Easter Vigil Mass – 2011

Easter Vigil Mass: April 23, 2011
Readings for the Great Vigil of Easter:  Genesis 1:1—2:2 or 1:1, 26-31a; Genesis 22:1-18;
Exodus 14:15—15:1; Isaiah 54:5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32C4:48;
Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10.
Rt. Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, O.S.B.
St. Gregory’s Abbey:  Shawnee, Oklahoma

My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!  Alleluia!  It is right that we celebrate both with great solemnity and great joy this holy night that sees Christ rise from the dead.

A couple of days ago, I saw an editorial cartoon in a local newspaper that depicted an open rock-hewn tomb with the figure of the Grim Reaper sitting dejectedly alongside it.  The hooded figure was holding a sign in his hands.  The sign had one word on it: “Unemployed.”  I admit that I was not very alert that day, and so it took me a few seconds to realize that it was not commenting on the ongoing difficulties in our national economy, but rather on the most important economy of all:  the economy of salvation.  The cartoonist was anticipating what we celebrate this night- the mystery and reality of Easter.

But it seems to me that the cartoonist slightly missed the mark.  Tonight we do not celebrate merely the unemployment of death, we celebrate the defeat of death.  As St Paul wrote to the Romans:  “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him.” Just a few lines before this, St. Paul reminds us:  “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”  What good news this is for us indeed!

The defeat of death sounds wonderful, but what does it mean?  After all, we all know that each of us will at some point experience the difficult reality of physical death – both in the deaths of those we love and in our own death.  While we do not know the circumstances of the death that we must personally face, we do know that it will be part of our experience.  And so it is natural for us to ask what it means for us to celebrate the defeat of death in the Resurrection of Christ?

One might be tempted to make an analogy with retirement from work by wondering if participation in the resurrection of Christ is like retiring from a difficult or stressful job in order to be freed from the drudgery of the rat race.  Some folks fantasize about retirement as being the chance to be at ease and to do all the things they really want to do, rather than always being tied to the duties they have to do.  After both my parents retired from careers of hard work, they used to like to say that the only bad thing about retirement is that they no longer had a vacation!  Well, is eternal life a perpetual vacation that comes after death?

Truth be told, that is probably not a helpful way to understand the victory of Jesus over death. Our longed-for participation in the resurrection is not retirement from life as we know it.  Rather, on the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus actually makes possible for us an even more complete experience of God’s precious gift of life!

As we witness in the gospel tonight, and as we will continue to see in the readings of the Easter season, the Resurrection does not involve Jesus in a complete break from his earthly life.  He neither becomes someone different, nor does he leave behind his relationship with this world.  Rather, he greets the brave women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning in a familiar way, and then instructs them to tell “his brothers” to go to Galilee where they will encounter him again. In other words, he tells them to go home – to the places with which they are familiar for it is there that they will see him again. In this way, the victory of Jesus over death means that his relationship with his disciples continued beyond the separation and silence of the tomb and was to be restored in places that were well known to them.

From this perspective, the gift of eternal life is not another life that begins after one has died. Rather, the gift of eternal life is something that begins now, in these familiar places:  it is our loving relationship with the Lord which begins now and which death cannot destroy. Death has no dominion over us because through baptism we have entered into a relationship with the one who has defeated death.

Of course, our experience of death remains a painful reality in our earthly experience.  Even the Venerable Pope John Paul II, who faced death with such courage and faith, once wrote that “…the evil which the human being experiences in death has a definitive and total character.”  But he also believed in the victory of Christ and courageously proclaimed that death does not destroy the loving relationship between Jesus and those who are united with him through Baptism and the Eucharist.

Like Pope John Paul II, St. Paul, the women at the tomb and the apostles, we also are called to give witness to the resurrection of Christ not merely as a far-off reality that is to be experienced only after our mortal bodies succumb to physical death, but also as a reality that gives direction to our lives in the places that are most familiar to us – our own Galilean homes. Through the teaching he has given us, we know that we will encounter the presence of, the reality of, the Risen Christ in one another and in those who are in most need of love:  the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, the lonely and the poor to name a few.  It is through our Christ-filled response to their needs that we begin on earth the eternal life of heaven.  It is through our Christ-filled response in their needs that we proclaim and celebrate our belief in the Lord’s triumph over sin and death.

My brothers and sisters, we look forward in faith to the Kingdom of God in its fullness in the life of the world to come.  And yet, we can also show our belief in Eternal life by living fully now, with joy and generosity. Our present life is to be valued and cherished because it is a gift from the one who already is beginning to give us everything. Through him, we are we are free to love, free to do what is right, free to give our lives away, even when we must do so in the face of death itself. If we live now in the light of the resurrection we will no longer fear death, but will be ever more confident in the victory of Christ Jesus, our Risen Lord who lives and reigns forever!   Amen, Alleluia!