Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday

From my Easter Sunday morning Homily at St. Paul the Apostle Church, NYC.
One of my all-time favorite scenes in literature takes place on Easter Eve as a despairing Faust prepares to drink the poison with which he plans to end his pointless life. Suddenly he hears the sound of church bells. Though Faust’s faith is weak and his hope all but gone, even so just the sound of the Easter bells brings him back from the brink of death.
Like Faust, we too have all heard the Easter bells, as year after year they work their wonders in our hearts. Back in the Bronx in the 1950s, the sound of the Easter bells set in motion an important annual ritual in my home. In those days, of course, the Easter Vigil service was celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning. So hardly anyone was in church to hear the indoor bell-ringing at the Gloria. But then, promptly at noon on Saturday, when Lent ended & Easter officially began, churches all over the world let loose a cacophony of bells. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sat us all down at the kitchen table & tuned the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the best bells of all – the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded earlier at noon Italian 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 our next course – our Easter chocolate!
But enough about chocolate; back to the bells! Today, those Easter bells still proclaim Christ is risen, in words addressed directly to us. As we celebrate this central mystery of our faith today, we are invited to relive the amazing experience of Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, who came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark.
It was way beyond the capacity of any of the Gospel writers to describe the actual event of Jesus' rising from the dead. What the New Testament does describe & what we – with Mary, & Simon Peter & the other disciple & so many others ever since (even Faust) - experience today are its effects - its wonderful effects in our lives and in our world. It matters very much what Jesus said and did in his earthly life; but, thanks to Easter, it matters even more what he is doing now.
For the Easter story, that the Easter bells proclaim so powerfully year after year, is really two interconnected stories – Jesus’ story & our story. Likewise, our Easter faith involves two interconnected claims: about Jesus, that the same Jesus who lived & died now lives again in glory; and, about us, that we, though we too must likewise die, we too will also live again with him, whose resurrection has thus become ours as well.
John’s Gospel tells us that, on the 1st day of the week, the day after the Sabbath, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already removed from the tomb. It was on the 6th day of creation, that God had made human beings. And it was on the 6th day of the week that Jesus, identified by Pontius Pilate with the simple words, Behold the man, did what (sadly) all of us human beings must do. He died. Indeed, he died, as John’s gospel makes such a point of emphasizing, at the very hour that the Passover lamb was being sacrificed in the Temple. Having replaced that sacrifice with the sacrifice of himself, he was buried – in a hurry because of the holiday. On the 7th day of creation, God had rested from all the work he had done in creating the world. And, on the 7th day of the week, the Sabbath, Jesus rested in the tomb.
But, on the next day, instead of staying dead (as corpses were supposed to do), Jesus did something very different. Instead of staying dead, he lives again – and lives so full of the living breath of God’s Holy Spirit that he lives a totally transformed and gloriously new kind of life. That 1st creation was over in 7 days. But the next day was the start of something new.
Even so (as we just heard), the first few to become aware of it left the empty tomb more confused than elated: For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. Nor would we, if that were all we had of the story. Just as the disciples, having seen for themselves that the tomb was empty, having seen the burial cloths and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head not disturbed (as they might have been by a tomb raider or grave robber), but neatly in place (as if what had been confined in them had somehow suddenly disappeared), just as the disciples, having seen all that for themselves, still needed something more before they could begin to appreciate the wonderful new thing God was doing, so do we!
In a world which seems permanently stuck in that dark, pre-dawn position, where suffering and death always seem to have the last word, the disciples needed to experience the kind of change that could only come about by the Risen Christ’s living presence among them. And so do we, which is why we are here, where the Risen Lord brings us together as no one else can, bringing us together in his Church, where we become what we could never otherwise have been, doing what we could never otherwise have done, empowered and energized by the Risen One himself alive in his Church.
So, instead of the 1st day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, in which suffering and death no longer have the final say. All of us are here today because God did not stop on the 7th day, because there is now another day on which God has, so to speak, recreated the world. That new day is today – and every day from now on – until (as Saint Paul said to the Colossians) we too will appear with him in glory.
Now in his Church, some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Some, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is where we finally arrive. So, whether we are runners or walkers, let us accompany the disciples to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever perpetually dark and closed, but from which the stone has been removed – in order that we too may believe.
Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of the disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something wonderfully and completely new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and so old. 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 listens to the experience of the very 1st Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Hearing their story, the story of those who first experienced the presence and action of the Risen Lord in their own lives, we can begin to consider the difference the Risen Christ is making right here and now in us.
The story of the disciples and those first communities of Christians shows us how to begin to live in the present that new and different future to which the Risen Lord is leading us, in which (as we just heard Peter proclaim) everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.
So today – and every day – as we recall the death that Christ has freed us from, let us eagerly embrace the new life the he has freed us for.
Let’s keep those Easter bells always ringing in our hearts, in our lives, in our world!

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