Homily for the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night
This week the world has been mourning the loss not of a person but of a building. More than eight centuries old, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was a wonder of Christian architecture and a centre of Western civilisation. Having survived wars of religion, revolutions and two world wars, it took only minutes for fire to gut the roof and bring down the central spire. Though many priceless artefacts and relics were lost, the crown of thorns with which Christ was tormented in the first Holy Week was saved.
Easter begins with a fire and the irony will not be lost on the French as they light their Easter fires this year. And yet for Europeans Easter bonfires have always represented new life through the return of light after a long winter. Though it comes in autumn in our hemisphere, Easter marks an end to summer bushfires that enable the eucalypts to germinate and regenerate.
So what is this new life through fire? Well, for those without faith, God enters like a consuming fire (Mt 3:11-2; Heb 12:29) and Christ as ‘the light of the world’ (Jn 1:4-9; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-6,46). Christians are lit like candles from that fire to become ‘children of light’ and ‘torches for the world’. Secondly, for those without passion, God brings ardour to cold souls, warmth to frozen liaisons, fire to tired bellies. And thirdly, inferno purifies. Precious metals are refined by fire. Aborigines use smoke and Christians ashes, to purify hearts and relationships. From our Easter Candle the newly baptised will take flame and be charged: “You have been enlightened by Christ: walk always as children of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.”
So, for those grieving in Paris, Easter promises different flames – of purpose, passion and purification. But do we need such things here in Australia? Only a few years ago our culture was mired in moral relativism. We had been through a sexual revolution, a feminist revolution, a technological revolution. When Gordon Gekko declared in the 1987 movie, Wall Street, that “Greed is good”, he spoke for a new age. No more was virtue to be found in discipline and self-sacrifice, in life-long commitments and cultivating character. Now each person was their own project, choosing their own version of the good life, picking and revising short-term values and loyalties, walking over others to get what they wanted. Like Pontius Pilate on the first Good Friday, hearing Jesus say that “Those on the side of truth listen to My voice”, our culture responded “Truth? What’s that?” (Jn 18:28)
There were upsides to this revolution. Much greater freedom to be who we really are or want to be. Less interference by others. Greater affluence, opportunity and satisfaction – at least for some. But there was damage also. Too many families fell apart. Young people lacked direction. The old and weak were often abandoned. Drugs, depression, self-harm escalated. The culture of the self didn’t deliver the happiness it promised.
In such an age Popes John Paul and Benedict appeared like firebrands igniting direction, zeal and renewal; preaching eternal values like life and love, community and tradition. As Jesus went through the Temple, over-turning money-changers’ tables and insisting there is more to life than short-term profits, so the Church called us to more and better. Every Easter we are confronted with the reality of sin, in ourselves and in our world, the cruel things it does, the ways it disfigures. Human beings need more than freedom from; we need to know what freedom is for. We need moral truth, even some absolutes, and we need to convert to living such truth.
The Easter fire, then, is a symbol of many things. Dear catechumens, Ashley, Mahesh and Sadrul: like all Christians, you are called tonight to be Easter fires offering our world purpose, passion and purification.
What else does Easter say to our times? Well, like events at Notre Dame this week, Easter begins with fire but ends with water. Australia is no longer the morally chaotic, non-judgmental, I’m-OK-you’re-OK place it once was. Instead of the age of self, ours is the age of indignation. Our leaders are advised to go on the attack. Our mainstream media behave like sharks in a feeding frenzy. In the twitterverse there are no limits to what people say against each other. Self-restraint and civility are a bygone etiquette.
Again, these cultural shifts have their pluses. At least there is right and wrong again. Abuse, discrimination and bullying are no longer tolerated. Power is scrutinized, its exercise criticized. We demand more of each other than just the pursuit of self-interest. The commandments are back, even if they look rather different and we’re not sure how many there are.
But there is continuing damage to the social fabric, and so to individual lives. A rolling series of public inquiries is discrediting our institutions, and confidence in political processes and traditional authority is at an all-time low. In this milieu, the indignation industry can stir up instant public anger through the social media. “Crucify him, crucify him” is a cry as easily manufactured today as it was in Jesus’ day.
Well, if our ceremonies began with fire, our readings and ritual turn now to water. As God created a world with clouds and seas that was very good, so He continues to wash and sustain us (Gen 1:1-2:1; Ps 103). As God promised Noah that the Great Flood would never to be repeated, so He offers us an unshakeable covenant of peace (Isa 54:5-14). As God led the Jews through the Red Sea to freedom, so He promises salvation to the nations through the waters of rebirth (Ex 14:15-15:6,17-8). As God pledged to cleanse unfaithful Israel with clean water and give her a new heart, so He vows that we shall be His people and He will be our God (Ezek 36:16-28). And if God did all this through the death and resurrection of His son, He enables us to enter into that decease and renaissance through Baptism (Rom 6:3-11). Easter is fire and water, demand and mercy, dying and rising.
If to the era just past, God sent popes as firebrands to preach the fiery side of Easter – the need for purpose, passion and purification – so to our time He has sent Pope Francis to reveal God’s gentle rains and watery depths of creativity, compassion and clemency. With Jesus before His trial, the Holy Father says only those without sin should cast the first stone. With Jesus on the cross, he says “Forgive them Father” and “Come with me to Paradise”.
The blood, sweat and tears of human bodily life; the wood, iron and vinegar of human manufacture: all are brought to the fire and water of Easter for transformation. We look to you, our dear catechumens Ashley, Mahesh and Sadrul, to be like Easter fires sparking purpose, passion and purification. But we also need you to be like Easter water, demonstrating creativity, compassion and clemency. As thousands stood by Notre Dame this week staring or crying, praying or chanting, they entrusted the future of the church to Our Lady of Sorrows. The French President declared his nation’s determination to rebuild. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, we hear a similar cry, the call of God to the young Francis of Assisi, to our catechumens, to all the Church of Australia in 2019: “Go and Rebuild my Church”.
Word of Thanks after the Easter Vigil
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney
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 soon-to-be Master of Ceremonies Fr Lewi Barakat, our deacons and seminarians, and our team of cathedral clergy and staff, ushers, bell-ringers, acolytes and ministers. 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.
In particular I want to record my thanks tonight to Fr Emmanuel Seo, who has now completed his term as my Master of Ceremonies. He has done an outstanding job at keeping me on the straight and narrow, as well as those assisting me and those hosting me for various liturgies, not just here in the cathedral but throughout the Archdiocese. Thank you Emmanuel.
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: Ashley Hoyoung Kim, in Baptism and Confirmation Lucy Catherine; Mahesh Asanka Oliver, now Isaiah Mateo; and Sadrul Amin, now Vincent. Welcome to the Church! We need your enthusiasm and ideas now more than ever as the Church goes through this period of rebuilding.
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.
 Cf. Ex 13:21-2; 19:18; 24:17; Lev 9:24; Dt 4:24,36; 5:22-6; 9:3; 2Sam 22:9; Ps 97:3; Isa 29:6; 30:27,30; Mal 3:2.
 Cf. Ezek 8:2; Lk 1:79; 2:32.
 Mk 9:49; Mt 4:16; 5:14-6; 6:22-3; Lk 8:16; 11:33-6; 16:8; Jn 8:12; Acts 13:47; Rom 2:19; 2Cor 4:6; Eph 5:8; Phil 2:15; 1Thes 5:5; 1Jn 1:5-7; 2:9-10; cf. Ps 104:4.