174 years ago, Easter also fell on April 16. More importantly, on that day, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker attended a Catholic Mass for the very first time in his life. The next day, reflecting upon his experience, he wrote: “Yesterday I went to the Catholic Church in West Roxbury; it was Easter Sunday. The services of the Church were to me very impressively affecting. The altar piece was Christ’s rising from the tomb. This was the subject matter of the Priest’s sermon. In the midst of it as he was preaching he turned and pointed to the painting with a few touching remarks turning all eyes towards it which made his remark doubly affective. How inspiring it must be to the Priest when he is preaching to see around him the Saviour the godly company of Martyrs Saints and Fathers.”
How inspiring indeed! So today - and for the next seven weeks - the Easter Candle, the visual symbol of the Risen Christ and visible reminder of his great victory, stands in a place of honor in the sanctuary, literally lighting our way through the Easter season, as it lit the way for our procession into the church last night, and as the Risen Lord lights our way through death to life.
And further to highlight that point - not so prominent perhaps as the altar piece which so impressed Isaac Hecker, but prominently displayed at the side altar - is a classic icon of the Resurrection (photo). It portrays the Risen Christ standing over the broken gates of hell, lifting up from their coffins the common ancestors of the human race, Adam and Eve, – while, on one side, Moses, Isaiah, and Elijah, and, on the other, the Old Testament kings and John the Baptist look on.
According to ancient tradition, when Jesus descended among the dead, his (and our) ancestors, Adam and Eve, saw his bright light penetrating the deep darkness they had been stuck in for so long, whereupon Christ released them, and they and their descendants joyfully joined him in celebrating his triumph over death.
In the normal course of events, the weekly Sabbath day of rest should have been followed on the first day of the week by business as usual – both for the living, who would go back to their regular daily work, and even more so for the dead, who (then as now) were expected to stay dead. For the disciples who came to see Jesus’ tomb early in the Sunday morning darkness, whatever they thought they were going to do, it was a dead man whose tomb they came to see. They too were stuck in the dark, like Adam and Eve and all the generations in between.
But when they got to the tomb, they found something surprising and unexpected – not just the opposite of business as usual, but rather something totally new and, of all the things that God has ever done, the greatest of them all. Which is why the Church sings: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!
And yet, however hard it may be for us to imagine (in this age of omnipresent media and the 24-hour news cycle), the news of Jesus’ resurrection was hardly noticed at first. It was the resurrection’s effects which the world experienced. And it is the resurrection’s same long-term effects which we actually experience now, and which have brought us here today – as Jesus’ body that lived and died and still forever bears the marks of his passion emerges from the tomb to transform our world, starting right here and now with us.
Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of Jesus’ disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old. In a world which seems permanently stuck in the dark, pre-dawn position, where death always seems to have the final say, the disciples needed to experience the kind of change that could only come from the Risen Lord’s living presence among them. And so do we, which is why we are here, where the Risen Lord brings us together as no one else can.
The amazing experience of encountering the Risen Lord led the first disciples to risk everything to create a unique new community, whose story we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. It is in the ongoing creating of - and living in - this community we call the Church, that Christ continues to reveal his victory over death
So, instead of the 1st day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this 1st day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, where death no longer has the final say. And we are here, in this holy place today, because God did not stop for good on the 7th day, because there is now a new day, on which God has, so to speak, re-created the world in his Son, Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, and buried, but now risen from the dead. That new day is today – and every day from now on.
And that is why we have to come back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happened next, and thus experience the effects of the resurrection ourselves. That is why every day for the next 7 weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world.
Like the disciples in the Gospel for Easter Sunday morning, some of us run fast. Others, beset perhaps by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly. What matters most, however, is where we finally end up. So whether we are runners or walkers, we must accompany the disciples to the tomb, which in a business-as-usual world would have remained dark, but from which the stone has now been removed – so that we can see and believe.
The disciples’ story highlights how what was happening then continues to happen in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to us through the experience we share by baptism as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit.
For, as Pius Parsch famously observed, “Through baptism, Christ’s resurrection is repeated in the members of His mystical Body.”
The promises of Holy Baptism, which we will solemnly renew in another few minutes are our solemn and collective commitment together to keep living this Easter story, to be excited by it, and to stay excited about it.
Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 16, 2017.