Homily: Easter Vigil

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“Why is this night different from every other night? Because once we were slaves, and we are slaves no longer…” These lines are drawn from the celebration of Passover, recalling God’s mighty liberation of his people from their slavery in Egypt, and they are a fitting way to describe the mysteries we celebrate this evening.

“Why is this night different from every other night?” Tonight, we are in the midst of the great Easter Triduum, the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Passion of Our Lord on Good Friday, and the most holy feast day of the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter Sunday. The Easter Vigil—as the Church calls it, “The Mother of all Vigils”—prepares us throughout this night to enter even more joyfully into the Feast Day of the Resurrection.

“Why is this night different from every other night?” The Divine Liturgy of the Mass is made of two distinct parts: the Liturgy of the Word, and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Mass of the Easter Vigil, tonight, there are four parts to the Mass.

We started with the Liturgy of Light: Jesus Christ is the LIGHT in the DarknessImage result for easter procession candlesWe blessed the Easter Fire, making it a sign of divine glory—God’s burning heart of divine love. From the fire we blessed the Paschal (or Easter) Candle, representing Christ as the light of the world, the pillar of fire that lights our darkness, leading the People of God on our journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Those of us who are baptized, although not wearing the white garments of our baptism, lit our candles from the Easter Candle, as the light of faith that we have received. Christ told us that we are the light of the world, telling us to share our light, from his light, with others. It also represents our vigilance to our Lord’s warning to keep awake, with the lamps of our faith and good works lit, prepared for our Lord’s coming.

The second part of our night is the Liturgy of the Word: Jesus Christ is THE WORD and truth of God. The Easter Vigil has seven Old Testament Readings, each with their own responsorial psalm and prayer, intending to help extend the length of the liturgy from sunset until the dawning of Easter Morning. Tonight, we just had three of those readings, because we’re not trying to extend the Mass (to anywhere close to dawn).

Related imageThe Liturgy of the Word tonight helps us to focus on the mystery of baptism. In a few moments, we’ll hear the beautiful Easter blessing prayer over the water of the baptismal font, which like our readings, recalls many of the ways in which God has used water as an image of baptism and new life throughout salvation history—The water and the Holy Spirit at the beginning of creation; Israel’s passing through the waters of the Red Sea, putting their slavery behind them as they set off on their journey to the Promised Land; God’s beautiful promise through the prophet Ezekiel of a future restoration, in which God says to his people, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you… I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you… you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” From the New Testament, we heard Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans about the mystery of our death to sin, and new life in Christian baptism, as we are made into a new creation by the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection being applied to us. And then, we heard from the Gospel of St. Luke, of the glorious empty tomb. Christ is not among the dead, but truly lives, as he promised. The power of the resurrection is given to us in baptism: our redemption from sin and death, and our new life of the grace of the risen Savior. “Why is this night different from every other night? Because once we were slaves, and we are slaves no longer…”

The third part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of Initiation: Jesus Christ is THE LIFE of communion with God. In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Image result for baptismWe have two young women among us who, over this past year, have been preparing to be baptized. Baptism in a sense is the virgin womb of Mother Church, from which is born new sons and daughters of God our Father, adopted through our communion in the divine sonship of Christ, as his brothers and sisters. In another sense, baptism is the bridal bath, the ceremonial washing of the members of the Bride of Christ, the Church, in preparation for her consummation of her nuptial communion with Christ her Bridegroom, who gave himself, that she might be made clean. Then they will receive their white baptismal garment, and their baptismal candle, which we talked about a moment ago.

Then we will have three men and women called forward, who have already been baptized in different Christian traditions, who have been preparing to be brought into full communion with the Catholic Church. Then all five of our new members, the two newly baptized, and the three newly professed, will receive the second sacrament of initiation, Confirmation. They will be anointed with sacred chrism, as Christ was anointed with the Oil of Gladness, to carry out his mission to be priest, prophet, and king.

They will then return to their place, as they join us in our celebration of the fourth and final part of the Easter Vigil, the Liturgy of the Eucharist: Jesus Christ is THE FOOD of the spiritual life. Image result for eucharist mannaThe Eucharist is celebrated tonight as we do each Sunday, albeit with a few alterations to the prayers in recognition of tonight’s special and sacred role in the sacramental life of the Church. Tonight, our five newly initiated members receive the last of the Church’s three sacraments of Initiation: the Eucharist. With this sacrament, our new members will join with us in the perfect reconciliation offered to us through the Paschal Mystery: the holy communion of Saints and angels in union with God. They will join us in being spiritually fed with the new manna of Christ’s flesh, and made new in the blood of the new Covenant. With us, they will receive the grace and power of Christ, to be sent out into the world, to minister God’s mercy, to spread God’s light, and to witness to God’s love. Congratulations and welcome, Sarah and  Bobbi, Matt, Aileen, and Justin. May God’s love richly bless you.

