The joy and peace of last night’s Easter Vigil was shattered this morning by the news that over 200 people were killed in bomb attacks in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. The well-synchronized explosions were timed to occur during Easter morning mass. Christians and other people of good will throughout the world join in prayer for the victims of this heartless atrocity on the most joyous of Christian festivals. What follows is my homily from the vigil…
Millions of people were deeply awed when Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, rushed into Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns. Afterwards, questions were raised about the relic, which many people didn’t know was kept there or even existed. It was brought to Paris from Constantinople in the 13th century, but its history dates back centuries before that. Like the nails from the cross, also kept in the cathedral, the Shroud of Turin, and the face cloth from the tomb of Jesus, the Sudarium of Oviedo, which is preserved in Spain, no one really knows if they are historically authentic, but they have been carefully preserved for nearly two thousand years for a reason.
We were also reminded this week of the immensity of the universe as we now observe it through an ever-expanding assembly of ever-more powerful space telescopes, infra-red telescopes, radio telescopes, and old-fashioned terrestrial telescopes. For the first time, astronomers photographed a black hole, 55 million light years distant.
We live in a dauntingly vast universe. So big, it scares some of my cosmology students and many people conclude that this means that God cannot possibly exist. Our lives, the life of Jesus, and the life of the earth itself count for less than an inconsequential eyeblink in cosmic history. Or so it might seem. These two events are not unrelated to our vigil tonight.
I am reminded of a wonderful book by the English priest and scholar J. B. Phillips, who translated the entire New Testament and parts of the Hebrew scriptures into modern English back in the 1950s because the young people in his care didn’t understand the language of the Authorized Version. His later book is called Your God is Too Small. It’s still worth reading because it touches the right nerve. The universe is not too big. Our imaginations are too small to fathom the vast and glorious wonders of Creation, much less God and the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption. But it takes faith as well as courage not to squeeze all the wonder out because we can’t think big enough.
The resurrection also seemed like nonsense to the Apostles, and the women’s story still seems like nonsense to many people. To be honest, it takes a lot of faith to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s much easier to imagine his disciples sneaking the body away and launching the greatest fraud the world has even seen,
as was afterwards claimed. Or as was claimed a couple of hundred years later, that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but was revived and later shipped off with Mary Magdalene to France where they lived happily ever after. Or that the body of Jesus was taken down and tossed into a ditch somewhere, a notion no one even thought of until late in the twentieth century and for which there isn’t the slightest hint of evidence. Somehow, those frightened women, cowering fishermen, and a failed tax collector don’t seem to have been very good at scheming and swindling – except one, and we won’t talk about him tonight. He wasn’t there anyway.
But Peter ran to see. We learn from the Gospel of John that the beloved disciple ran even faster, and possibly for different reasons. And to tell the truth, it’s all a jumble – none of the gospels agree with each other in every detail, from the time of day to the number of women, and Luke notes that there were a number of them who are not named, or even how they found out that the tomb was empty. I like that. It reminds me of accounts of a traffic accident; everyone has a different viewpoint. If everybody agreed in every detail, it would argue for collision collusion.
What the gospels agree about is what counts: the women didn’t expect the tomb to be open much less empty. They were scared out of their wits and ran to get help. They thought the body of Jesus had been stolen. And when Peter and John and the others came, they found only the burial wrappings. What convinced all of them was an encounter with the living Jesus.
History pivots on the story of Jesus, whether anyone believes he rose from the dead or not. But the story of Jesus ultimately focuses on the Resurrection. St. Paul put it simply enough: if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all human beings most to be pitied” [1 Cor 15: 13-19].
Even if authentic, relics such as the Crown of Thorns, the Shroud of Turin, and the Sudarium do not prove the Resurrection today any more than they did before. The empty tomb did not prove that Christ had risen, only that his body was gone. The preservation of the tomb itself, the Crown of Thorns, and the other objects is a sign of enduring faith; not the cause of faith but its consequence, the result of a living encounter with the risen Jesus.
So the message of Easter is no different for us today than it was for Mary Magdelene, the other Mary, Joanna, Susanna, the other women, as Luke calls them, or Peter, John, and the other disciples. We, too, must learn to believe, especially because we do not see, not at first anyway. That message is not simply about the triumph of Jesus over the grim reality of death. It is about the resurrection of humankind, about the rebirth of hope, the end of the reign of sin and death, a universe made forever new. It is also about our own death and resurrection. Paul, the earliest Christian writer of all, put it so simply: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? […] If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him.” It is a message made even more urgent as America marks the 20th anniversary today of the Columbine shootings… and now the dreadful attacks in Sri Lanka.
Our new life in Christ is not some future thing, postponed till the Parousia. It is now, it has already begun. Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus reveals itself in life being renewed again and again, in fact being renewed forever. That is the life of love and justice, of peace-making, (perhaps today especially) of forgiveness and reconciliation, of hope and sacrifice, a life devoted to truth and freedom. To live in that Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is truly to rise beyond death. That is the gift we celebrate this night. For Christ is truly risen. Amen. Hallelujah!