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.