  • The Liturgy of Light: Jesus Christ is THE LIGHT in the darkness.
  • The Liturgy of the Word: Jesus Christ is THE WORD and Truth of God.
  • The Liturgy of Initiation: Jesus Christ is THE LIFE in communion with God.
  • The Liturgy of the Eucharist: Jesus Christ is THE FOOD of the spiritual life.

My brothers and sisters, Happy—and blessed—Easter to you and your family! “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia!” “Why is this night different from every other night? Because once we were slaves, and we are slaves no longer…”

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Homily: Straining Forward in Hope

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The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C)
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

A police officer pulls over a priest for speeding (believe me, it happens!). The priest gave the officer his license and registration, and the officer went back to his car. As the officer came back and returned the priest’s license and registration, the priest looked up and said to him, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” The police officer tore the speeding ticket out of his pad and gave it to the priest, and said, “Go, and sin no more.”

This weekend, our readings remind us of our need to recognize and fear the grave danger of our sins, and our need to respond with hope and trust to God’s invitation to restoration and freedom through His mercy.

In our first reading, the Israelites are in Exile in Babylon. Because they had abandoned fidelity to God and the covenant they had made with Him, God allowed them to degenerate back into the conditions He first rescued them from: humiliation and slavery to another nation. Israel now recognized that their Exile was because of their sin. They recovered their cultural memory of God’s mercy toward them, and their identity as His covenant people. They repented of their corruption, and re-dedicated themselves to living by the covenant of God’s Law.

God tells them through Isaiah that the great Exodus from Egypt—His splitting of the Red Sea, His mighty rescue of them from Pharaoh and his army, the many miracles of their journey—to remember these no more, because compared to those great events at the beginning of Israel’s history, God is doing something now that will make those great events that seem like nothing! The royal procession that Israel will have as they are freed from Babylon and make their way back to the Promised Land will be magnificent! It won’t be forty years of wandering around the rough wilderness, suffering, complaining, and being disciplined into shape. God will prepare a straight, level highway across the desert, and flowing rivers through the wastelands, and they will return, from the greatest to the least—restored, rejoicing, and announcing God’s praises.

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The Church, too, must do the same. We must remember (the Greek word, anamnesis— a “remembering” that makes the remembered event a present reality) what God has done for us, in making us His covenant people (collectively, in the paschal mystery, and personally, in our baptism). We must repent of our sins (individually, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and collectively, by praying for God’s mercy on the Church and on the world) that separate us from God and his Covenant blessings. We must remember our identity in Him, rededicate ourselves to living by God’s covenant, and prepare ourselves for the conditions of the New Exodus to the true Promised Land. 

Before our second reading, in Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he was warning the community against interlopers (“Judaizers”) who would try to convince them to comply with the Law, as a condition for being Christian. He tells them, echoing Christ, that the Flesh is of no avail. That in fact, if anyone had any right to boast of their merits according to the Flesh, it was Paul himself. And he then gives his impeccable credentials, even to a fault (as his zeal had made him a persecutor of Christ). Our reading begins with Paul telling them that he considers everything that the Flesh and this world has to offer to be worthless rubbish (actually, in the Greek, it’s a word for excrement), particularly in comparison to the value and hope in the faith of Christ. He says, “not having any righteousness of my own based on the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God” It can sound like Paul is saying that just having faith confers God’s righteousness on us, and that’s partly true. But the early Christian use of the concept of “faith” doesn’t separate professing one’s faith from living out one’s faith. The Letter of James teaches us that a faith that is not accompanied by the fruit of a holy life is dead and cannot save. Paul says that he is “depending on faith to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by being conformed to His death…” We can’t be Christians in name only, or on Sunday mornings only, but we must be faithfully obedient to Christ in every way we live.

Saint Paul does not presume that he has attained his salvation, but rather, he says, “It is not that I have already taken hold of it, or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it…” And then in an interesting connection to our first reading, Paul at the end says, “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Like Israel freed from slavery in our first reading, Paul puts behind him the sins and errors of his past, straining forward to the rich life of grace in front of him, the wondrous, amazing things God has planned, by the grace made available by repentance and God’s perfect mercy, through Jesus.

