Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday

"Such is the wonder of his love; he gathers to this feast those who are far apart and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other." So wrote the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church Saint Athanasius in a 4th-century Easter letter.

His words seem especially apt today, as we celebrate this Easter feast "physically separated from each other," in a way none of us would ever have expected.

On Easters past, I have often talked about my love for the sound of the Easter bells, that still ring out triumphantly in much of the world today. Some years, I have recalled the famous legend of Faust (the scholar who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil), and how, in Goethe's dramatic version of the story, the glorious ringing of the Easter bells brought him back from the brink of despair. 

Of course, Faust was a unique case. Hopefully none of us is tempted to go down his self-destructive path. Yet, in its own way, his sense of abandonment and isolation may well resonate with us in this strange and difficult time which we are going through.

At the beginning of Goethe's play, the hopeless Faust plans to end his pointless life, when suddenly he hears the sound of the bells heralding what he calls "the Easter feasts' first solemn hour." Though Faust's faith is weak, and his hope is all but gone, even so just the familiar sound of those 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 continue to announce their glorious news. I've often told how, 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 there to hear the bells ring at the Gloria of the Mass. But then, promptly at noon, churches all over the world let loose a cacaphony of bells. At that moment, my grandmother would sit us 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 earlier at noon Rome time) - all peeling gloriously, as we meanwhile cracked open our colored Easter eggs.

Even now, after all these years, the ringing of the bells still remains one of my favorite Easter moments, when the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent for two days, the bells now ring again with all clamor they can muster in an outburst of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year - and beyond.

After all, how else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must - for everyone's sake! That 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 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 are not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved in today's Gospel. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But, 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 new in a world where everything else seems at best ordinary and old, at worst depressing and dangerous. 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, how they first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world - to change even this world, which seems to have been stopped inits tracks by a dangerous disease that sickens, even kills, some, and has taken a terrible toll on all of us.

The promises of holy Baptism, which we will now solemnly renew, are our solemn and collective commitment to keep ringing those Easter bells, even in this world of sickness and separation.

So may those bells that called Faust back to live again live on in us. May our whole world ring again with Easter joy and hope, so we all can experience that something really new has happened - the new life given freely to us by Christ our Risen Lord.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 12, 2020.

Photo: Easter Sunday, The Roman Missal, copywright 2011 Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ

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