I was praying the Stations of the Cross during the week, here in the Cathedral. For some reason, I was struck by the image of the fourteenth station, when Jesus, having been taken down from the Cross, is laid in the tomb. The image suggested a very small gathering, with only a tiny handful of people. (It is an image with which, sadly, we have become too familiar in our own time). Jesus had died the death of a criminal and most of his disciples had run away. There was John the beloved disciple, and Joseph of Arimathea (whose own tomb it was), and with them were Mary the mother of Jesus and two other women.
We began our liturgy this evening in the dark. Darkness is a good symbol for what it must have been like inside the tomb when the stone was rolled across and the last rays of sunlight were blocked out. Many of us have experienced something of that same darkness in our hearts when we have laid to rest a family member or a good friend. However we dress it up, the burial of a loved one can feel like the lockdown that goes on forever.
Funeral rituals vary a great deal from one culture to another. In the Jewish tradition around the time of Jesus, the practice was to anoint the body of the deceased at home, before wrapping it in a linen cloth and taking it to the place of burial. In the case of Jesus, it seems that this didn’t happen, perhaps because of the circumstances of his death, but also – as the Gospel tells us – because he died on the eve of the Sabbath and the burial had to take place immediately. That explains why, early in the morning, on the first day of the week, the women made their way to the tomb, with perfumes and sweet smelling oils, to anoint the body of Jesus. The Gospel tells us that they went out “just as the sun was rising”. I’m not sure if Saint Mark intended the “double meaning” in this. The essential message of the Gospel, however, is that – by the time the women had arrived – the Son (of God) had already risen. As the angel said: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here, he is risen”.
Many artists, who have painted the empty tomb, with the stone rolled back, have shown the light shining out of the tomb rather than shining in from outside. We are reminded that Jesus is the light of the world. Just a short while ago as we stood in the darkness at the back of the Cathedral, a tiny flame flickered in the darkness and as that flame was shared, the whole Cathedral began to fill with light. The flame that lit the Easter candle is a powerful symbol, but it is only a symbol. By contrast, the light that fills our hearts and souls this Easter and every Easter, is the same light that came out of the tomb of Christ. It has spread to the very ends of the earth, bringing hope and meaning to the lives of millions of people. It is, you might say, the definitive answer to every lockdown.
The Easter Vigil offers us a selection of readings from Scripture, beginning always with the Creation narrative from the Book of Genesis. The story of our common home begins, when “the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the deep”. Our gathering in the darkness of the Cathedral takes us back to that beginning time, when the “Spirit of God, hovered over the water”. With the first flickering flame of the candle, we repeat the creative words of God: “let there be light”. Let there be light in us and let that light shine in the world, bringing hope.
Water appears, again and again, as a symbol of life and salvation, as we make our way through the readings from the Old Testament.
- In The Genesis reading, it is out of the water that life comes and the earth is teeming with living creatures
- In the Exodus reading, the people of Israel are set free from slavery in Egypt, and saved through the water of the Red Sea
- In the reading from Isaiah, water becomes a symbol for a renewed relationship with God who is the source of life. “Come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come”
All of this prepares us for the proclamation of our faith, not only that Jesus is risen, but that if we have died with him, we will also live with him. There is in this a focus on eternal life, after death, but that story begins while we are still alive in our mortal bodies. We, who are Baptised, are “a new creation” and we are already living the new life of the Resurrection.
In a time of crisis, there is always a temptation to forget about the needs of others and to try at all costs to get to the top of the queue, where we will be served. Saint Paul reminds us that, as Christians, we are called to participate in the Cross of Christ by dying to ourselves. In practice, that is not so much about imitating the death of Jesus as imitating the way he lived; his compassionate care, his attitude of forgiveness, his commitment to the truth. In a world which defines some people as essential and others, by definition as non-essential, we Christians are people who are happy to serve without having to impress on others how important we are.
All of this, as Saint Paul reminds us, flows from Baptism, when, through water and the Holy Spirit, we become members of Christ’s body the Church. As you probably know, in the early centuries of Christianity, Baptism took place by immersion. People walked into the font and were submerged in the water, rising up again with the new life of the Resurrection. Whenever we get a chance again to visit the great European Cathedrals, you can see the Baptisteries and imagine it for yourself. For Saint Paul, this going down into the waters of Baptism, was a great symbol of dying and rising. To use the words of his own words for this evenings reading:
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.
Here in Sligo, in the 21st century, as in most other places in the Christian world, Baptism is celebrated by the pouring of water, but the reality remains the same. We are called to “live a new life”.
For the women who came to the tomb that first Easter morning, the “new life” began with the instruction that they should go and tell Peter and the other disciples, and that they would find him in Galilee, back where it all began.
Now, two thousand years later, that invitation to “live a new life” is an essential part of our Easter celebration. For us, as for the first witness of the Resurrection, that involves finding one another and returning together to where Christ can be found. It is: “Communion with Christ and with one Another”.
For most of us, I think, there is a real desire to gather again for the Eucharist in all our Churches, but that is only the beginning. More than ever, as Church, we are being asked to reimagine what it really means to be a Christian community; the Body of Christ. The need to do that was already becoming clear, but the pandemic has made it even more obvious. It will mean exploring:
- why we want to gather for the Eucharist
- how we can participate more richly in the celebration of the Eucharist
- how our participation in the Eucharist influences our daily lives and our relationships in the wider community of Irish society and the world as a whole
- how the Eucharist will be possible in our parishes in the coming years
- how we can help one another to develop and use the gifts that God has given to all of us, without exception, for the building up of his body the Church and for the good of humanity
- how, like the first Christians, we can draw people to Christ by the example of our lives
As you have probably heard, there is a plan to work towards having a Synod of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It seems to me that these are among the key questions that a Synod will need to explore. If it is to be effective, we need to start by asking those same questions in our own homes and in our own parish communities. This is as good a time as any to begin.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. The Easter Vigil took place this evening in Sligo Cathedral at 7.00pm.
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