Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"What are we to do, my brothers/"

Easter Tuesday: Mass at the school, parish staff meeting, etc. In other words, back to work! Proclaiming the resurrection to middle schoolers at 8:00 in the morning may be as good a metaphor as any for getting back to business after the exhilaration of the Easter Triduum! And today's Gospel of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18) may be as good a place as any to start!

For centuries, this Gospel story was read on Easter Thursday. Whatever motivated its being moved up to Tuesday (and all the other similar shifting of Gospels on these days of Easter week) is unclear, to say the least. But, however that may be, the story of the Risen Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene works well on any day!

I have always been struck by the way Mary - naturally enough - seems to want to embrace Jesus, but Jesus instead tells her not to hold onto him but to go back to tell the others. To me, this particular scene has always been about mission, as if Jesus were saying to Mary: yes, this is great, but it's not finished yet; there is work still to be done; so go get started on it! 

That strikes me as a very useful way to read this part of the story. In his 2011 Holy Week book, however, Pope Benedict went in a different direction, which I also find very attractive. Benedict begins with our natural surprise at what Jesus says, how obviously opposite his instruction is from what we would expect would make sense under the circumstances. "We would have thought that now, while he is standing before her, she can indeed touch him and hold him. When he has ascended to the Father, this will no longer be possible." Benedict stresses the obvious point that the old way of being, humanly speaking, with Jesus on earth is now over. That leads him to stress how the Risen Jesus must now be accessible in some new way. "This new accessibility presupposes a newness on our part as well." According to Benedict, "If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the Risen Lord."

Developing that further in terms of the Eater season's ongoing Lucan theme of the Risen Christ's presence and action in the Church, it seems to me that one further sense to take form this episode is that the former human way of being with Jesus, which Mary and the other disciples enjoyed during the time of his active ministry, has now been replaced - not just for them but for the far wider world to whom he is now accessible - by life in the Church and his resurrected presence to, with, and in the Church.

Today's reading from Acts (2:36-41) contains the people's famous question to Peter and the 11: "What are we to do, my brothers?" The fact that the people could already address Peter and the 11 as "brothers" even before being baptized highlights the expansiveness of the Risen Christ's action, drawing people to himself and into his Church.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday

After the solemnity and grandeur of Easter Sunday, Easter Monday seems somewhat of a let-down. Even more so for me this year, as my local Superior flies to Rome today to be part of a pilgrimage group celebrating the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II next Sunday. Meanwhile, our Paulist novice who has been with us since just before Lent returns to Washington today to continue his novitiate experience. So our house really feels empty!

Easter Monday (Pasquetta, "Little Easter," in Italian) isn't meant to seem like a let-down, of course It is still a legal holiday in some countries - a sort of socio-civic prolongation of the great Easter festivity before everyone resumes the routine of the regular work week.  In past centuries, Easter Monday was also widely observed in the Church as a holyday of obligation. Its ancient importance is suggested by the assignment of St. Peter's Basilica as the stational church for today. In the traditional (pre-1970) Roman liturgy, today was one of the days (together with tomorrow and Saturday) when the Paschal Candle was supposed to be lit this week.

The station at Saint Peter's accounts for Peter's prominence in the traditional liturgy for today. In that tradition, the 1st reading was Peter's proclamation of Christ's Resurrection in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:37-43, now read in the reformed rite on Easter Sunday itself). The Gospel was the familiar account of the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35, postponed in the new lectionary until Wednesday). It ends with the 11 disciples responding to the news brought by the two with the further news that the Lord had truly been raised and had appeared to Peter. The intrinsic excellence and artistry of that account, speaking as it does so directly to the Church's situation, make it one of the most powerful and popular of the post-resurrection appearance narratives.

As I said yesterday, Peter's prominence in these post-resurrection appearance accounts highlights how what was happening then and there continues to happen now in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to his people through the experience they share by baptism as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit.

This past Holy Week, I took advantage of my bits and pieces of free time to re-read Pope Benedict XVI's wonderful Holy Week book, Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two: Holy Week From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (2011). This morning, with much greater leisure, I re-read on chapter 9, "Jesus' Resurrection from the Dead." 

It's sort of obvious at Easter, but it's something that needs to be emphasized all year round that the Resurrection really is the core Christian conviction. If Jesus' body were still in the tomb, if it had long ago decomposed as dead bodies are supposed to do, then there would never have been - there could never have been - a Christian faith and a Christian community professing that faith. "Only if Jesus is risen," Benedict reminds us, "has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind. Then he becomes the criterion on which we can rely. For then God has truly revealed himself."

These 50 days of Easter are about our taking that seriously and letting that revelation become effective in our lives. 

One of the great dynamics of the Easter story is the mysteriously gentle way (as Benedict says) in which God "gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind." Though God incarnate, he "can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within  history." Risen from the dead, he comes to us "only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself, " and "continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens out eyes if we open our doors to him."

