Homily for the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night - St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Holy Saturday

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
31 Mar 2018

"Holy Week, Holy Baptism, Holy Penance and Holy Unction"
Homily for the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Holy Saturday

Quinoa and kale, açai powder and green tea, a FitBit and a personal trainer - these are our culture's secrets to living forever or till it feels like forever. There are even more 'out there' strategies: cosmetic, genetic or cybernetic treatments; getting yourself cloned or frozen till they have a cure; mind-to-computer uploading; and reincarnation into a younger body.

I'll leave for another day whether eternal mortal life is worth wishing for. Clearly Christians have something else in mind when they talk Resurrection. 'Resurrection' is not a paleo diet, cryo-technology or new-agery. But how do we connect with the strange Gospel tale we just heard (Mk 16:1-8) - or the rest of the Holy Week story for that matter? How could such events save, heal and elevate us?

The crucial link is the sacraments. In these Christ's Paschal mystery is remembered, its fruits applied to us here and now, and a heavenly life promised us.1 To miss the sacraments or receive them only half-heartedly, is to fail really to participate in Holy Week. For it's through the Eucharist and Priesthood that we join Jesus' Last Supper; in Confirmation and Matrimony that we experience the climax of Good Friday; and with three more sacraments that we rise from the Empty Tomb. Let me explain…

This year our cathedral parish has been privileged to accompany Sally, Richard, Saagar, Margaux and Brian on their journey to Baptism. But how did God prepare the Church herself for Baptism?2 As we bless the Baptismal Water tonight, we'll recall that at the dawn of creation the Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the well-spring of all holiness; then the Great Flood foreshadowed regeneration, an end to vice and new beginning of virtue; then the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea to freedom. The Prophets, too, called us to 'come to the water, all you who are thirsty' and promised God would 'pour clean water over [us so we] will be cleansed'.3 All this is fulfilled in Christ's baptism in the Jordan (Mt 3:13).

Yet it's Easter water we baptize with, Easter Night that we bring our catechumens to the font. Baptism is inextricably tied to Holy Week because Jesus Himself described the crucifixion as the 'Baptism' He must suffer; Jesus Himself gave forth water from His pierced side as the source of Baptism; Jesus Himself appeared at Easter to tell His disciples to go out evangelizing and baptizing (Mk 10:38; Jn 19:34; Mt 28:19-20). This the Church has done ever since (Acts 2:38,41; 8:12-13; 10:48; 16:15). As St Paul explained (Rom 6:3-11), to be baptized is to die with Christ, be buried with Christ, and be raised up with Christ to new life. Baptism is the sacrament of rebirth, purification, justification, eternal life…

Not everyone agrees. In March 1963, Moscow radio's Sunday atheism program castigated Baptism as a 'health menace' and a 'senseless and dangerous rite'. The commentator claimed thousands of babies die of pneumonia following Christening and that weak hearts in adults can be traced back to Baptism in early years. Life-expectancy in the days of the Czars, when most people were baptized, was only 32 years, he said; whereas in the modern Soviet Union, where most were not baptized, it had risen to 69!

Of course, in recent years long queues of ex-communists have sought baptism in Russia! But as recent testimony before the Ruddock Inquiry into Protection of Religious Freedom in Australia highlighted, we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia. Powerful interests now seek to marginalize religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections, cast us as 'Public Enemy No. 1'. We may not always be as free as we are now to evangelize and baptize as Jesus mandated at the first Easter.

Baptism wipes away all sin. Yet it cannot be repeated as sin, sadly, can. Hence the 'second baptism' of Confession, Penance or Reconciliation.4 Again God prepared the Church for this. From Old Testament times we heard the call to confess our sins5 and we learnt of God's boundless mercy.6 In our Readings tonight, the Prophets compared Him with a faithful husband ready to take back His unfaithful bride; described Him as ready to take pity on the evil man who repents; and said He wants to replace our stony hearts with hearts of flesh. 7

In the fullness of time Christ came absolving sins.8 Newly Risen, He passed that authority to the apostles, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit: those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven."9 So Confession is another beautiful Easter gift, stirring us to contrition and resolve to sin no more, enabling a life-long journey of conversion, reconciling us to God and the Church, and giving us 'pardon and peace'.

This precious sacrament, too, is threatened today both by neglect and attack. But priests will, we know, suffer punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of Confession. For Confession is a privileged encounter between penitent and God; here the Christian enters the silence and secrecy of the Tomb, to be re-Eastered; and no earthly authority may enter there.

