Easter Vigil at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Ez 36:16-17a, 18-28; Rom 6:3-11; Mk 16:1-7   

Tonight is the holiest of nights. It is the holiest because it celebrates what matters most. It celebrates what most endures. It celebrates the gift of life and how it is to be lived.

Our first reading recalls the Creation story; that our life is a gift from God that we could not have earned. That is the basis of our relationship with Him: Creator-creature. The Genesis story tells us we were made to the image and likeness of a Giving-God. The image means we were given freedom-to-become and likeness means that with that freedom we could form our conscience by our choice of the good that we would live toward: our own or that of others. This is the source of our humility and our greatness.

The second Genesis reading shows us the prime example of how to use that freedom toward the ultimate good. Abraham, our father in faith, had to choose between a legitimate good—his son Isaac’s life–and the ultimate good. That choice presented a crucial decision for humanity: in what do we ultimately place our faith? He had to choose from the deepest place in his heart because faith works through love. On what, if anything, do we acknowledge our dependence?

This was not easy to answer so the third reading gives us a new basis for our relationship to God. It is remembered daily in the prayer of the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the lord is One.” Love Him with your whole heart, being, and strength. Teach your children; profess it to all so that you do not forget who brought you out of slavery.

Slavery is a state where one puts her faith in something that will not last. That thing forms her conscience. Everything else must harmonize with conscience to live in peace, so the fourth & fifth readings from Isaiah urge a return and marital fidelity in a relationship with our Creator and saving God. Isaiah calls for a critical admission from humanity in general and oneself in particular: it is the admission of dependency. Such admission does not appeal to us; that is why we are to remember the Exodus. Forming our conscience to God will free us to experience the mutual exchange of love.

Dependency is not a sign of immaturity. The object of dependence might be if it is finite. Dependence is a fact of our human condition. It makes faith necessary. Baruch calls us to use wisdom in choosing the object of faith. “You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom! Had you walked in the way of God, you would have dwelt in enduring peace. Learn where prudence is, where strength…”

Ezekiel tells us that the enduring peace that comes from walking in the way of God is due to the holiness of God that is to be manifested to others through oneself. Our well-being is for God’s glory. Glory is goodness that is displayed; it is good that is shown and known.

St. Paul tells the Romans and us that this “walking in the way of God” is a “newness of life”, newness we could not give ourselves. Spiritual death is separation from our God-given orientation or purpose in life. Newness, then, is re-orientation to a purpose that will last. It is the gift of the “One Thing” that centers our lives. We devote ourselves to it for its own sake. That’s what Jesus did. That newness is freedom from the bondage of self. It is the ability to live for the good of others. It is the ability to make a gift of self. That is the essence of the inner life of the Trinity that we image; the essence of the Creator; and of the Savior whose self-gift we celebrate tonight.

Jesus appealed to those who were burdened with self. They were symbolized by the disabled, the demon-possessed, and the distressed. His teaching and healing relieved them of self. It restored them to usefulness to others. His life, recorded in the gospels, is one of freedom from self and complete self-gift. His passion showed the totality of His self-gift and the resurrection showed its fruit. In short, salvation history and each of our own personal histories have been showing us how to live the two great Love Commandments.  That is the life we celebrate tonight and how we are to live it.    


Easter Vigil at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Gen 1:1-2:2; Rom 6:3-11; Lk 24:1-12

At our recent community retreat at New Melleray, Bishop Flores of Brownsville, TX, told us of the dire poverty of those in his diocese. They did not define poverty as lack of funds, but as a “limitation of options.” (This is an interesting way to understand our vow of poverty.) We saw this limitation last Sunday when we read of Jesus’ agony over the options of whose will to do: His own or the Fathers.  

By itself, the passion is a sad story about a tragic ending to a really nice, charismatic guy.  But that is not all it is because it is followed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the promise of our own resurrection. The resurrection is the central mystery of our Christian faith.

The first reason why the resurrection is so important is that by raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated Jesus’ life and ministry.  The early church remembered that others had claimed to be the messiah, suffered shameful deaths, and their followers disbanded. But then Jesus was not only raised, but He appeared to His disciples and instructed them! In fact, He appeared to over 500 disciples [1 Cor. 15:3-6].

Here was an abundance of witnesses who were willing to alter their way of life and even die for this man who was raised from the dead. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by bearing witness to His resurrection. This put their understanding of Him, His life and teaching in a whole new light. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life is understood in reverse, but lived forward.”

The second reason why the resurrection was so important is that it confirmed His proclamation that the kingdom of God had made its appearance in His life and ministry. In other words, God’s rule was present in the ministry of Jesus. That’s what His preaching was about.

Tonight the key point about Jesus’ miracles, His preaching and bringing of the Kingdom is a point about us here tonight. The key is that the Christ experience is an interior experience.  It is an experience of LIFE! This is the third reason why the early church found the resurrection so important. It brought about an interior experience of the power of God’s own spirit in their lives for it is through consciousness or intentionality that we shape our lives and actions. That consciousness is one of FAITH. Adam & Eve did not show it; Abraham & Sarah did, but it was sporadic after them. Jesus showed it and submitted. His faith is our model; our options are two: acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God or rejection.

