Easter: Faith, hope and love

Easter Sunday | Jn 20:1-18

Within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, there is a very small structure known as the Edicule. As far as archaeologists and historians can tell, this tiny chapel houses the remains of the tomb in which Jesus was placed after he died. The Edicule recently went through a major restoration in which was uncovered the original stone ledge on which the body of Jesus was placed. If you’re interested, National Geographic made an excellent documentary of the process. When I was studying for a few months in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in this incredible space. In spite of the early Mass time (5:30!), it was an incredible experience. While there, I was struck by the fact that I was in the very place where the dead body of Jesus was placed. Of this, I could be quite certain. I was in the place where, in the Gospel today, the beloved disciple entered, saw that the body of Jesus was gone and believed that Jesus had rose from the dead. While in the tomb early in the morning, I began to question myself. Although I knew that this was the place where Jesus was placed after his death, did I, like the beloved disciple, really believe that Jesus rose again? This was a harder question for me to answer. It is a question we can all ask ourselves this Easter morning.
Edicule (source)
Having faith in the Resurrection of Jesus is not always an easy thing to do, yet there are reasons why I continue to believe. Believing in the Resurrection can be difficult at times. It is not as though there is security footage that records the event happening! There are, however, reasons why I believe. I believe because of the testimony of the apostles who claimed to witness the risen Jesus. Peter and the others - who were so afraid when Jesus was crucified that they all fled - gave their lives for the message that Jesus rose from the dead. I believe because of the holiness of the saints, the Christians who have lived and continue to live lives of extraordinary service and love. These saints (whether they be the famous ones or those who live their lives in obscurity) give me hope. They fill me with faith that the Risen Christ lives in them. I believe because I have experienced some small part of the life Jesus comes to bring. I have experienced his forgiveness and love. I have been inspired by his words I read in the Gospel. What are the reasons why you believe in the Resurrection? Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus is not easy, but there are reasons to believe.

When we have faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, it leads us to have a sense of hope as we go through life. This hope is founded in the trust that God will fulfill the promises that he made to us in Jesus. Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby conquering sin and evil, so he will be victorious over all the evil and troubles of our current age and raise each of us up on the last day. This hope is important because there are times when life can seem dark. Personal struggles with health, finances or relationships can contribute to this darkness. The world can also seem like a dark place when we see the various problems and evil in our world. The wars and terrorism. Politicians’ rhetoric which demeans the value of human life, whether it be of the unborn, the aged, the immigrant, the poor and those of other religions, cultures and backgrounds. The hope we have that is grounded in the Resurrection should fundamentally influence how we confront this darkness. Recently, I heard a Bishop describe it this way (Bishop Caggiano). There are two times in each day when it is dark: at dusk, when the day is ending, and at dawn, when a new day is breaking. When we see darkness, each of us needs to decide where we want to stand, in the dusk or in the dawn. When we have faith in the Resurrection, we choose to stand in the dawn. We choose not to focus only on the darkness but on the light that has dawned with the Resurrection of Jesus and the goodness that we can see all around us if we are looking. Faith in the Resurrection leads us to live in the dawn. It makes us people of hope.

Faith in the Resurrection should also inspire us to love like Jesus loved. What does it mean to be truly powerful? What kinds of actions have the capacity to make true and lasting changes in the world? Throughout history, people and governments have thought that power consists in physical strength and domination. This continues to lead to all kinds of violence and oppression. Jesus was put to death by people who thought that this is what power looked like. In his Resurrection, however, Jesus showed that true power is found in love. By giving his life out of love, Jesus conquered death and brought goodness and life into our lives. Love is the true power that creates lasting change in our life and the lives of others. Easter gives us a very simple way to test the quality of our love, how powerful it is. When I meet with a couple preparing for marriage, our initial meeting usually goes a little something like this:
Me: Why do you want to get married?
Couple: Because we love each other.
Me: How can you be sure that you love each other?
Couple: ummm… (while silently wishing I would stop asking stupid questions!)
From this, we usually get into a good conversation about what true love is. We talk about how it is more than a feeling, that true loves means sacrificing yourself for the one you love. I then explain that there is a very simple test to know if we really do love someone. I first heard about this test from one of my former teachers. He explained: 
In order to know if we truly love someone we need only ask if our love for that person has made them better.
A man truly loves his fiancée if she has become a better person on account of his loving her. A woman truly loves her fiancé if he has become a better person on account of her loving him. This is the simple, yet profound test of true love. In his death and Resurrection, Jesus showed the power of this kind of love. Faith in his Resurrection should lead us to love like he did.

Although we know for certain where the tomb of Jesus was that the Gospel today tells us Simon Peter and the beloved disciple entered, believing that Jesus rose from the dead is an act of faith. Faith, however, is not blind. There are good reasons to believe. Faith in the Resurrection reorients our entire life. It helps us have hope – to be people who live in the dawn – and inspires us to love like Jesus. When the beloved disciple saw the empty tomb, he believed. Do you?

