The Lord of Time is Prince of Peace – Homily for the Mass of the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night
“On the third day He rose again”: so we profess the faith of the Church in words that go back to her earliest days (1Cor 15:4; Acts 10:40), right back to the preaching of Jesus who repeatedly predicted He would rise again on the third day (Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:63-4; Lk 24:46; Jn 2:19). But what is the significance of this timing detail in our creed? What might it say to Iyoko Koba, Mai Khuong, Kyoungrim Kang, Adelia, Richard Anthony Matthews, Alyse Kim, Nathan Wong, Jayden Tawa and Karen Chia who will be baptized, confirmed and make their first Holy Communion tonight? Or to their companions who will be received into the Church tomorrow? Or to the rest of us?
Well, first and foremost, it is a matter of historical memory. As we heard in our Gospel passage, “very early in the morning on the first day of the week, [the women] went to the tomb, just as the sun was rising” and discovered Christ had risen (Mk 16:1-7). Scripture, creed and liturgy all testify that Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday. So, from the beginning, Christians made Sunday the day of rest and worship, not Saturday as their Jewish forebears had done. Now, as we heard in our first reading tonight (Gen ch 1), Sunday was the first day of creation; that Jesus rose on that day, “just as the sun was rising”, suggests the dawn of a new creation, a whole new sense of time and light and water and humanity too.
But why did God choose the Third Day? One reason might be that Ancient Near Easterners believed that after three days a corpse corrupts and a person is dead beyond recall. So, when Jesus directed that the stone be rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, Martha protested, “Lord by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days!” (Jn 11:39 KJB) But sweet Jesus did not stinketh; in the words of Psalm 16 “God would not let His beloved know decay”. The Third Day fulfils the ancient hope that God will snatch His beloved from the jaws of death, as He did with Isaac (Gen ch 22), that in this new Isaac the finality of death will at last be overcome. For the 21 Coptic martyrs beheaded by the evil ‘Islamic State’ cult for an internet audience, for the 148 university students martyred this Holy Thursday by the equally vile Al-Shabaab terrorists simply or being Christians, for our catechumens plunged tonight into the depths of life, death and rebirth in Baptism, the Third Day is a promise of life beyond the grave.
A second resonance of the Third Day is with the story of Jonah who, captive in the belly of a whale for three days, was spewed forth safely onto the shore. So Christ’s resurrection promises our catechumens not just vindication in the end, but the possibility of liberation even now from the whales of sin, hatred, isolation and meaninglessness.
A third echo is of when God made the covenant with His people at Sinai: for it was on the Third Day that He appeared and spoke. Jesus’ rising definitively concludes the appearing and speaking of God with a new and eternal covenant. And that covenant is made with the new Israel of Christ’s faithful, with our catechumens tonight and all who renew their Baptism with them.
Like so much else in the story of salvation, then, the apparently incidental fact that Jesus rose on the Third Day turns out to be rich in significance and not just for the ancients but for us: for we, like them, are beings with only a limited number of years and opportunities with which to make our life story and hopefully make the world a better place. In the end, our most precious resource is time. But our time passes quickly and we are gone. Indeed, it seems to pass more quickly as we get older: can it already be 2015 that we traced tonight upon the Pascal candle?
Yet as time speeds up and slips between our fingers, Easter says we need not fret. The Risen One confirms that God still holds the reins of history and has not handed them over to blind laws of nature or forces of darkness. Despite the Crucifixion He has not become powerless and the universal law of death is not, after all, the final word. No, as we proclaimed once we had struck the Easter fire tonight, “Christ yesterday and today [is] the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega [for] all time belongs to Him and all ages.” Entrust your time to Him and all will be well.
What might this say to us as we look forward to the centenary of ANZAC Day and the failure of that war to end all wars; at a time, indeed, of renewed religious conflict, terrorism and other threats to peace? On Maundy Thursday we saw how Christ feeds us in the Eucharist for the ordeals of this world and washes us in Baptism in readiness for our deaths. He accompanies the ANZACs, the catechumens and all the faithful through the Valley of Death. And He teaches us to put away the sword and proclaim the Shalom of God. On Good Friday we heard how even in His silence He offers us a loud wisdom: how in time of trial we must watch and pray and forgive, and be ready to inhale that last breath from the Cross that is His Holy Spirit.
Dare we hope for an end to cruelty and for victory over death? We believe that God entered our time and space in Jesus Christ. The timeless God experienced the rhythm of time and its passing in minutes, days and years. It was marked for Him as it is for us, by birthdays and festivals, by long drawn out boredoms and all-too-short delights, by the passing of years, the sense of how little time we have left and finally the full-stop that is the tomb. But he was still the Everlasting God. We call that union of eternity with time ‘Providence’. We call our willingness to entrust our limited life-span to God’s providence ‘Faith’. And we call the conquest of the limitations of time and space that providence promises the faithful ‘Resurrection’. For Christians to profess that they believe Christ rose on the Third Day is not merely to list one more article of their creed: it is to recall why we believe any of those articles, why we have faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of our bodies and life everlasting. God raised Jesus as a promise that our history too can stretch into eternity.
That Christ rose on the Third Day liberates us to treasure the grace of the present moment, without being always anxious that our life is slipping away. It allows us to let go of the obsession with control that is behind so much of the violence of our world. It means we can model to the world a community in which people of many kinds co-exist and collaborate, as neighbours and as friends, living respectfully of each other and at peace. It enables us to hand over the future of ourselves and our world in trust to the loving hand of God – the God who came that we might have life, life to the full, eternal life (Jn 4:14; 5:24; 10:10; 11:25).
Word of Thanks after Communion of the Mass of the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 4 April 2015
Christus resurrexit! Resurrexit vere! Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!
Dear friends before our final blessing may I thank you all for joining me for my first Easter Vigil at St Mary’s Cathedral as Archbishop. It has been a beautiful Mass. For that I want to thank the Dean, Fr Paul Hilder, the cathedral clergy, and all those who prepared the Church and the Liturgy. Our Master of Ceremonies, Fr Danai Penollar and his team of helpers, have done very well throughout this mammoth week of liturgies. After faithfully serving two archbishops as MC and turning 50 this week past, Fr Danai is now to be given his own parish to run; and so as we thank him we also farewell him from the cathedral staff and welcome Fr Emmanuel Seo.
The news of Christ’s rising from the dead is the greatest news in history and it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops or at least sung as an Alleluia chorus. For this I thank Mr Thomas Wilson, director of our choir and of music in the cathedral, and the instrumentalists and choir. I shamelessly brag that ours is the best liturgical choir in this country and especially considering what a week of non-stop liturgies they have had to assist with, they have done splendidly.
On behalf of you all, I welcome our new Christians into the Church and congratulate them. I also thank their sponsors and our RCIA team for preparing them for this night.
Finally, on behalf of the Dean, clergy and staff of the cathedral, the parish and archdiocese, and my own behalf, a very Happy Easter to you and all your loved ones. May God bless you abundantly in this holiest of seasons.