So the Easter sacrament of Baptism regenerates the spirit; the Easter sacrament of Penance renews the heart; but it is the Easter sacrament of Anointing that restores the body. The Sixth Reading of the Easter Vigil calls us to "learn where length of days is, where life, enlightenment, peace".10 Not, it seems, in dieting and gym, however good they may be. Not in the secular sacrament for the sick and dying, euthanasia, either. No, following Jesus' example and mandate to heal the sick, St James directed (Jas 5:14-5): "If someone is sick, call for the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil… This prayer of faith will save him from his sickness, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven."

The women go to the Tomb today to anoint the broken body of Jesus and instead find it is risen. Like the Church after the Royal Commission and amidst many humiliations and challenges, like each of us when we feel broken of body or bruised of spirit: we need the healing power of God, anointing the sick person, even the sick Church, so we can be rebuilt, given new purpose and strength.

There's something even better than açai and kale here. The Maundy Thursday sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders teach the Church to live with Christ for worship and service. The Good Friday sacraments of Holy Confirmation and Holy Matrimony reveal she must die with Christ for inspiration and love. And the Easter sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Penance and Holy Unction show we must repent and let Christ transform our spirits, hearts and bodies, that He might raise them up to eternal life.

Word of Thanks after the Easter Vigil
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Holy Saturday

Dear friends: before our final blessing may I thank you all for joining me for this celebration of Easter at St Mary's Cathedral. It has been a truly beautiful Mass. For that I want to thank the Dean Fr Don Richardson, the Cathedral Precinct Manager Helen Morassut, the Sacristan Mr Chris Backhouse, our Master of Ceremonies Fr Emmanuel Seo, and our team of cathedral clergy and staff, ushers, bell-ringers, acolytes and ministers, our deacons and seminarians. They've worked hard all Holy Week, prepared this Cathedral-church, rehearsed and then assisted at this Mass and many other ceremonies: I am deeply grateful.

The news of Christ's rising from the dead is the greatest news in history and deserves to be shouted from the rooftops or at least sung as an Alleluia chorus. For this we thank Mr Thomas Wilson, the organists and choir: they have done splendidly yet again this year. I also thank our RCIA team for preparing our catechumens for this night, with their sponsors and all those who have contributed to their journey of faith.

On behalf of you all, I congratulate our new Christians, 'Mary Michelle' Sze Yin Tan, 'Richard Luke' Tang, 'Samuel Joseph' Muni, 'Marguerite-Marie Rita' Penwarden, and 'Jacob' Ao Liu. Welcome to the Church! We need your enthusiasm and ideas now more than ever as the Church goes through this period of regeneration.

Finally, on behalf of the Dean, clergy and staff of the cathedral, and my own behalf, a very Happy Easter to you and to all your loved ones. May God bless you abundantly in this holiest of seasons.

1 CCC 1084-90, 1111.

2 CCC 1217-28.

3 On the dawn of creation: First Reading of the Vigil: Gen 1:1-2:2 (and Ps 103). On the great flood: Fourth Reading of the Vigil: Isa 54:5-14 (cf. 1Pet 3:20). On the liberation of Israel at the Red Sea: Third Reading of the Vigil: Ex chs 14 & 15. On the Prophets call to the water: Fifth Reading of the Vigil: Isa 55:1-11; ch. 12; Seventh Reading of the Vigil: Ezek 36:16-28.

4 CCC 1446 citing Tertullian and Trent.

5 Lev 5:5-6; 16:21; Num 5:6-7; 1Sam 7:6; Neh ch 9; Ps 32:5; 51 etc.

6 Num 14:19-21; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5; 103:12; Dan 9:9; Isa 1:18; 43:25-26; 55:7; Jer 31:34; Mic 7:18-19; Acts 3:19; Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14; 1Jn 1:9; Heb 10:17 etc.

7 Fourth reading of the Vigil: Isa 54:5-14; Fifth Reading of the Vigil: Isa 55:1-11; Seventh Reading of the vigil: Ezek 36:16-28.

8 Mk 2:1-12; Mt 9:1-8; Lk 5:20; 7:48 etc.

9 Jn 20:19-23. Cf. Mt 16:18-19; 18:15-20. Confessing and forgiving sins was already practiced in the New Testament period: e.g. Mt 3:6; Lk 17:3-4; Acts 24:16; Eph 4:31-32; Jam 5:16; 1Jn 1:9.

10 Sixth Reading of the Vigil; Bar 3:9-15,32-4:4.