Now you know the end of the story

Easter Vigil

“I just wish I knew how the story ended”. These words were said to me by a man who was going through a difficult time in his life. So much seemed to be going wrong for him. The uncertainty about how things would work out in the future caused him a great deal of anxiety and fear. “I wish I knew how the story ended”. Although we have perhaps not said exactly these words, the sentiment is probably something we have all felt and expressed. People with health problems wonder how things will turn out. Students struggling to get into their school of choice worry about whether they will be accepted or not. Those in relationships that are strained worry that things may never improve. Individuals looking for work wonder if their search will ever be successful. “I wish I knew how the story ended”. How would our life change if we knew the end of our story?

Throughout the various readings of the Easter Vigil, we get the chance to hear the incredible story of God’s interaction with humanity throughout the ages and we discover anew that ultimately God, love and life wins in the end. When I was younger, I really got into reading long stories that were split up over a series of books: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Narnia series and the Harry Potter series. I was amazed at how the plot of these books progressed with its various ups and downs and ultimate climax. I admired the creativity of the authors who could fashion these incredible stories with such creativity and planning. One reason why I find the Bible so interesting and beautiful is because of the incredible story that we find there. Although the Bible is incredibly diverse, composed over thousands of years, in various languages and genres and expressing a variety of viewpoints, there is a unity in the Bible as it tells the drama of the relationship between God and humanity. The plot of this story is full of ups and downs. During the readings of the Easter Vigil we heard some highlights of the story. After creating this good world, God made humanity in his image to be in a relationship with him and steward creation. Although God is always faithful to this relationship, humanity sometimes turns their back on God. Time and again, however, God brings humanity back to himself and liberates them from their enemies, as in the Exodus from Egypt. Through the prophets, God promised an ultimate liberation and victory from all that oppressed his people. To accomplish this, he sent his beloved son, who revealed the depths of God’s love and died to save us. As we heard in the Gospel, hate and death did not have the last word. As the men announced to the surprised woman in the Gospel, he has risen! With the apostles who came to the empty tomb, we should stand in amazement at the ending of the story that plays out between God and his people over the centuries: God, love and life wins!
Resurrection, Raphael
When we were baptized in water, we enter into the incredible story of salvation. At baptism, the story of God’s interaction with humanity becomes our story. The victorious ending of that story becomes the victorious ending of our story. At the Easter Vigil, we renew our baptismal promises and are sprinkled with the newly-blessed water. It is fitting that we enter into the story of salvation through water. Water, that basic element of life, flows through the story of salvation that we heard in the readings like an unbroken stream. Over and over, God creates, saves and renews humanity through water. In the creation account in Gen 1-2, the world starts as water. God makes dryland for his creation by separating the waters. At the climax of the Exodus event (Ex 14-15), God saved the people of Israel from the pursuing Egyptian army by allowing Israel to pass through the waters of the sea and having the waters cover their enemies. Through the prophet Isaiah (Isa 55), God invites everyone who thirsts to “come to the waters”. Here, God promises a future full of life and hope to his people who have been exiled in Babylon. To the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 36), God declares that he will “sprinkle clean water” upon his people, cleansing them from their sins and renewing his relationship with them. The theme of water runs all the way to Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he tells us how, through the waters of baptism, we are united not only with Jesus’ death, but also with his resurrection. Through the waters of baptism, we are linked forever to Jesus and his victory. Therefore, the end of our own story will also be victorious as it concludes with our own resurrection.

Knowing the victorious end of our story should transform us, the baptised, into a people of hope. You have probably all had the experience where you sit down to watch a movie with a group of people and invariably one person in the group who has seen the movie spoils it for everyone else by giving away the ending. Getting told the end of a movie usually ruins it. Knowing the end of our personal story does just the opposite as it helps us to live with a greater sense of hope. We should not confuse hope with some naïve optimism. We all encounter struggles and suffering in life. We do not expect an existence free from this. Hope means trusting in what God has promised us through Jesus. Throughout history, God always liberated and renewed his people. He accomplished the ultimate victory in Jesus. Hope means trusting that this God loves and cares for us personally and will, in the end, give us eternal life. That we are called to be people of hope is wonderfully symbolized in the Easter Vigil through the image of fire. We began the liturgy by lighting a fire, the symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. From this fire was lit the Easter candle. When we renew our baptismal vows, we receive a flame lit from this candle as a reminder of our baptism when we were given a candle lit from the Easter candle and were told to “receive the light of Christ” and to “keep the flame of faith alive in our hearts”. Baptized people are supposed to always carry in their hearts the flame of the resurrection, God’s victory over sin and death and our own destiny. We are called to be people of hope.

As we renew our baptismal vows, let us recommit ourselves to living as a people of hope. We know the end of our story: eternal life with a loving God. Knowing the end of our story can fill us with strength as we deal with the struggles and challenges of life. Tonight, let us rekindle the flame of hope in our lives by reminding ourselves the in the end God, life and love wins.

