Sunday, April 20, 2014

'The heart of the heart of our Faith' (Easter Sunday)

(I had no text or notes for my homily last night or today, just a mental outline of where I wanted to go. This is my best recollection.)

Last Sunday, and this week, we've been focusing on the Cross. When we had Palm Sunday together, we saw how the Lord went quickly from being hailed as he entered his city, to hearing the crowds cry, "crucify him, crucify him!"

So, as I pointed out last Sunday, the Cross is the heart of our Faith -- and we looked at that on Holy Thursday and of course Good Friday.

When we come to this night/this day, we come, if you will, to the heart of the heart of our Faith. Because if there is no resurrection, the Cross does not save us.

Now, one of the words we often use in our Christian Faith is "mystery"--but we use it in a different way from how we usually mean that word in regular English. For our Faith, mystery denotes a divine reality that exceeds our comprehension; and we wouldn't know anything about it, except that with God's help, it's opened up to us.

And a good symbol of that came at the beginning of Mass (at the Vigil): it was dark outside, and the church was dark -- except for lights outside, and a few lights I couldn't figure out how to turn off. Before electricity, it would have been completely dark. Who would want to walk into the church in the darkness? A lot of us don't want to walk into our homes in the dark.

But notice what happened: the deacon led the way with the light of Christ! And as the light was shared, and we came in, there was a good amount of light, just from our candles. That's what Christ does for us. He gives light to the mystery of our Faith, and the Holy Spirit, which we receive in baptism, brings us into the mystery of God--we become part of it. We become true children of God. Not just creatures, but sharing God's own nature!

(At the Vigil I connected these to some of the images from the readings.)

Now, many of you know that I was able to visit the Holy Land earlier this year. And I was able to go to the place where our Lord died on the Cross, and nearby, where he was buried. A group of us priests had Holy Mass at the place of the skull; and a couple days later, at the tomb. Scripture describes how the tomb was close by, in a garden. The garden is gone, and all the hill that was around there was taken away, and a huge church was built over both the rock of Calvary, as well as the tomb. But if you go, you climb up steps to the top of Calvary, and then you go down, and around, to the tomb. In the centuries since, a structure has been built around it, and there are candles and lamps, and a kind of gate; and Greek monks who watch to make sure you don't behave badly!

So we had Mass there, and the altar was in the tomb; and we went in, two at a time, to receive communion on that altar!

Now, I have no doubt that was the tomb. But people can cast doubt, and I don't know that I could absolutely prove that's the tomb of our Lord. The real proof isn't the empty tomb--but the testimony of witnesses, including the eleven apostles who all saw Christ raised from the dead, and then, later in life, one by one they faced a martyr's death because they would not deny it. Only the Apostle John didn't die a martyr, because they tried to kill him, but he survived! But every one of them was told, in effect, just tell us the truth, and we'll let you live! And they responded, we are telling you the truth! And they died for it. As the great mathematician Blaise Pascal said, "I readily believe those witnesses whose throats are cut."

It was the lives of those eleven, and many more, that is convincing. And let me tell you the story of another tomb -- in Rome -- that is even more convincing than the empty tomb in Jerusalem. That is the tomb of Saint Peter.

Without going into the whole story, Peter's grave wasn't seen for a long time. Everyone knew it was supposed to be somewhere down under the basilica, but no one had seen the grave for centuries. In the 1940s, some workmen were digging down under the basilica, when they struck something. They dug a little, and found a stone painted red. Well, one of the things that had been said was a red stone marked Peter's grave!* They ran and got the holy father, who came down, and he authorized them to keep going. Eventually, they found the grave, and the structure of it matched what it was supposed to look like -- again, no one had seen it for a very long time -- and then they found the bones. At one point, the bones had been wrapped with a very valuable purple cloth -- very expensive. Why would someone do that? When they examined the bones, they were from the right time period, of a man from the Middle East. And -- a key detail -- his feet were missing.

Why is that important? Remember how Peter died? They were going to crucify him, and he said, I am not worthy to die as the Lord did--so they crucified him upside-down. And with a crucifixion, when you were dead, the Romans would just throw the body into the river. But the Christians wanted to rescue Peter's body, so they had to act fast. So, it appears, they cut the body down, leaving the feet.

Now, here's the thing: what business did a fisherman from Galilee have in being in Rome? It all only makes sense if he went there to tell people about Jesus Christ, risen from the dead! And these details show that he was there, and he died for what he said he witnessed! And not only that, there were Christians there who honored his bones (which you can see when you visit -- you can see them, in the tomb, in clear cases), in Rome, less than 30 years after the crucifixion! How did any of this happen, unless Christ rose from the dead?

But as I said, the most convincing testimony is a changed life. Those witnesses are gone, but generations have come and gone who bear witness to this Faith: he is risen! And you and I are included in that. But people will only believe if they see evidence of a changed life in us. They will believe if they see that we believe.

Well, do you?

In a moment, you can answer that question, as we reaffirm our baptismal promises. All over the world, people are doing what we're doing. Many of them do so in fear, rather than in safety as we do. But they are gathering to profess, he is risen, all the same. 

So what about you? Do you believe?
*And -- I am just remembering now as I write this, they eventually found writing that said, "Peter is within."

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