To me, the unique liturgical structure of the Easter season ritualizes for us this ongoing, life-long challenge of discipleship and mission - to recognize the Risen Christ in his Church (as the disciples did) and to open doors for others to do the same.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ringing the Resurrection

One of my all-time favorite scenes in literature features the hopeless, despairing Faust (the scholar who famously sold his soul to the Devil) who is about to drink the poison with which he plans to end his pointless life, when suddenly he hears the sound of the Easter church bells:

What deep humming [Faust exclaims] what a clarion tone,
Draws from my lips the glass with mighty power!
You deep-toned bells. Make you ready
The Easter feast's first solemn hour?
Though Faust’s faith is weak and his hope is all but gone, even so just the sound of the Easter bells brings him back from the brink of death, for, wonted to this strain from infancy, Faust says, back now to life again it calls me.

Like Faust, we too have all heard the Easter bells, as year after year they continue to announce their glorious news. Back in the Bronx in the 1950s, the sound of the Easter bells set in motion an important annual ritual in our apartment. In those days, of course, the Easter Vigil service was celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning, when hardly anyone was in church to hear the bells ring at the Gloria. But then, promptly at noon, when Lent ended and Easter officially began, churches all over the world let loose a cacophony of bells. At that moment, my grandmother would sit us all down at the kitchen table and tune the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the best bells of all – the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded 6 hours earlier at noon Roman time) – all peeling gloriously, as we, obedient to my grandmother’s command, cracked open our Easter eggs, which we quickly consumed in eager anticipation of the next course – our Easter chocolate!

And it was good chocolate too! We had our standard-issue milk-chocolate Easter Bunnies, of course, but that was for later. For Saturday noon’s first Easter chocolate, however, there was only the best, solid, dark, Italian chocolate!

Now many of us here today may also be looking forward to some Easter chocolate. But back to those bells! Even now, after all these years, the ringing of the bells still remains my favorite part of the Easter Vigil Mass, when, having heard again the ancient story of how God saved his People in the past - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent the previous two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor and clangor they can muster in an outburst of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond.

Just as God once led his People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues to lead his Church today through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.

So it is no wonder we ring bells at Easter! How else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake! That’s what the Church is for – commissioned to preach to the people and testify (as Peter proclaimed in the reading we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles) that Jesus is really risen from the dead and that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

Now, in the Church, we’re not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is that we are here. Whether we are runners or walkers, we too have come like those first disciples to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world - may believe.

Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old.  And that is why we have to come back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next. That is why every day for the next 7 weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world,

The story of those first disciples and those first communities of Christians invites us to live in the here and now with the assurance - as Pope Francis has written - that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” [EG 276]

Peter's prominence in these post-resurrection appearance accounts highlights how what was happening there continues to happen in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to his people through the experience they share by baptism as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit.

The promises of Holy Baptism, which we will solemnly renew in another few minutes are our solemn and collective commitment to keep those Easter bells ringing loudly, in our lives and in our world - in our hearts and in our minds, in our thoughts and in our actions, at home and at work, among friends and among strangers.

May those bells that called Faust back to live again live on in us. May everything we do ring with Easter joy, so the world can experience that something really new has happened - the new life we share with Christ our Risen Lord.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 20, 2014.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Follow the Light

As I listened to our deacon sing the stirring words of the ancient Easter Proclamation (commonly called the Exsultet from its opening word in Latin), I thought back 26 years to my first experience of proclaiming it as a deacon. That year, I prepared myself to sing it by listening to a recording of it every day of Lent, listening and repeating it until I somehow had every note and every up-and-down of the melody memorized so as to fulfill that challenging chore – as the celebrant says to the deacon when blessing him beforehand – to proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well. How well I actually did I won’t venture to guess, but I think our own deacon did a much better job here tonight!

Thomas Merton once called the Exsultet "the key to the whole business.” The year it fell to him, as a deacon, to sing it, he wrote, “I am going to sing the whole of theology. It is marvelous. … And the people who hear it are learning all theology, and the Holy Ghost, Who operates what is signified, throws light in darkness upon the whole meaning of Christianity …” [April 6, 1947, and April 15, 1949]

Merton wasn’t alone in his praise. The great Pius Parsch once called the Exsultet "a hymn that never ceases to touch the heart and mind." It does so, by bringing us back to the heart of the ancient Passover story, which we recall tonight with this Vigil, just as the Jewish People have for so many centuries celebrated the Passover night’s annual return each spring. In the Book of Exodus we are told: This was a night of vigil for the Lord, as he led them out of the land of Egypt; so on this same night all the Israelites must keep a vigil for the Lord throughout their generations. That they have done, and so must we on this our annual Christian Passover night. On this night, when once God led Israel from slavery and brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, we too tonight follow the pillar of fire, our own Easter Candle marked with 5 grains of incense to signify the holy and glorious wounds of Christ’s passion, to relive that night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Tonight, having heard again the ancient story - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent these past two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor and clangor they can muster. As some of you know, the ringing of the bells has always been my favorite part of the Easter Vigil – the part I most look forward to, a moment of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond.

I’ll talk more about the bells tomorrow morning. Tonight, however, I’ll stick with the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, and the strange way we began this Vigil, walking in the dark behind the light of the Easter Candle. The Exsultet waxes eloquently (no pun intended) in praise of the Easter Candle - this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for its fed by melting wax drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious. … Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night.

