Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Living Easter

In his Easter Homily, Archbishop Joseph Harris of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago) reflected that the celebration of Easter “puts before us Life or death. We have all experienced moments of hatred and betrayal; we have all experienced jealousy and intrigue, at times at the hands of family members, at times even within the church community. At times we have been the perpetrators, at times we have been at the receiving end. That, my friends, is the old life which could not conquer and does not conquer. It may appear to win but in the long run always loses.” He continued, “My friends, today more than ever, our Church needs the witness of New Life… let us choose LIFE.”

This Easter Life places demands upon us that far outweigh the rigors of Lent. In fact, what we are celebrating during these graced days is so grand that the Church has set aside a week of weeks (50 days) to rejoice and remember. But how do we let Easter in? Unlike Lent, which most of us observe by placing too much emphasis on ourselves and what we believe to be best for our own growth (and maybe even our relationship with God), Easter challenges us to go outside of ourselves by squarely placing before us the gift of salvation that has been offered to us in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. And yet, once Easter Sunday has passed, we quickly settle into our old routines. If we, the children of the Resurrection, cannot live this mystery with faith and conviction, does Easter have relevance for our world? The poet Reiner Kunze has captured the doubts of many today about the truth of the Easter proclamation:
The bells rang,
As if they were clanging for joy
over the empty grave

Over that which once
so consoled,

and that has sustained astonishment for 2000 years

However even though the bells
hammered so forcefully against the midnight—
nothing in the darkness changed.

Yes, the bells have rung: Christ is Risen. As people of faith, we have to engage Kunze by asking ourselves if we really do indeed believe that something in the darkness has been changed. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted this question when he observed: “Faith in the Resurrection is concerned with the sickness that afflicts us. It is concerned with the inner wounding of our existence by death and with the hidden God who encounters us in death and there lets himself be recognized. We are on a dead-end street if we think that the Easter proclamation is exclusively about a historical-critical problem of an alleged fact of long ago.” He then asked, “How does one arrive at this present of the past, at this always of the once and for all, at the today of Easter? As a first ground rule we can say: on this path we need witnesses” (from the essay “I Do Indeed Hear the Message…” in Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts). In the today of Easter, we are the witnesses who proclaim to Kunze and to a skeptical world: Everything has changed. Christ is Risen.

When, at Easter, we renew our baptismal commitment, we are rededicating ourselves to living out our faith in a public and dynamic way. Like the catechumens who spent Lent preparing for initiation into the full life of the Church, our individual and communal observances of Lent were a time to explore those places within ourselves where self-preference reigned, our faith was weak, and we lacked conviction. The pealing bells of Easter remind us that the time for quiet reflection is over: now is the time to sing out our Alleluias; the light of the Paschal Candle, which continues to shine brightly in our churches, challenges us take the light of Christ that is burning within each of us out into the dark places of the world, especially to those who cower in the gloom of despair, doubt, neglect, and loneliness. The wonder of Easter is captured in the words of an ancient hymn of the Armenian Church:
Today, the immortal and heavenly Bridegroom rose again for the dead!
To thee the glad tidings, O Church, his spouse on earth!
Bless thy God, O Sion, with a joyous voice.

Today, the ineffable Light of light enlightened thy children.
Be thou enlightened, O Jerusalem!
For Christ, thy Light, has risen.

Today, the darkness of ignorance is dispelled by the triple light:
And the light of knowledge has risen upon thee,
It is Christ rising again from the dead.

 This is the light that has illumined our hearts. It is not that something in the darkness has changed: “The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Saint Vincent de Paul rescuing abandoned children
from the streets of Paris.
We are the children of light and of the day (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:5). Living Easter means to live in the light, to pass on the light that is burning within us to those around us. The saints who dedicated their lives to passing on this light boldly proclaim that this isn’t done through preaching and catechesis (although these are important elements of evangelization). Easter is lived in lives of active discipleship in which love is the only thing that matters: “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace… whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:8-11). A living Easter faith cannot be “lived” in our minds or held in our hearts. It must overflow into the world around us, clothed in the “seamless garment” of the pursuit of justice, care for creation, the promotion of life, and solidarity with the poor, and the quest for peace. This isn’t a political or progressive agenda: it is the truth proclaimed by Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saints Damian de Veuster and Marianne Cope, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and countless men and women through the ages who testify to us that our faith must express itself in concrete signs and acts of love and compassion.

With so much darkness and pain in the world around us (and here I'm thinking especially of the senseless violence in places like Newtown, Connecticut, and, most recently, in Boston), it can be difficult to live the life of Easter. Speaking of this sense, Dorothy Day, another figure widely celebrated for her outreach to the poor, wrote in her book, On Pilgrimage:

Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife, which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, “What else is the world interested in?” What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved… The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too, because it is a foretaste of heaven.

What better way to live Easter than to live in imitation of the One whose love was so consuming that it led him to give his life for each of us? The only way for a Christian to live in the world is to love, to the very end, to the laying down of our lives.

Light and love are the gifts of Easter. They are our legacy and neither can be kept hidden or hoarded. Easter is our vocation and unless we are willing to go out into the darkness, carrying the light of Christ that is within us, then we have failed in our discipleship: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).

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