April 24, 2022| 2nd Sunday in Eastertide
Every year, during the Easter Vigil, following a very ancient custom, we light a new Paschal Candle to represent the risen Jesus. This one was beautifully painted by Jeff Paulus, who adorned it with shapes of purple and gold. These colors in our liturgical tradition are the colors of weeping and mourning (deep violet) and of glory and joy (gold). It seems especially appropriate to me that the two are juxtaposed this year. On one side, we seem to have overcome a deadly world-wide pandemic, while on the other side we feel plunged into war. But perhaps these extreme opposite sentiments (weeping and rejoicing; mourning and exultation; dejection and glory) are coexisting not only this year. They are indeed somehow somehow connected, in a deeper and mysterious way, in the Paschal mystery.
We blessed the new Paschal Candle at night, after a somewhat long vigil of reading and prayers, because that ideally is the moment when the shadows of darkeness, the deep dark violet shadows, are already pregnant with the light of the new day. We also insert five grains of incense on the Candle, to signify the five wounds inflicted to Jesus during his Passion, and we trace with them a cross on the Candle itself. Thus this Candle, the symbol of the risen Christ, bears the signs of the Passion, just as the risen Jesus shows his wounds to the apostles. We take incense, the symbol of imperial and divine glory, and we use it as nails to mark the living body of Christ. Quite a complex symbol there, and one that defies simple explanations.
All of this can help us in asking a fundamental question: Is the Christian story a golden story, a happy-ending story? After all, Jesus – who was rejected by the leaders of the people, nailed to a cross, and died a shameful death – is now risen. Yet I think that when we perceive this our basic identity narrative as a happy-ending story, we miss something important. Maybe we even miss the gist of what we are celebrating and what Christianity is all about. In typical happy-ending stories, the protagonists go through all sort of troubles but, at the end, they win and live forever, happily. They simply don't die. Jesus, instead, is hung on a tree, and there he dies, covered with insults. There is a tragedy at the center of this story that cannot, and should not, be forgotten, subsumed, or in any way disposed of. We remember it every Sunday in our narration of “the night before he suffered.” If we take the Resurrection to be a victory that takes this tragedy out of the picture, we are betraying the memory of Jesus Christ. We get a risen Christ without wounds and a very sappy holiday.
The early Christian announcement always kept together the death and the resurrection, the crucifixion and the glory. The communities that sprung up around the Mediterranean, whose stories and witnesses we read, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles, placed Jesus at their very center of their life as their crucified and risen Lord. Theirs was a life of plenty. Not plenty of resources, but plenty of sharing of such resources, plenty of energy, plenty of conviction that the Way (as they called their manner and structure of life) was of divine origin and was worthy to be pursued, leaving aside all other claims to glory and success. So even when they were persecuted, they would not stop proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, Leader, and Savior. It is quite a strange thing, if you think about it, to claim that a dead person is all these things, even as he appeared to you alive. The Messiah, they had supposed, was to be a king and a deliverer in a very real and concrete sense: somebody who would get rid of the Romans. But the point of the book of Acts is that the mission of Jesus--forgiving sins, giving peace, and restoring humanity to a new and much higher level of life, a life beyond violence and sin--was not ended with his death. It continued through those who claimed allegiance to him. For the apostles, to proclaim that “God has raised Jesus from the dead” meant essentially that God declared that Jesus was right, and that his work could not be stopped. The death of Jesus was only a beginning. Jesus was a seed who somebody thought could be killed by stamping it into the ground. Again, they did succeed in killing the prophet Jesus. His resurrection was not like the resuscitation of a corpse; he did not come back to his human life as before. But a beautiful tree grew out of the dead seed: the church, which is called to be the risen body of Christ in the world and for the world.
The book of Revelation, which we started reading today together with Acts, was written during a bloody persecution by the Roman Empire against the Christians, at the beginning of the second century. It is replete with glorious titles for Jesus. The one who was killed by the Empire on a cross like a criminal is called “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” The faithful witness: that is, one who sees the healing and peace that God brings into the world, and does not falter in his witness, does not ever stop to say what he sees. The firstborn of the dead: that is, not an isolated hero or a resuscitated corpse, but the one human being through whom God initiates the resurrection of all those who follow his lead. The ruler of the kings of the earth: that is, the one to whom God gives the true power, the power of the forgiveness of sins. This last title, in particular--the Jewish title of Messiah extended to the whole world--is a mockery of the pretense to power by those who think they own the earth. Choosing to place this person, the crucified and risen Jesus, at the center of one's life; recognizing that the stone which the builders rejected as defective or unimportant is the cornerstone of one's community; taking to heart the values of Jesus and not the values of the Empire, was a shocking and powerful thing to do in the first century, just as it is now.
“All the tribes of the earth will wail” and those who pierced him will recognize him. They will understand how awfully wrong his death was, and they will be shocked to discover that all the values on which they have built their life are worthless. But this is a vision of the future. Now, the lordship of Christ is not recognized by everybody. It is not recognized by those who refuse to see the tortured body of Jesus in the victims of human violence. It is not recognized by those who refuse to believe in healing, those who don't see the risen Jesus when he comes to us and sits with us at the Eucharistic table. We are blind to the lordship of Christ, or we misinterpret it, for many reasons. Let us then be guided in this Eastertide by the witness of the early Christian communities, by what they did, and felt, and hoped, as we read their stories in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the book called Revelation. Let us keep asking ourselves, “What does it mean to trust in our crucified and risen Lord, during this time of our mortal life?” Blessed are those who have not seen the wound in the side of the risen Christ, and yet believe. AMEN