In the spiritual life, “death” is the separation of a thing from its purpose or orientation. The one who runs the kingdom decides the purpose. Jesus was faithful to His. Is our own experience of dying to self and being raised to something new, and of a poverty of options that comes with a vowed life, reflective of the other two reasons for faith in the resurrection? Does it vindicate our Christian life and bring the kingdom of God near? Taken in this sense, “resurrection” and “conversion” are synonymous.

The dominant kingdom before Christ came was the reign of sin. Sin was an interior experience; it was setting our hearts on pleasure and status. There are a lot of options in that. In the absence of meaning, pleasure is the only thing worth pursuing.

So we lived as though we had to make ourselves great. We forgot the covenant wherein God graciously and gratuitously made us persons of worth. But we have a profound need for someone other to notice us and recognize our achievement and virtue. Jesus came and asked the penetrating question: On which ‘other’ do I depend to be noticed and told “I like you”?

Yes, Christ came and showed us a new interior experience: it is freedom from the bondage of self! This is LIFE! This is character, or better, sanctification, determined by our free choice to live for a purpose that is eternal! 

St. Luke has the Risen Christ tell His apostles that repentance, a change in our thinking, is what they are to pass on to us. Death no longer has the last word. We, like Jesus, are to be for the good of others. It’s called “LOVE.” We voluntarily limit our options.

So did Jesus. When taunted He did not refuse to save Himself because He was powerless, but because He was obedient and faithful to His mission. The essence of Christianity, then, is not the teaching of Jesus; it is His resurrection and it is faith in the God Who raised Him. God saved the savior of Israel. It is this God whom we prefer by our limited options. It is He Who looks at us and says, “I LIKE YOU!”


Easter Vigil at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Gen 1:1-2:2; Rom 6:3-11; Lk 24:1-12]

“At daybreak the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus took spices and went to the tomb.”

The women went to the tomb to anoint a corpse, not to greet a resurrected Lord. They were not yet Christians. They had had faith in Jesus of Nazareth, but not in Jesus Christ.

Jesus of Nazareth had told them years earlier, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel!” He had brought that kingdom at hand by driving out demons, by healing the disabled and returning them to inclusion and usefulness in their communities, thus transforming their lives. And He had raised the dead. In short, He freed people.

And Jesus of Nazareth called them to believe in the gospel; the gospel He had preached. In other words, He demanded that those He healed and His listeners have faith in Himself. Neither Moses nor Buddha nor Mohammed had made this demand. Only Jesus of Nazareth makes this demand that we believe in Him.

But this morning, as the women gather to anoint His body, He calls them beyond being followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He calls them to become Christians.

The two men in dazzling garments who were in the empty tomb help the women make the conversion. They said: “Remember what He said to you … that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified and rise on the third day.”

The women pondered the words of the two men in the tomb and perhaps they noticed something about those words. “He will be handed over … and be crucified … and rise on the third day.” They, and Jesus, didn't say that there would be a chain of adversities, but He would rise. It would not be a mere happy ending. Suffering, dying and rising all came together … a package deal.

The women recalled that He had said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me … he who would lose his life will save it.” Another package deal.

On this morning the women have a conversion experience. (You have to for this to sound like a good deal!) They are converted from confidence in Jesus of Nazareth to faith in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ makes them Christians.

Peter is converted by seeing the empty tomb. The men on the road to Emmaus are converted by their burning hearts and the breaking of the bread.

We, too, are called to conversion from a life based on avoiding adversity. We are called to make an act of faith in the person of Jesus Christ that will draw us into a relationship with Him. It will be Easter when we have this relationship with the Risen Christ. It can't and won't be Easter until we do.

The relationship is one of love and trust. Trust is the virtue of risk-takers. The risk is taken in a community. Like the three women, we together take a risk we could never take alone. We risk all the components of our humanity: intellect, will, conscience, and capacity for relationships. These include our vulnerabilities: our sensitivities, our weaknesses, our secrets. Through community we give all of these to God in an act of faith in the Risen Christ. Such an act calls for conversion, for a change in one's path of life. We change from a path of avoidance to one of moving toward.

The experience of walking on this new path is our experience of the resurrection. It is a change in perception in our intellect, will, and conscience and a change in what our heart is set upon.

And with this we know that our past, our sins, have been forgiven. That is the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ. The Risen Christ frees us from our sins, from a life of avoidance. So our personal experience of the resurrection is an experience of FREEDOM. The art of being human is the art of using our freedom. Once freedom is received it does not continue to exist without effort. Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, we make this effort in community. Like them, this freedom has limits. Those limits are defined by the goal of the freedom: the service of God.

The resurrection grounds a Christian's hope in the future. We respond to it with a relationship of love and trust.

It will be Easter when we have this relationship with the Risen Christ. It cannot and will not be Easter until we do.