Now a candle – even a big and beautiful one such as this – is still just a candle. The night outside is still dark, despite all our efforts to the contrary. Life is like that. We go through life more or less in the dark – or, as Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham would say, trying to overcome problem after problem, one after another. And we’re going to be better off if we stick together, like our little procession tonight, following the way led by that single candle - relying on one another and supporting one another in this community created by that candle’s glowing fired ignited for the honor of God. Just as God once led his Chosen People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues to lead his Church today through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.

So no wonder we ring bells tonight. How else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake! So our job, having huddled together in the dark and followed the light into this Church is now to spread it around, with the assurance, as Pope Francis has written, that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” [EG 276]

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus told the women on Easter morning. Do not be afraid. Go tell the others! And that’s what they then went and did.

And, as they did then, so now must we.

Homily for the Easter Vigil, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 19, 2014

"He descended into hell"

A good number of people – including young families with children - turned out this morning for the traditional Blessing of Easter Food. I do it every year immediately after the morning Office of Holy Saturday. It says something about the importance of food in people’s lives – and the still surviving appeal of this traditional custom – that so many would be willing even to sit through the Office of Tenebrae just for a 5-minute Blessing of Easter Food at the end! That’s one of the reasons I do the Blessing then – precisely to encourage more people to attend Holy Saturday morning’s Tenebrae, an Office which contemplates Christ's descent among the dead (photo), which we routinely and probably unreflectively profess in the Apostles' Creed. It is an Office which (even in its modern form) I especially love, but which I would be the first to acknowledge is certainly an acquired taste!

In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote of Holy Saturday Tenebrae: "The Night Office of this day is bewildering. The confusion of sorrow and joy is so complex that you never know where you are. The responsories might have been composed by James Joyce. All the associations of terms and symbols are thrown into confusion. One responsory starts out with Jerusalem ... and you are all set to be glad, and you are told to mourn. Then in the end, speculatively, you find that you are saved. This is the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed"

Writing on April 15, 1949, Merton was obviously referring to the then still unreformed Holy Saturday liturgy. Of that peculiar state of affairs, Philip J. Goddard (himself no great fan of our contemporary Holy Week liturgy) has written: "Over the course of time the most important liturgical function of the entire year had become, so far as the faithful were concerned, merely a series of arcane and largely incomprehensible rites carried out very early in the morning by the clergy in churches empty of all except the odd liturgical enthusiast. It also involved the anomaly of celebrating the first Mass of Easter before the formal conclusion of Lent at midday. It is something of a wonder that this indefensible state of affairs was allowed to continue for so many centuries before the celebration of the Vigil was restored to its proper time." (Festa Paschalia: A History of the Holy Week Liturgy in the Roman Rite, 2011, p. 278).
It may have been an "indefensible state of affairs," but it has certainly left its mark on the character of Holy Saturday. Pius XII's 1955 reform aimed at setting that all right again, but of course, human behavior is hard to change. The new rubrics were dutifully observed, and more people attended the restored Vigil than had in the past (and probably more than do so now). But the idea of Holy Saturday as an "aliturgical" day never really caught on. The Easter Vigil, which was theoretically supposed to end with a Mass starting at about midnight, was widely anticipated at the earliest legally allowable hour (as early as 6:30 in one cathedral in the 1960s). This was especially convenient for those reluctant to be out late at night (even in an era when people were still flocking in great numbers to Christmas Mass at midnight). Also it meant that decorating churches with elaborate Easter floral arrangements could be done late Saturday evening instead of sometime after midnight.But it created the idea - or rather reinforced the existing older idea - that the Easter Vigil was a liturgy of Saturday rather than the first liturgy of Easter Sunday.

It is quite clear in the current (post-1969) rite that Holy Saturday is the second day of the "Easter Triduum," and that the Easter Vigil is part of Easter Sunday, the third day of the Triduum. But that too seems to be a well-kept secret for many. And it hardly helps that, in the current, now twice-reformed rite, the Vigil has really become somewhat vestigial, and the ceremony appears to all intents and purposes as just an extra-long Saturday evening Mass. Meanwhile, even among the devoutly observant, Holy Saturday - far from being the day of prayer and fasting, focused on Christ's burial and descent among the dead, that the Roman Missal enjoins - has become a day of feverish activity in anticipation of Easter. By rights, the church should remain bare until the Gloria, when the bells are rung and the statues uncovered. In fact, however, in most places the statues have been uncovered and the church festooned with flowers since sometime Saturday morning. It was eminently understandable, of course, back when the Lenten fast was taken so much more seriously, that people were eager to anticipate Easter a day early. And, despite the effective abandonment of authentic Lenten fasting, that same mindset still seems to survive even to today.
So this morning - after dutifully celebrating the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer in the church, at which we heard the wonderful ancient homily depicting Christ's descent to the domain of the dead - I immediately shifted gear and joined my dedicated parish volunteers in a morning of festive decorating, complete with cookies and coffee.

It is, as I said in this space last year, a very strange day indeed - but wonderful in its own way!