Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Easter Vigil 2004
April 10, 2004
Gen 1:1-2:2; Ex 14:15-15:1; Ez 36:16-28; Rom 6:3-11; Lk 24:1-12
1) Tonight we celebrate the most important event in the history of the world. It is the dramatic conclusion to the greatest act of love ever recorded. God loved the world so much that he sent his own Son, who took upon our nature, lived among us for over three decades and then even allowed us to put him to death. BUT — in the most dramatic adversative conjunction of all time — God raised him from the dead three days later. Death was not the end. Tonight we not only celebrate the life Jesus inaugurated on that first Easter Sunday, but are called to enter it more deeply.
2) On that first day of the week, 1974 years ago, the women went at dawn to the tomb. Their main concern was who would roll back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. They were going to anoint Jesus’ dead body, fully convinced that Jesus was, in fact, still dead and would remain dead. To their amazement, they found the stone rolled back and were startled by two men in dazzling garments who said to them, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but has been raised.” These angels reminded the women of what Jesus had promised: “Remember what he said to you while he was in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.” Jesus’ resurrection was the fulfillment, the dramatic conclusion, of that prophecy and of all the love that brought it about.
3) Tonight that same question might be posed to some of us. “Why do you seek the Living One among the dead?” Sometimes by our actions we can behave as if Jesus is somehow not ALIVE, right now, in the present. We can look to him as a tremendous hero, but one from the past. We can think of him as a great teacher, whose teachings, preached on far-away hills two millennia ago, remain the key to a truly happy life in this world, but whose existence we look at as more “inspirational” than real. We can know alot ABOUT Him without really knowing him at all. Or, because of his resurrection and ascension, we can regard Jesus as someone whose existence for us is almost exclusively FUTURE, as the judge who will come at the end of our lives, as the one with whom, we hope, to spend eternity. But Jesus’ existence, as the question that the two dazzling angels posed to the women on the morning of the Resurrection points out, is something we are called to seek HERE AND NOW above all. We are called to seek the Living One among the living, in the present.
4) Jesus is alive! He came, as he himself said, that we “may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). He wants this Easter to give us a rebirth in that life. The most important part of this Easter celebration is for each of us — and that includes you! — to encounter the Living Jesus, who did all of this for us. The joy that we will experience this Easter depends on how much we encounter the Living Lord. The Risen Jesus is here tonight to have that encounter and to introduce you and me into a new level of experience with him. He wants us ultimately to begin to live with him HIS RISEN LIFE more deeply and start us out on a new, marvelous adventure of love.
5) The Easter Vigil liturgy that we celebrate is replete with powerful images and indications describing to us what the Lord not only has done in the past but wants to do in you and me now.
6) In the book of Exodus, which was our second Old Testament reading tonight, we recounted all that God did for the Israelites to free them from slavery in Egypt. The events that happened for the Jews were a type, a prophetic foreshadowing, of what Christ himself would do 1300 years later. Whereas in the first Passover meal, God instructed the Jews to slaughter a one-year-old, umblemished lamb and spread the lamb’s blood on their door posts, in the fulfilment of that Passover repast in the Last Supper, they consumed the 33-year-old Lamb of God, whose blood ultimately was dragged along the streets of Holy City. Whereas in that first exodus, God led his people out of bondage through the waters of the Red Sea into the promised land, so in Christ’s exodus (cf. Lk 9:31), God led his people from the slavery of sin through death ultimately into the promised land of heaven, which is life with God to the full. But just as the ancient Israelites needed to follow the Passover ritual and enter with Moses into the Red Sea and follow him into the land flowing with milk and honey, so we need to enter into the celebration of the Last Supper which Jesus instituted and follow Jesus all the way through death into new life with him. As the Exultet that Fr. Tom sang so beautifully at the beginning of this Mass announced: “This is our passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain, whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers. This is the night when first you [Heavenly Father] saved our fathers: you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea.” And that passover leads to this definitive passover effected by Christ. This is the “night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled to God.”
7) This passage through death into new life with Jesus is not something that we should think about exclusively in terms of the future, on what will happen after our physical death. It began on the day of our baptism. St. Paul said the epistle we read tonight, “Brothers and sisters, are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have NEWNESS OF LIFE.” On the day of our baptism, we died in Christ, and he rose from the dead within us. We’re called to live in that newness of life, the “life to the full” that Christ died to give us. In Ezechiel’s prophecy that we read in the last Old Testament Reading tonight, God had promised to “sprinkle clean water upon [us] to cleanse [us].” This was the equivalent of a heart-transplant, which saved our lives and made a whole new life possible: “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put MY SPIRIT within you and make you live by my statutes.” This is what God does in baptism, when we encounter Christ and enter into his death so as to enter into his life. This life that begins on the day of our baptism is meant to continually to grow, just like our bodily life grows. God allowed Ezechiel to see this reality as well. He saw a river flowing from the side of the Temple in Jerusalem down into the desert and finally into the Dead Sea. Along its path, it gave life to all types of vegetation (even) in the desert and ultimately brought life back to the Dead Sea. God brought him to the beginning and the stream was ankle deep. He led him a thousand cubits and the stream was knee deep. After another thousand, it was up to his waist. After yet another, it was over his head. That is a symbol of what should happen to us in baptism. The water of baptism flows from the pierced side of Christ, the new Temple (which would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days). The water began to flow from there. On the day of our baptism, it was just a small stream, but it is meant continually to grow, as God through the years wants to lead us successively 1000 cubits further down, so that ultimately we will swim in that Living Water that is Christ (cf. John 4:10), wherever he flows. That is why at the Easter vigil we renew our baptismal promises so that the grace of our baptism may be renewed in us. We reject Satan, all his evil works and all his empty promises. We renew our faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the Church God founded, in the communion of saints (whose life in heaven this day made possible), the forgiveness of sins (in baptism and in the sacrament of confession Christ founded on Easter Sunday Evening), and the resurrection of the body (to which Christ’s bodily resurrection attests). Like the Israelites, we reject whatever sins enslave us in the spiritual Egypt, and pass through the waters of spiritual Red Sea, following Christ into the promised land. As St. Paul concludes, “The death Christ died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and ALIVE to God in Christ Jesus.”
