Saturday, March 26, 2016

Paschal Vigil

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Tonight our celebration of the great mystery of faith reaches its culmination as we celebrate with great joy the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Tonight we celebrate our creation in God’s image and likeness, our fall, and our redemption. You might ask, “Celebrate our fall, are you serious?" I am serious. To support this bold assertion, I appeal to these stunning words of the great Exsultet, sung at the beginning of this Vigil:
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ/O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a redeemer
Think about it, it’s mind blowing: Our sin, our fault, our rejection of God did not earn us God’s wrath, but earned us Divine Mercy. How good is God? Only God can take our rejection of him, our attempt to displace him and establish ourselves on his throne, and turn us back to himself through love and not by punishing us.

The orders of nature and grace go together, the one, nature, being brought into existence by the other, grace. Created in the image and, at least initially, in the likeness, of God, human beings, made male and female, were created for communion with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. Being created for communion means being made to participate in God’s divine life - the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Stated simply, we are made for eternal life.

While the image of God is ineradicable and can never be lost, our likeness to God is lost through sin. Losing our likeness to God through sin while retaining the imago Dei, the image of God, is perhaps best described as a divorce between the orders of nature and grace. The best proof of this great divorce is death.

Death is the result of sin. Death was never meant to be. Death is a sign that something is deeply wrong with us and with the world. While death is a part of nature, and so, natural, it is only “natural” because the order of nature has been disconnected from the order of grace. Christ came to restore this vital connection. He did it by his passion, death, and resurrection, thus proving that love is not only as strong as death, but stronger than death.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, in light of Christ’s triumph, the apostle Paul taunted death:

Christ's Resurrection, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1679-81
Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (15:54b-55)
Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage through the waters of the Red Sea, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God delivers us from sin and death through the waters of baptism. This is exactly what St. Paul is getting at in our reading from Romans. “Are you unaware,” the apostle asked his readers, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In baptism we die, are buried, and rise to new life, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-5).

The new life we have in Christ does not begin at mortal death; it begins at baptism, our paschal death and resurrection. Eternal life begins with our re-birth, with our dying, being buried, and rising with Christ to new life in baptism. It’s not a dream deferred, let alone just a nice idea. Our baptismal vocation is to make God’s reign a present reality. It's not an easy call. It usually means swimming upstream against the cultural current. Living this way can even mean being killed, which is why it’s the only way to be truly alive. Our Lord told his followers, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). Speaking in ultimate terms, you can’t be killed because you already died and rose in baptism.

If Christ was not raised from the dead, then, taking a cue from Monty Python, baptism is a farcical aquatic ceremony signifying nothing at all. As St. Paul wrote to the church in ancient Corinth, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins,” before concluding, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:17.19).

The good news is, my friends, Christo anesti. Alithos anestiChrist is risen! Truly he is risen! And so, we are not the most pitiable people of all. We are the most blessed people of all because, through Christ, we have conquered death. Jesus is not merely an historical figure from the remote past, who lived a long time ago in a land far away as part of a culture that is difficult for us to understand. To view Jesus, either exclusively or primarily, as an historical figure is to “seek the living one among the dead” (Luke 24:5), like the women who, upon discovering the empty tomb, were puzzled to find the Lord gone (Luke 24:4).

My friends, Jesus Christ is alive. He remains present in us and among us by the power of his Holy Spirit until he returns in glory. Our elect, who are about to be baptized, are living proof of this reality. But the surest proof that someone has encountered the risen Lord is that s/he feels impelled to become a witness, sometimes even to the point of death. After all, martyr is simply another word for witness. So, let us go forth from this place, filled with joy, bearing witness to Christ’s death and resurrection as we wait in joyful hope for his glorious return.

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