And in our gospel reading, we have one of Christian Tradition’s favorite stories of God’s mercy. Jesus is sitting in the Temple area, teaching, and people have gathered to listen to him. And from across the square comes this crowd of scribes and Pharisees, pushing this disheveled woman in front of Jesus. They tell him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?

It says, “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” So what was the test? Well, we know from the Old Testament that in the Mosaic Law (the Law of Moses), the penalty for adultery is death by stoning (not just of the woman, but of the man, too… an interesting absence in the Pharisee’s presentation; it takes two to tango). And we know from the gospels that the Jews were forbidden by Roman Law from putting a person to death (which is why they couldn’t stone Jesus for blasphemy, they had to take him to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and have Jesus crucified for treason). And of course, Jesus was well-loved for his mercy and ministry to the downtrodden, outcast, and sinners. So the Pharisees’ trap was clever: If, on the one hand, Jesus says that the woman should be let go, then they denounce him for conflicting with the Law of Moses, and therefore clearly not the Messiah. If, on the other hand,  Jesus says that the woman should be stoned, then they denounce him to the Romans for inciting illegal execution, as well as denouncing him to the people as a hypocrite who doesn’t really support the mercy he spouts in his teachings. They win either way.

How does Jesus respond? Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.” Then he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” So what just happened? And why oh why, was the only thing we ever know that Jesus himself wrote by his own hand, written in the dirt, and no one even wrote it down!? I mean, he wrote on the ground twice, and in the midst of this public confrontation, so it certainly seems important!

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So what did he write? There are of course a lot of theories. Some say he wrote out the sins of the accusers. Some say he was just doodling in the dirt to show his disinterest in their accusations. We just don’t know. But being a fan of recognizing connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament, I think he wrote the names of the scribes and Pharisees, fulfilling an Old Testament image. Immediately before our gospel reading from the top of John Chapter 8, in John Chapter 7, it says, “Jesus exclaimed, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit...” And our Old Testament reference that ties these together is from the prophet Jeremiah, who says, (Jer 17:13) “Those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.” The Spirit is the outpouring of God’s life, and God’s mercy. And the Pharisees have clearly forsaken showing mercy to this woman, instead, fixating on their desire to discredit Jesus.

And then the divine brilliance of Jesus’ response: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The Pharisees thought they had trapped Jesus into one or the other of their two lose-lose options. “Yes, or No, and you lose both ways.” But with Jesus’ response, he reverses the trap back on them, forcing them to have to choose between their two lose-lose options!  Either they stone the woman, breaking Roman Law, or they don’t, breaking Mosaic Law, and admitting that they were sinners, not the righteous Pharisees they claimed to be. The elder ones figured it out first, and you can imagine them shaking their heads in frustration, as the younger ones puzzle what just happened. And they all went away, until it was just Jesus and the woman. Jesus of course, the only one there who met the criteria of being without sin.

So sometimes people ask, well, the woman did commit adulteryisn’t Jesus bending the law too far in just letting her off the hook? And that’s the cherry on top of Jesus’ brilliant reversal. In the Mosaic Law (Dt 17:6), it says, “Only on the testimony of two or three witnesses shall a person be put to death; no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” Jesus asks the woman, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She replied, No one, sir.Jesus fulfills the law by letting her go, since now there are not enough witnesses left to condemn her. How amazing is that!? 

But he doesn’t just send her away completely vindicated. She knows she truly sinned, and she knows that he knows she truly sinned. So she’s still fearful, not sure she’s really escaped the punishment of her sin. You can imagine her anxiety level through the roof. And so Jesus responds to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] sin no more.” And that’s when she finally breathes the huge sigh of relief.

Notice Jesus does NOT say, “What you did was ok, your sin really isn’t a big deal.” Our sin is absolutely a big deal. The precepts of the divinely revealed Law still demand the same consequences. Adultery, fornication, theft, idolatry, the occult, all the sins that in the Law carry the sentence of death, they still do, as it did for this woman, as it does for us. But Jesus fulfills the Law. Image result for jesus sacrament reconciliationJesus Himself paid the death penalty for her sin, and for our sins. That is why we meditate on the crucifix—to behold with awe and gratitude Jesus’ sacrifice of divine love for us that redeems our lives—and more than that, gives us participation in the grace of divine love itself. And that is why it is Jesus who pardons us when we acknowledge our sins to Him in His Sacrament of Reconciliation. He earned the power and the authority. And at his Resurrection, He gave that authority to the Apostles and their successors, the bishops and priests of His Church. And so, my brothers and sisters, let us eagerly strain forward toward God’s mercy, confessing our sins and receiving his forgiveness, grace, and freedom—and then let us go, and sin no more.

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