8) The third liturgical help Christ gives us to facilitate our encounter with him tonight is the symbol of the Pascal Candle and the Flame. The passover that we’re called to live in Christ is one from the darkness of sin to the light of real love, from the obscurity of death to the refulgence of life with Christ. On the day of our baptism, however many years ago, one of our parents or godparents lit our baptismal candle from the Paschal candle blessed during the Easter Vigil that year. The priest said “receive the light of Christ” and entrusted that light, first to our parents and godparents, and then to us, to be “kept burning brightly.” Christ called us explicitly through his priest to “walk as a child of the light” and “keep the flame of faith alive” in our hearts. Tonight we renew that flame. Christ, the Light of the World, has come and just as we all lit tapers from the one flame of the Paschal Candle, so Christ wants to light each of us on fire again, so that we, in turn, might go and light someone else on fire with the light of his truth and the warmth of his love.
In the sung prayer of the Exultet that we offered tonight at the beginning of Mass, we prayed: “Father, accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.” The Easter candle we offer has this “divided” flame, because it is not just the candle in front of the altar symbolizing Christ, but all the flames that have flowed from it. We are all part of that Easter candle, that Easter light, that Easter joy. The Exultet continues, “May the Morning Star [Christ] which never sets find this flame still burning.”
We need to ask ourselves whether Christ finds this flame of his light and love still burning within us. Christ said in the Gospel, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Christ’s whole life mission — his hidden years in Nazareth, his three years of preaching and miracles, his passion, death and his resurrection — was to set the world ablaze. But he wants to do it through us, by enkindling us with His flame and sending us forth. He says tonight “How I wish it were already kindled!” He wants us to be his living candles, burning with his living flame. Like wax, we’re called to be consumed by the flame, consumed by Christ and in Christ, to the praise and glory of the Father. If we have allowed that flame to be extinguished, tonight we go to the Lord and ask him to enkindle us again.
9) We rejoice tonight that Christ has two more living candles to light on fire anew with the light of his truth and love. After a year of preparation and prayer, David Dalton and Lynn Cusick are going to be welcomed into the Catholic Church. They are two of the 130,000 who will enter the Catholic Church tonight in Catholic parishes like ours across the United States. 130,000! What an incredible spiritual shot in the arm this is for the Church in our country! The particular reasons why a person asks to enter the Catholic Church may vary, but the most fundamental reason always is because a person believes that God has led him or her here. David and Lynn, not only will God, who has led you this far, give you the greatest gift of all tonight — Himself in two sacraments — but you are also a special Easter present of Him to all of us in His family here at this parish. We welcome you with great joy.
10) You will receive two sacraments tonight. The first is the Sacrament of Confirmation, when God will complete the graces of your baptism, sealing you with the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who came down upon the apostles that first Pentecost in the Upper Room, will come down upon you. The Holy Spirit descended upon the members of the early Church as tongues of fire — tongues, so that they might receive God’s help to speak His Words; and fire, so that they might spread that Gospel with ardent zeal. The Holy Spirit’s appearance will likely be invisible tonight, but the reality will be identical. May you burn with the fire of his love and share ever more in the new chapter of the Acts of the Apostles God wants to write during our life time.
11) Then you will have the chance to receive the Eucharist for the first time. This is where we share in the fullness of Easter, as we receive the body and blood of the Risen Christ. In the Eucharist, we share most profoundly in Christ’s passover from death to life. Easter and the Eucharist are intimately connected. Exactly one year before he died and rose again, Christ talked about the necessity of the Eucharist for us to follow him, through death, into life: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The Eucharist is the greatest foretaste of eternal life, of heaven, because in the Eucharist we come into true communion with God of which heaven will be the eternal fulfillment. It wasn’t enough for God to become a man. It wasn’t even enough for Him to allow himself to slaughtered so that we could pass from death to life. God loved us so much that he humbled himself so much as to become our food, so that we might become more and more whom we eat. The Eucharist is the food of everlasting life because by receiving the Lord Jesus well, we welcome his life within and gradually, with his help, make that life more and more our own.
12) Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? Tonight we come here not just to mark the historical event of Christ’s resurrection, but to seek the Living One, to find the Living One, to worship the Living One, and to receive Him within. We encountered Him first in baptism, but we encounter Him tonight symbolized in the flame and truly present in his Sacraments. May that Risen Lord Jesus, who has passed from death to life, and beckons us to follow him now in the same exodus, roll back whatever stones may keep us from him, so that we may receive to the full the life he died and rose to give us. May he light each of us on fire this night with a flame that will never be extinguished.
Christ has risen. Christ has truly risen. And he is here. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.