James Joyce, the great Irish writer, once famously referred to the Catholic Church as “Here comes everybody”. My cynical older brother used to call us “a motley crew”. But your Bishop looks out at this beautiful gathering of men and women of faith and gives thanks to God for His goodness to each and everyone of you. Before my eyes are youngsters and people my age, children, parents, the whole mix of backgrounds, experiences and aspirations that make up a truly Catholic Church. Today you are here with loved ones, family, friends. I see children looking at me wondering if I am the Easter bunny in a funny hat! And all of you, all of us, are one in being here because we believe and we profess a truth. It is the most important truth with the greatest force to change us for the better forever: Jesus Christ is raised from the Dead. He is risen! He is truly risen! Amen, Alleluia.
Without this truth, as Paul said so clearly, our faith is in vain. Our faith would be a waste of time and the human life and human death of Jesus of only passing interest. But because He is risen is a real and objective truth, it becomes the most exciting reality of all time. It is the YES of God to our humanity, a humanity that otherwise would have been hopelessly locked in its own limitations and its never ending fruitless struggles to find meaning and hope, joy and peace for ever restless, unsatisfied hearts. That is why when we proclaim this truth, Jesus is risen from the dead, never again to be subjected to death, our profession of faith tells the world that His resurrection has changed everything. His resurrection brings us life forever! “The heart has only to believe if we are to be justified. The lips have only to make confession if we are to be saved.”
If after this Mass, you or I should be stopped in the street and asked “Is Christ risen?”, we would surely say this is what we believe. We would do so in union with the Church throughout the world beginning with Pope Benedict who earlier today fulfilled his role as universal pastor with the same words. But if we were asked to explain it in greater detail, I suspect the response, the narratives we would offer, would be different in word and phrasing from one of us to another. We would express the same faith. But the attempt to grapple with the mystery would lead us to emphasize this element or that. But be not afraid, my friends! That is exactly what the first disciples of Jesus had to struggle to do as well. They knew that it had happened. They knew it was true. They confessed it from that first Easter morning! But to put it an explanation or an accounting of this extraordinary reality into words was not easy then. Nor is it now.
Look at the personalities in today’s Gospel. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to embalm a dead body and found an empty tomb. She thought the body stolen. She mistook Jesus for a gardener and when he called her name, she recognized him as her Lord. But she wanted to embrace him, give him a hug. Peter and John ran ahead. John deferred to Peter, the leader. Peter was confused until later Jesus appeared to Him and to the twelve. John too was mystified but later said “He saw and believed”. But neither one yet understood the Scriptures. They did not grasp what it meant when he rose from the dead. It was truly Jesus but this same one who died is here like us but also profoundly different.
Why is this so? We struggle to understand what we believe because what happened that first Easter never happened before and will never happen again! Jesus’ resurrection is the triumph of God’s love made manifest in his body but a body now glorified. He now shows us a new way of being human because our human life has become transformed. What is his as God’s son is reflected in his resurrected body that in turn offers us the way to participate in God’s life. Pope Benedict calls this an “evolutionary leap”. It vaults our human condition into a new reality in which we become sharers in divine life even now while we are living our earthly life. The One born of Mary is the eternal Son of the Father. When he became one with us, he did so in order to fulfill the Father’s eternal desire to take away from us all the sin and folly of our human and do more than restore us. He wanted to transform us to share truly and really in the life and love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus’ obedience, freely and eagerly doing what God asked him to do, led him first to share our life and then to take that life to the tree of Calvary and give it up. This is the great act that saved us. He died out of a love that is mutual and eternal between Father and Son. When he takes it back glorified three days later, their eternal Love for us triumphs in this world when it seemed to all those present three days before death had won on that cross.
But not only did death not win that dark, bleak Friday afternoon. Love did win. Life conquered death! Life, human life, was expiated, forgiven, cleansed and raised up in the triumph of God’s Son. As God’s eternal Son he could not die forever. But as God’s Son he took his humanity with him through a human death and kept it with him in his resurrection. And now he calls us to receive his gift of life that does not die, life that is ours now and forever!
That life and love is now available to us. Not only available, that life is now ours through baptism, Eucharist and the pouring of the Holy Spirit into us. We, baptized disciples of His Son, live our human lives differently than before. Paul says “we are a new creation!” We live now, not ourselves, but Christ lives in us! It is human life but life in a new key, human life that already shares in the love pouring forth from the divine life that is God’s spirit within us.
How can we not be joyful, loving, hopeful, faithful, ever within our hearts at peace with ourselves, one another and the whole Church spread throughout the world, calling out Christ’s message to all humankind! He is risen. In Him we all have a new life to God and for one another! What matters now is that we embrace what is given and bring it into a world that needs to be helped by us even if they don’t know it, even if they don’t want it. The faith that we profess gives us joy and peace but it also calls us to live conscious of how Jesus has changed us by joining us to Him and him to us. That is the kind of challenge that I call the new life of opportunity. Our lives are different because they literally share divine life and love from within. God’s love is in our hearts, He is guiding our lives. We are the “new yeast” in the world to help the world. When he gave us the Eucharist the night before he died, he also gave us the example of washing the feet of his disciples and told us to do the same for one another and for the world. Once given Christ’s life we are called and sent into the world to be champions of life, especially to champion the life of the poor, the vulnerable, the innocent, the marginalized.
There are many opportunities today for doing good and showing the world the real meaning of human life in the light of God’s love. Think of the victims of natural disasters as in Haiti where today most of the suffering still live in tents. Your generosity has built houses and schools thanks to the Pope’s Nuncio who husbands your donations wisely. Think of the refugees in Africa, Asia and Europe, victims of war and exploitation. Catholic relief Services is there with them. One of our priests is in Iraq caring for our young people in uniform. There is still a war raging there. But he says five and six Masses every Sunday and visits the sick and the wounded on and off the base every week.
As men and women endowed with God’s life, we are called to defend life, human life, in all its stages: in the womb, at the end of life’s natural cycle and in all the places where the bitter fruits of deprivation and exploitation hem people in or the profiteers in human innocent human life traffic youngsters for their own gain. The world needs us who live Christ’s life to defend religious freedom which is threatened not only in countries like China and some Arab states. Religious freedom is suffering as well from encroachments by courts and special interest groups in Western Europe and our own country. We have a responsibility which is an opportunity to defend life when human rights are denied by dictators of right and left. We can make a difference when the quest for excessive profits, the fruit of selfish greed, threatens to uproot families and leave them homeless. When power seeks to impinge on the rights of free speech, free association and freedom of movement, we have yet another chance to be champions of a life that opens up opportunities for others. When we care for our own sick, when we reach out a hand to a neighbor in difficulty, we are showing them that we see them as Christ sees them and we care for them as he does for he is in us and we in Him.
In the first reading Peter stood up to speak and bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only news that is always new, the only news that is always good. This Easter day, we who share in the joy of the resurrection are the new witnesses. Before me I see your faces, the faces of the new disciples, the new apostles, like Mary and the other holy women, like Peter and John. You are the ones who today live Christ’s life and by your lives proclaim his life and love is alive and active in the world! He is here working in and through you and me. He is risen. He will never die again. He is Jesus, the Son of God made man. He is the victor of sin and death. And we rejoice. We give thanks for He, the living one, is with us always even till the end of time.