Homily of the Reverend Nicholas L. Gregoris, S.T.D., for the Easter Vigil of 2016 at the Carmel of Traverse City, Michigan.
“Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.” This anonymous, ancient homily, read on Holy Saturday in the Liturgy of the Hours, recounts how Christ encountered Adam and Eve in Sheol, the place of repose for the just who preceded Our Lord’s coming and awaited His Resurrection. Jesus searches for Adam and Eve as a Good Shepherd searches for his lost sheep. He carries His Cross, “the weapon that had won Him victory.” Jesus, as many venerable Greek and Russian icons depict, is described by our anonymous author as taking Adam by the hand and raising him up. Then the Lord exhorts
Awake, o sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light [….] I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated [….] The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
Dear Sisters and friends in Christ, tonight, in this most Solemn Vigil, what St. Augustine of Hippo called “The Mother of All Vigils,” it is not the Dead and Buried Christ who encounters us in Sheol –a place of shadows– but rather the Risen Lord Jesus, who welcomes us into the light and warmth emanating from the newly blessed fire and the brightly burning paschal candle. He takes each one of us by the hand, who are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, and raises us up, leading us out of the darkness of sin and the shadows of death into the joy and peace radiating from His empty tomb. Time and again, during the solemn singing of the Easter Proclamation, known as the Exsultet, we heard about the themes of night and day, darkness and light. One of the most moving passages reads: “The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”
In the Exsultet, we heard not, “This was the night!” but rather, “This is the night!” when the great salvific actions of God in the Old Covenant – the Exodus and the Passover – have been fulfilled. Each year, at the Jewish Passover meal, known as the seder, the youngest male child asks his father an important question: “Why is this night different than every other night?” The Exsultet provides the definitive answer: “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld. This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me and full of gladness [….] O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.”
The Scripture readings that the Church provides for the Easter Vigil recall some of the most significant events and teachings in salvation history, all of which culminate in tonight’s celebration of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery. In the light of the Resurrection, all the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, make perfect sense. We understand why God created us in His image and likeness and why, after the Fall of Adam and Eve, He willed in His infinite love and mercy to stay close us to us through covenants ratified with our forebears in faith – the patriarchs and prophets, most especially, Abraham and Moses.
Jesus is the New Adam. Furthermore, He Himself said: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The Evangelist John, in his Prologue, teaches us: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John continues: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.” Dear Sisters and friends in Christ, when was Jesus, God’s Only-Begotten Son, first made known to us personally? At the baptismal font, which is the womb of Holy Mother Church. There, began our personal exodus out of slavery to sin and death to the life of grace leading us to eternal life in the promised land of Heaven. Tonight, we pray for all those catechumens who, reborn by water and the Holy Spirit, have now joined our ranks as children of God, indeed saints of God, heirs with Christ to the heavenly kingdom. Our salvation, long ago lost through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, has been restored to us through Jesus’ obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane and then sealed in the Garden of the Resurrection. As Jesus came forth from the virginal womb of Mary, so too did He rise again, having been buried in a newly hewn tomb in which no one had ever been laid. It is this Jesus who desires a personal encounter with each of us every day of our lives.
During Advent, we awaited His coming at Christmas when He, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, encountered us in the guise of a newborn child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. During Lent, He encountered us in a special way in our prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Now, on this Day of Days which is Easter, the Lord Jesus encounters us in Word and Sacrament. In the beginning, God spoke His all-powerful Word and thus created the entire universe, speaking into being the first man and woman. In each Mass, God speaks that same Word, and so the Incarnate Word, Crucified and Risen from the Dead, becomes truly present on our altars. Whenever we receive Holy Communion, we must remember that it is the Risen Christ whom we receive – not the Dead or Buried Christ.
While the empty tomb is the most significant sign of the Resurrection as an historical event, it is the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet that is the greatest proof of the Resurrection in the here and now. In order to receive Our Lord worthily in Holy Communion; to fulfill our Easter Duty; and to deepen our personal relationship with the Living Lord Jesus Christ, we renounce Satan, his empty works and promises. We renounce sin so as to live in the freedom of the children of God. In a word, we renew our Baptismal Promises and profess the Apostles’ Creed, not only with our lips but with our lives.
How can we do this concretely in the Easter Season? In what practical ways can we Christians offer our thankful praises to the Paschal Victim for, as St. Augustine reminds us, “We
are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song”?
(1) Support the pro-life movement, defending the inalienable right to life from conception to natural death and making sure to cast your vote in the upcoming presidential election for a solidly pro-life candidate.
(2) Live chastely, knowing that your bodies were bought at the price of Our Lord’s Most Precious Blood and that the Lord Jesus rose from the dead as the first of many brethren, the first-fruits of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
(3) Have a priest bless your home with the newly blessed Easter water and then use holy water each day to bless yourselves and your children as a reminder of your Baptism.
(4) Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet entrusted by Our Lord to St. Faustina Kowalska, especially each day during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
(5) Make a pilgrimage to a special church or shrine to light votive candles for the sick and dying that the Lord made take them by the hand, heal them and raise them up.
(6) Pray the glorious mysteries of the Rosary and ask Our Lady, the New Eve, to intercede on behalf of non-Christians and fallen-away Catholics that they might find their way out of darkness into the light of the fullness of truth in the bosom of Mother Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
(8) Take more seriously the Third Commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day, for every Sunday, the first day of the week on which Our Lord rose from the dead, is a “Little Easter,” by attending Mass devoutly; spending quality time with your family; and refraining from unnecessary work.
(9) Go to Confession at least once a month, so that when the priest absolves you, in your mind’s eye, you may contemplate the Risen Lord’s five sacred wounds which, as Julian of Norwich acclaimed, are not scars of defeat but tokens of victory.
(10) When you receive the Risen Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, pray for a special intention, for the eternal salvation of a particular person whether still among the living or among those who sleep in the peace of Christ. Permit me to conclude with a brief meditation taken from an Easter homily by yet one more anonymous ancient author:
Here, then, is the grace conferred by these heavenly mysteries, the gift which Easter brings, the most longed-for feast of the year; here are the beginnings of creatures newly formed: children born from the life-giving font of holy Church, born anew with the simplicity of little ones, and crying out with the evidence of a clean conscience. Chaste fathers and inviolate mothers accompany this new family, countless in number, born to new life through faith. As they emerge from the grace-giving womb of the font, a blaze of candles burns brightly beneath the tree of faith.
The Easter festival brings the grace of holiness from heaven to men. Through the repeated celebration of the sacred mysteries they receive the spiritual nourishment of the sacraments. Fostered at the very heart of holy Church, the fellowship of one community worships the one God, adoring the triple name of His essential holiness, and together with the prophet sings the psalm which belongs to this yearly festival: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” And what day is this day? It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the author of light, who brings the sunrise and the beginning of life, saying of Himself: “I am the light of day; whoever walks in daylight does not stumble.” That is to say, whoever follows Christ in all things will come by this path to the throne of eternal light. Such was the prayer Christ made to the Father while He was still on earth: “Father, I desire that where I am they also may be, those who have come to believe in me; and that as you are in me and I in you, so they may abide in us.”