Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo
It seems like light years ago, but it is actually only six weeks. I sat with a group of pilgrims in a boat of the Sea of Galilee. As well as being the place where Jesus called his first disciples, it is also – as we heard in our Gospel reading – the place where he asked them to meet him after the Resurrection. On that late February afternoon, just a few weeks ago, someone said to me. “You know there could be some doubt about the exact place where Jesus was born or where he was buried, but the Sea of Galilee hasn’t moved.” I was very struck by this. The life death and resurrection of Jesus took place in real places and at a particular time in history, and they are recorded not just in the Gospels but also by a number of secular historians at the time. But those historical events reach out across history to touch us tonight, because we believe that Jesus is alive. We have heard the evidence of the two women and of others who saw him after his Resurrection.
You might ask: “where Jesus is now?” The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about how, after the Resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples, during which time “his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity”. Then he Ascended into Heaven, where – in his Risen Body, he is “seated at the right hand of the Father”. We don’t expect to meet him today in our streets. While he could intervene in our daily lives, as he did in Galilee and Judaea two thousand years ago, that is not his normal way of engaging with us. That is not because he has abandoned us, but because he has chosen to live in us, through his Holy Spirit.
So, when we ask: “Where is Jesus now?”, we can also say that, He is here among us, in our streets. In his risen spiritual body, Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, but we are what Pope Pius XII described as his “Mystical Body” here on earth. There is no contradiction. To use the words often attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no Body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
While our celebration this evening, and indeed every Sunday, is the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is not just about past history. It is as much about what happens in us, and through us, because of the Resurrection of Jesus, and because “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in us”. All of the readings that we have used in our Easter Vigil this evening point to that reality.
The first reading, from the Book of Genesis, reminded is that, as the final act in his work of creation, God created man and woman in his own image. Already, in this very first book of the Bible, there is a recognition of our mission to be in the image of God and to take our share of responsibility for His creation, which – of course – includes one another as well as the whole natural environment.
We went on then to listen to a reading from the Book of Exodus, which describes how God led his people out of slavery into freedom, through the waters of the Red Sea, forming them as his own people in the wilderness of Sinai. This reading has its place in our celebration not only because of the saving action of God “back then”, but because God’s saving action continues today in our own lives. The reading invites us to see how, through the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we have been set free from the power of sin and death and formed in the waters of Baptism, to live by the new life of the Resurrection.
The reading from the Prophet Isaiah is rather poetic. It carries the promise that, in spite of our sinfulness, God remains close to us and calls us back to newness of life. “My love for you will never leave you and my covenant of peace with you will never be shaken….. Your children will be taught by the Lord”. If we are taught by the Lord, of course, then we shall be like him.
God’s promise and our vocation become clearer again in the New Testament reading, where St. Paul tells us: “If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection”. I think this can be understood at a number of different levels, all of which are connected with our Baptism. As you probably know, in the early Christian period, people were Baptised by immersion, in a river or a pool. The action of going down into the water and then coming back up out of the water became, for St. Paul, a symbol of dying and rising. So he says:
“When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life”.
Moving beyond the symbolic meaning of Baptism, there is the very real difference that Baptism makes in our lives, if we take it seriously. Gathering up and letting go are part and parcel of our everyday human experience. For a follower of Jesus, however, letting go (or making sacrifices) is part of the plan. It is how we participate in the sacrifice of Christ and how we come to live the new life of the Resurrection, even here on earth.
At different times in history, different kinds of sacrifice are called for. Sometimes it is about dying for Christ; more often it I about living for him. Today in Ireland, and around the world, sacrifices are being asked for which would not have been thought possible three months ago. Nurses, doctors, chaplains and other healthcare workers place their lives on the line in a way that might never have been imagined. Gardai, serving the public, risk being spat at in the street, just as Christ was. For ordinary men and women who work in shops, or drive delivery vans or public transport, going to work involves taking a risk for others. Older people, who have to stay in the cocoon; children who miss their friends, students who worry about their courses and their exams; workers who have had to take a substantial cut in their wages; all of them are making sacrifices.
And of course, many of our brothers and sisters have been seriously ill and hundreds have died.
In the final analysis, it is not what happens to us that makes the difference; it is the generosity and the freedom with which we give ourselves. There are many people today, including people who would not necessarily think of themselves as particularly religious; who are not Christian perhaps, but who are making enormous sacrifices. It is in them that we meet Christ today, whether or not they realise it. Can the Spirit of Jesus be at work even in those who don’t know Jesus? Nothing is impossible with God. Because the Son of God took on our human nature and died a human death, every human sacrifice is, in some sense, joined to his. So much the better, of course, if we can consciously make that connection and choose to be “his body”.
I can’t help thinking that there is a great learning in all of this. If we are learning, in some sense, to die with Him, then we will surely live with him, in this life and in the next.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. This Vigil Mass took place on Holy Saturday in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo.