Homily for the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night of the Resurrection of the Lord

11 Apr 2020

“Saved for what?”

Livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

In the middle of the 3rd century AD a pandemic of Smallpox or Ebola erupted in Ethiopia, spread quickly to Rome and Greece, and then swept through the whole Roman empire. Big concentrations of people in cities, excellent roads and great trade routes that were strengths of the Roman empire, proved to be fatal flaws in a time of plague. At the height of this plague, as many as 5,000 people were dying per day in Rome and the sick and dead were abandoned in the streets. With the deaths of as many as a million people, the Roman army, government and economy were irreparably weakened.[1] Some blamed the Christians, as they were wont to do for any social problem. Yet the Christians distinguished themselves, when the great and the good fled the cities, by staying to feed and nurse the sick. They saved thousands; indeed, the death rate was half in cities with significant Christian populations.[2] These Christian works of mercy impressed many of the pagans and won many converts.[3]

An old photo of a person

Description automatically generated

History calls it “The Plague of Cyprian” because the Berber bishop, doctor of the Church and martyr, St Cyprian of Carthage, chronicled its progress and helped lead people through it. He taught that it’s precisely in such trials—like Abraham’s testing by God in our first reading tonight (Gen 22:1-8) that Christians can best demonstrate their faith and good works. He drew important parallels between physical pestilence and more spiritual challenges, between our responses to such infectious diseases and to other things that plague us.[4] In each case, he insisted, we need to be saved by Christ.

Healthcare may address our physical diseases, but we know it can at best only postpone our deaths. We are left wondering: is there life after death? Then, there are the moral, intellectual and emotional conditions that are often even more resistant to prevention and cure than the physical ones. COVID19 has revealed some of the best things about Australians, but has also unveiled our ‘shadow side’: our anxieties and self-protectiveness, selfish hoarding and blame-games. It’s precisely to address this sort of thing—the sickness of sin—that Jesus died and rose, as well as to address sin’s triumph in death

What are some of the good things we’ve demonstrated during the COVID19 crisis which might help ‘redeem’ this difficult period in our history by pointing us to more positive ways going forward? That we’re all vulnerable and dependent, some more easily spooked or panicked, and so we need each other’s support. That there are some things, people, ideals that matter most and that there are sides to us beyond the physical health and safety that are at least as important. “Why waste your money on what fails to satisfy?” Isaiah asked in our third reading tonight (cf. Isa 55:1-11). We’ve learnt that isolation is difficult for most people, that we must constantly work at connecting better with others, and that a sense of neighbourliness can be recovered while pushing the boundaries on who we include among our ‘neighbours’. And that in a crisis we become insular as a nation or as individuals and so must scrutinise that carefully, knowing that sharing can be hard but is right.

We’ve been mightily impressed by the courage and self-giving of our health professionals, pastoral workers and others, caring for the dead, sick or at risk; we should imitate their generosity and make sure we support them well in more ‘normal’ times. We’ve witnessed our political, business and labour leaders casting aside ideological differences to lead us through these dangers, and keep our polity and economy going: let’s hope that long continues. We’ve seen essential service workers stay on the job, others work from home, those out of work still looking out for others. We’ve proven we can adapt and been well-supported by new technologies: now we’ve learnt how, I suspect Zoom meetings will be much more a part of life in the years ahead! And we’ve found new places and ways to pray and share our faith and ideals. While of course much will eventually return to normal, it will be a new normal, and it’s up to us to ensure the new normal is a better normal, more just and compassionate, more hopeful and caring.

On Easter night, in any ordinary year, the Paschal candle would be lit from the Easter fire outside and carried into the cathedral as a symbol of Christ – our light returned and hope restored. This year there’s no fire and no congregation to light their own candles from His. But the Paschal candle there is, and already people are demonstrating that Easter light in their acts of kindness, their pulling together, their intercession and sharing.

