Sunday, March 27, 2016

Something New

Last night, I mentioned how, as far back as I can remember, the ringing of the bells at the Gloria has been one of my favorite Easter memories – a moment of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond! Having heard again the ancient story of how God saved his People Israel 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?
There is a famous scene in literature when the hopeless, despairing Faust (the scholar who sadly sold his soul to the Devil) was about to drink poison, with which he planned to end his pointless life, when suddenly he heard the sound of the church bells ringing, announcing Easter. Though Faust’s faith was weak and his hope all but gone, even so just the sound of the Easter bells brought 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. 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, where obedient to her command, we 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 even 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 in this morning’s Gospel. But what matters most, the 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, sealed from the world of the living by a stone, but from which that stone has now 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 now) were expected to stay dead. John’s Gospel says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark. The other Gospel writers tell us that Mary was accompanied by other women as well, and that their purpose in visiting the tomb was to honor Jesus’ body with spices. However many they were and whatever they expected to do, it was a dead man whose tomb they came to visit.

But, instead of a corpse, they found something surprising and unexpected. For this morning, this 1st day of the week, this super-Sunday, 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 other 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. This year’s movie Risen, which some of you may have seen, offers some really interesting insights into the story, through its clever technique of looking at it through the experience of a Roman Tribune detailed to discover what really happened to Jesus’ missing body. It makes for a good story, but in reality the Romans probably didn’t even notice. Not yet anyway! Much later, they would, if course.

Eastern Orthodox Christians even have a lovely legend in which Mary Magdalen made it all the way to Rome to tell Tiberius Caesar in person. When the Emperor replied that there was as much chance of Jesus having risen from the dead as there was for the egg on his table to turn red, the egg promptly did so, which is why Eastern Orthodox Christians exchange red-colored eggs on Easter.

But, before any of that could happen, in a world which seemed permanently stuck in the dark, pre-dawn position, where death always seemed to have the final say, the disciples first 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.

And 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 seven 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.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us in a recent interview, “In order for me to believe, I need witnesses who have met God and make Him accessible to me.”

And so, throughout these seven weeks, the Easter Candle, the symbol of the Risen Christ and visible reminder of his great victory, will stand in its place of honor in the sanctuary, literally lighting our way through the Easter season as the Risen Lord lights our way through death to life.

And further to hammer home that point, prominently displayed at a side altar is a classic icon of the Resurrection. This famous image portrays the Risen Christ standing over the broken gates of hell, lifting up from their coffins the common ancestors of the human race, Adam and Eve, – 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]
That power was soon evident in the enthusiastic response of Jews and pagans alike to the amazing story the apostles told. Over time, its effects have been equally dramatic in how the story has spread and the Church has grown as a result, in the dynamism that is at the heart of the Church’s existence in the world and that has propelled it outward in almost 2000 years of world-transforming activity.

And its effects are evident in us, as we are transformed in mind and changed in heart, by the unique power of this utterly unexpected event, which has glorified (almost beyond recognition) the humanity Jesus shares with each of us, and which has brought us together in a way in which nothing else could have, empowering us not so much with new knowledge as with a new hope.  (If “knowledge is power,” hope is even more so.)

The resurrection is God’s powerful alternative to business as usual.  None of us were there that first Easter – and, had we been, we would surely have been as amazed and uncomprehending as the disciples themselves. But without yet understanding it, the world awoke on Easter to something totally new. Thanks to the fact that Christ has risen from the dead, the Christian faith offers a real alternative to business as usual, offering instead to the entire world - and to each and every one of us in it - an invitation to hope. It is the power of that faith and hope that has brought us, whether this Easter or a long time ago, to the water of baptism, and that brings us back Sunday after Sunday to hear the rest of the story and to experience the presence of the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and his power in the new people he is transforming us into and the amazingly wonderful things that we can now do with one another and for the world as a result.

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 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. 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.

May those bells, that encouraged even Faust 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 wonderful new life we share with Christ our Risen Lord.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 27, 2016.

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