, hearts, souls and strength. Just like St. Paul told us in the second reading that if we’ve been raised with Christ, we are to seek the things of Christ that are above, so the priest in the preface dialogue of every Mass says, “Lift up your hearts!” and the people respond, “We lift them up to the Lord!” But each of us needs to mean those words! To lift up our hearts to the Lord means to leave the things of earth behind — our concerns and worries, sinful attractions, self-love, unholy desires for Mass to be “over with” as soon as possible, all our plans for the rest of the day — and enter, for a short period of time, into eternity, into heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand. To lift our hearts to the Lord means to place our treasure in the Lord, for where our treasure is our heart will be: our treasure will be in his Word; our treasure will be in the inestimable gift of his body and blood. TO CELEBRATE THE MASS with hearts truly lifted up to the Lord is the best way for us LIVE OUR LIVES with our hearts set above, which St. Paul describes as the WAY TO THAT ETERNAL KINGDOM which is above.
12) On this Easter Sunday, as we prepare to receive within the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord Jesus, our Resurrection and our Life, we ask him to give us the grace this Easter Mass truly to lift up our hearts to him in prayer so that we might experience the joy of the Passover from earth to heaven, from death to life that Easter and indeed every Mass are meant to bring. We ask him to help us to lift up our hearts so that we might always seek the things that are above, so that one day HE MAY LIFT UP OUR HEARTS, our souls, our bodies to SEE those things that are above, in the kingdom he won for us by his passion, death and resurrection that we celebrate today.
Christ has truly risen. And this changes everything. Alleluia!