Last night at our Easter Vigil, I mentioned how, as far back as I can remember, the ringing of the bells at the Gloria has probably been one of my favorite parts of the Vigil – a moment of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond – which is why I asked the altar server to ring them again this morning! It’s as if, 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. And no wonder! For what bigger news has there ever been? What better news has there ever been?
When I was growing up, 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, the Easter Vigil service was still 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 what I’m sure she assumed were 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! Maybe, many of us here today may also be looking forward to some Easter chocolate – or maybe have had some already!
But back to those bells! As I said, 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, after all, is 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 really is risen from the dead and that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.
Now the Church obviously isn’t just me and the deacon here, or the Bishop, or the all the Bishops together and the Pope. The Church is all of us. And there are a lot of us, and obviously we’re not all the same. In the Church, 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.
In the normal course of events, the Sabbath day of rest should have been followed in the morning on the first day of the week by business as usual – both for the living, who would go back to their regular daily work, and even more so for the dead, decaying in their graves, who (then as snow) were expected to stay dead. Presumably, those who went to visit Jesus’ tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week also started out with similar expectations. John’s Gospel says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark. The other Gospel writers, however, tell us that Mary was accompanied by other women as well, and that their purpose in visiting the tomb was to anoint Jesus’ body. However many they were and whatever they expected to do, it seems safe to say that their expectations that morning were well within the range of the normal.
Instead, they found something surprising and unexpected. For this morning, this 1st day of the week, the world awakens not to business as usual, but to something totally new – to, of all the things that God has ever done, the greatest of them all. And so we say today: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!
Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and all those disciples unexpectedly experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old. Even so, as we just heard, the first few to be made aware of this momentous news 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!
Jesus’ resurrection was the most important event in all of human history. And yet, however hard it may be for us to imagine (in this multi-media age of the 24-hour news cycle), the world hardly noticed the resurrection at first. In a world which seems permanently stuck in the dark, pre-dawn position, where death always seems to have the final say, the disciples needed to experience the kind of change that could come only from the Risen Lord’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.
So that is why we have to keep coming back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happened next and thus experience the effects of the resurrection in ourselves. 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, starting with changing them.
Throughout the entire Easter season, the Paschal Candle, the symbol of the Risen Christ and visible reminder of his great victory, will stand in its place of honor in the sanctuary. Also prominently displayed in our church throughout this Easter season is the icon of the Resurrection (photo). This famous image portrays the Risen Christ standing over the broken gates of hell, lifting up Adam and Eve from their coffins – while, on one side, Moses, Isaiah and Elijah, and, on the other, the Old Testament kings and John the Baptist look on.
Again, like the two disciples in the Gospel, in the Church some of us run fast. Others obviously run much more slowly. But what matters most is where we finally end up.
The story of those first disciples and that of 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” [Evangelii Gaudium, 276]
Peter's prominence in the gospel stories of the events that followed Jesus’ resurrection 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 that we share by baptism as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into life 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.
So may the sound of those bells continue to ring on in us - and through us. May everything we do ring with Easter joy, so that the whole world can experience that something really new has happened - the new life we now share with Christ our Risen Lord.
Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 5, 2015