So Good Friday speaks of from what that we are saved. Easter tells us of for what that we are saved. And the Easter season which begins tonight and extends to the end of time proclaims loud and clear the by whom we are saved: Jesus Christ, is our sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

Some will say: well, that’s a nice story but no thanks. I don’t really believe in God. I get that. The Resurrection can seem too good to be true. Like the apostle Thomas, we might say that until I’ve got my paws on the risen Jesus myself I’m not going to believe such hysteria and wishful thinking. Fair enough: faith is a gift, freely accepted or not. But even if you don’t believe in Jesus or are unsure, He believes in you. He died and rose to save you. “Shalom, greetings,” He says today to the women at the empty tomb (Mt 28:1-10). “Peace,” He says to you. “No need to be afraid anymore. I am with you always!”

Announcement Immediately after the Agnus Dei

Because our current circumstances impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion: I invite you now to ask God that by spiritual communion you may receive all the graces you would in sacramental communion. For those who would have been baptised, confirmed and receive their first Holy communion this Easter, let me exhort you to the same. Offer this Easter celebration of the Holy Eucharist and your own hunger for it, for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of this world world. Remember that God is not limited by our separation.

Word of Thanks after the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night of the Resurrection of the Lord

Livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Dear friends: before our final blessing may I thank you all for joining me for this celebration of Easter livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. Though the COVID19 pandemic has made this our strangest Easter, our celebration today has made it a very special one also. For that I want to thank our concelebrants and all those who assisted with this liturgy today, my brother priests throughout the archdiocese, my fellow religious, our many lay leaders, and all those who assist the Church’s works not just at Easter but all year round.

Our young people watching by livestreaming are no doubt hanging out for their Easter eggs, so I won’t keep you much longer. May I simply conclude by wishing you and your loved ones a very Happy Easter. The Church will continue to pray and daily offer Mass for an end to this pandemic, for your safety and good health, for the dead, the sick and at risk, for our health professionals, essential service workers and researchers, for our leaders and health authorities, for those who are isolated and afraid. We will continue to offer health care, welfare services and pastoral care, and to collaborate with other churches and faiths, our civic leaders and health authorities to serve you in every way we can. We will get through this COVID-19 crisis together by God’s grace, hopefully better people, a better community, for it. May God bless you abundantly in this holiest of seasons.

Introduction to the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night of the Resurrection of the Lord

Livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Dear brothers and sisters,
on this most sacred night,
in which our Lord Jesus Christ
passed over from death to life,
the Church calls upon her sons and daughters,
scattered throughout the world,
to come together to watch and pray.
In this time of pandemic,

when we cannot gather physically,

we do so through livestreaming.

We pray at this time for all affected by the coronavirus:

for the dead and the grieving, the sick and the dying;

for the elderly and the vulnerable, the isolated and the anxious;

for those caring for them, our health professionals and pastors;

for those still at work, working from home, or out of work;

for our leaders and health authorities;

for those deprived of family contact or social life

for those deprived of Holy Communion for which our hearts hunger; and

for our loved ones and ourselves.

Though we cannot this year gather around the Easter fire,

if we keep the memorial of the Lord’s paschal solemnity,

listening to his word and celebrating his mysteries,
then we shall have the sure hope
of sharing his triumph over death
and living with him in God.

[1]     Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), esp ch. 4; John Horgan, “Plague of Cyprian, 250-260 CE,” Ancient History Enyclopedia xxx; Dionysius Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire (Ashgate, 2004); William Hardy McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (Anchor Press, 1976).

[2]    Sean Everton & Robert Schroeder, “Plagues, pagans, and Christianity: Differential  survival, social networks, and the rise of Christianity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(4) (2019) xx-xx; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Lyman Stone, “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years,” FP 13 March 2020.

[3]     Sean F. Everton & Robert Schroeder, “Plagues, Pagans, and Christianity: Differential  Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(4) (2019); Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[4]     St Cyprian of Carthage, De Mortalitate. His life is told in Pontius the Deacon, The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr. See also: Edwina Murphy, “Death, decay and delight in Cyprian of Carthage,” Scrinium 15(10 (July 2019), 79-88; J.H. Scourfield, “The De Mortalitate of Cyprian: consolation and context,” Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996), 12-41.