We began the Easter Vigil celebration last night with a new fire from which we lit the Easter candle. Each one of us then lit and then held a candle lit from the Easter candle. This little flame represents the light of the resurrection that we receive from the Risen Christ that scatters the darkness of sin and death. We re-lit those same candles before we renewed our baptismal promises later in the liturgy. The Easter water and baptismal font are blessed, and we are sprinkled with the blessed water after the renewal of our baptismal promises. We will renew our baptismal promises today as well and be sprinkled by the Easter water. These are all reminders of what happened to us in our baptism. When we entered the waters of baptism, we died with Christ and rose with him to new life. We each received the light of Christ, the grace of the resurrection, and were given a baptismal candle that was lit from the Paschal candle. We need to be reminded of what happened to us - how we have been united to God and incorporated into God’s plan of salvation, or we lose focus. For the Christian, “remembering” is not simply calling to mind events of the past, but in the act of remembering, especially in liturgical prayer and the celebration of the sacraments, the mysteries of God are re-presented or made present again. In remembering, the graces of the original event are renewed or come alive - they are made real for us today. Belief in the resurrection not only means that Jesus rose from the dead 2000 years ago, but that he is alive today - that he is with us today. It is his risen presence among us that allows us to share in a “newness of life” here and now. The resurrection is not just for “the next life” - something totally disconnected from this life, or what good would it be for us? What real difference would it make in our life that Jesus rose from the dead if I didn’t know or experience his resurrection now? The change that happens in us - the new life that is born in us - when we remember and encounter the mystery of the resurrection, is the sign of his presence. We are helped to see him and to be open to him here and now by “keeping vigil”. The lighted candles that we held remind us to be like those in the Gospel parable carrying lighted lamps, looking for the Lord when he returns. We are to be awake even in the 2nd or 3rd “watch” of the night and have an eager expectation for his coming. Jesus reminds us repeatedly to be “vigilant”, “ready”, and “awake”. In the blessing of the fire, we prayed to be “inflamed with heavenly desires” and that our minds be made pure, i.e., that we change our way of thinking. We have to want heaven. As St. Paul says, “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above.” What we desire or seek - what we are focused on - determines what we think about. St. Paul goes on to tell the Colossians, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” We come together at Mass to “watch and pray”, to listen to the Word of God, and to celebrate the mysteries. We are reminded by the readings that the God who chose us as his own, keeps his promises. We are reminded by the readings of the unexpected ways that God saves his people, and we pray that his saving action be made present to us today. Prayer opens our heart to him. In our prayer, we ask that Jesus come and that his saving action be made present in our lives - that his work of salvation come to completion in us. We pray that what we hear in the scriptures happens to us today. Becoming familiar with Christ’s “method” - the way he works - makes us more able to recognize him today - to see his “traces” in our lives. One of the interesting things about the resurrection accounts is that Jesus is not usually seen directly. He often appears in a way different than the disciples were used to. He appears in human form, but is mistaken for somebody else or appears as a “stranger.” The disciples don’t recognize him at first, but when he does or says something that reminds them of the Lord, they know it is him. Jesus works in our lives in the same way - we who are members of his Body, through our baptism into Christ. We encounter Christ in the faces of our brothers and sisters in the Lord when they treat us with mercy and compassion. We become aware of Christ living in us when someone else recognizes or encounters Christ through us. (This is often surprising to us). St. Paul speaks of this mystery when he says to the Colossians, “For you have died (in baptism), and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Christ continues to “disguise” himself in us and touch lives through his Body, the Church, the community of the baptized.
In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, but she is not seeking the risen Lord. She sees the stone removed from the tomb and thinks someone has stolen the body. For her, “it was still dark.” She cannot see any of the signs of the resurrection. Peter and John go into the empty tomb, see the burial cloths there and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head. When John saw these signs, he believed. What is strange is that John, the Gospel writer who is recalling this event, says of himself and Peter, “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” Peter and John were very familiar with the scriptures - the prophecies about Messiah. They had even heard Jesus say many times in his preaching that he would suffer, die, and rise on the third day. What this tells us is that belief is not dependent on the “understanding the scriptures”. We don’t come to belief by studying the scriptures. The words of Jesus and the words of scripture don’t make sense until they are fulfilled. The resurrection does not make sense until it becomes a present reality in our lives. We have to experience it ourselves, and then that experience of resurrection sheds light on the scriptures. We have to experience the resurrection, and then the words of Jesus become real for us. Belief is not merely something intellectual. Peter becomes a witness to the resurrection, as we hear in the reading from Acts, because of the new life he received. He is a changed man after meeting the risen Lord and receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He understands the prophets because he himself received forgiveness of his sins. God’s forgiveness and mercy were no longer merely theological statements, but he experienced them personally through Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed the resurrection of nine women. I participated in a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, a retreat designed to help people suffering the emotional and spiritual pain of abortion to experience the mercy and compassion of God and find healing from their loss. One of the main “methods” of the retreat is to take part in a series of “living scripture” reflections. Scenes from the Gospels are in a simple way reenacted and the retreatants imagine themselves in the scene with Jesus, hearing the words of Jesus as if they were spoken to them today. Jesus to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus to the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus to the leper, “I do will it, be made clean.” They imagine themselves in the tomb with Lazarus and hear Jesus call them to come out. Many of the participants believed God had forgiven them (through the sacrament of confession), but forgiveness was not a real experience for them - they didn’t feel forgiven and couldn’t forgive themselves. Coming together seeking the Lord in prayer, reflecting on his words, and hearing each other’s stories while being accompanied and supported by a group of compassionate facilitators and volunteers, many of whom have experienced the same loss and are now witnesses to Christ’s healing grace, allowed the participants to accept God’s mercy love and be filled with hope. God’s mercy became real when they experienced it through God’s word and the faces of those around them. Between Friday evening and Sunday morning, there was a profound change in the participants. Darkness to light. Despair to hope. Sadness to joy. I saw a new life in those women. I went home amazed at what had happened. It was a convincing sign of the resurrection. These women were witnesses of the resurrection. The women were eager to see what the Lord would continue to do in their lives - how he would use them to bring his healing presence to others.
We remember today what the Lord has done in the history of salvation and in our lives. We pray that that grace be renewed in us today and everyday that we hear God’s word and celebrate the sacred mysteries so that we can bring the light of the resurrection to those still stuck in the darkness. May God bless you. Happy Easter! He is risen!