Seeing glory in the Cross

Good Friday | Passion of John (18:1-19:42)

On Good Friday we focus on the cross. Although we are accustomed to seeing the cross displayed in art and even around our necks, for the first several hundred years of Christianity, followers of Jesus rarely, if ever, used the cross as a religious symbol. Crucifixions were still being carried out. To die on a cross was a humiliating and terrible prospect. It was meted out to those who rebelled against Rome, to deter others who might do the same. In fact, one of the earliest depictions of Jesus on the Cross was not created by a Christian. This is a piece of graffiti that was etched on the wall of a building on the Palatine hill in Rome, sometime around the year 200. This image depicts a young person worshipping a crucified man who has the head of a donkey. Beneath the image is a Greek inscription that reads, “Alexamenos worships [his] god”. Apparently, this graffiti was made to mock a Christian by the name of Alexamenos. Early Christians were ridiculed because the man they revered as God died the humiliating and terrible death of a criminal. At times it must have been difficult for Christians to see beyond the shame of the cross.
Tracing of the etched grafitto, c. 200
In the Passion account we hear on Good Friday, John the Evangelist presents a radically different perspective of how we should view the cross. Depending on what actions and words they focus on, each Gospel writer paints a different picture of Jesus on the cross in order to convey their understanding of the significance of Jesus’ actions. John, without denying the fact that Jesus’ Passion was terrible, wants us to see a deeper truth. John communicates the message that Jesus’ Passion is something glorious. Consider the following examples.

The arrest of Jesus (Jn 18:1-14) becomes a glorious event.Just as is the case now, at the time of Jesus, the arrest of someone was a humiliating spectacle. Today we occasionally see on TV a so-called “perp walk” when some high-ranking figure is put in handcuffs and paraded in front of the press. In the Passion account we find in John, Jesus’ arrest is anything but humiliating. There is no kiss of Judas recorded; Jesus is in full control of the situation (cf. v. 4). When the band of soldiers announce they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus replies “I AM” (v. 5), thereby calling himself by the name of God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Ex 3). After Jesus says this, John tells us that the crowd fell to the ground (Jn 18:6), an action that people typically did in the presence of the Divine (cf. Gen 32:31; Ex 33:20). John, therefore, has transformed the arrest of Jesus, an event which should have been humiliating, into a theophany, a manifestation of God himself. It is something glorious.

In his crucifixion and death, John conveys the message that Jesus is like the Passover lamb.In doing this, John wants to convince us that the suffering and death of Jesus was not in vain but was part of God’s plan to save us. From the Exodus story, we remember that Moses was instructed to apply the blood of the Passover lamb to the Israelite’s doorposts so that the angel of death would pass them by (Ex 12). The blood of the lamb, therefore, is the means by which the Israelites are liberated from death and slavery. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is linked to this Passover lamb. At the start of the Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “behold the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29). In his telling of the passion and death of Jesus, John the Evangelist has left several clues that help us see that Jesus is the lamb of God. First, John has altered the chronology of Jesus’ death. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is clearly a Passover meal (Matt 26:17). In John’s Gospel, however, when the Jewish authorities bring Jesus to Pilate – after the Last Supper – the Passover has not yet happened (Jn 18:28). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is dying around the time the Passover lambs are being slaughtered for the Passover. In addition, note the way that the sponge soaked with wine is conveyed to Jesus’ lips. It is put on a sprig of hyssop (19:29). In the Synoptic Gospels the sponge is conveyed to Jesus’ mouth using some kind of stick (Mk 15:35-36; Matt 27:47-48). Hyssop is not mentioned. So why does John make note of hyssop? Probably because in the story of the Exodus, a hyssop branch was used to apply the blood of the lamb to the doorposts (Ex 12:12). Finally, John tells us that, unlike the other soldiers, Jesus’ legs were not broken. This, John declares, was done to fulfill the scripture “not a bone of it will be broken” (Jn 19:36). The itin this passage refers to the paschal lamb (Ex 12:46). Instead, Jesus’ side is pierced and blood and water flow out. John wants us to realize that Jesus is some kind of new paschal lamb. As the blood of that lamb saved the Israelites from death, so the blood that Jesus shed on the cross liberates us from sin and death. Jesus did not die in vain. His death has a purpose.

In these and various other ways, John communicates that the Passion of Jesus is something glorious. In doing this, he is certainly not denying that Jesus suffered terribly. John, however, wants us to look beyond the pain and humiliation to see the deeper meaning of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. When we see what Jesus did for us, we realize the depths of God’s love for us. That God loves like that is something glorious. By the blood he shed on the cross, Jesus, the new Passover lamb, liberates us from sin and death. The Cross has been transformed from an instrument of torture and violence into a victorious object that conquers death. This is something glorious.

The way in which John invites us to see the Passion of Jesus challenges us to view our own suffering in a different light. We all carry our own crosses. Health problems. Difficulties at work. Struggles in marriage or some other significant relationship. Jesus did not come to take away our suffering, but to be with us in our suffering and help give it meaning. We believe that when we unite our sufferings with that of Jesus, they can bring us and others closer to God. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians: “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). 

On this day, we have the opportunity to venerate the cross. When we look at the cross, we see first the pain and humiliation of Jesus. Like the early Christians, it can be difficult for us to look beyond this. In his Gospel, John invites us to take a leap of faith. He encourages us to see glory when we look at Jesus on the Cross. This challenges us to view our own sufferings differently. When you look at the cross today – Jesus’ and your own - can you take this leap of faith?