Mar 26, 2016

Easter: From Agony to Ecstasy!

"Why do you seek the living one among the dead?"

(Lk 24)

A well-known religious film that appeared on the scene in 1965 stared Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison in respective roles of the genius inspired artist and sculptor, Michelangelo and the controversial Pope Julius II, entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy.

That true story depicted the ongoing struggle of wills between two giant personalities – Michelangelo the brooding, temperamental, fiery artist, and inspired genius of the 1500’s and Pope Julius II, the grand sponsor of the present day St. Peter’s Basilica who saw himself as the great re-builder of the city of Rome after the example of Julius Caesar. Humility was not Julius' forte! The story relates the events around Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These two commanding historical figures of the 16th century have become symbols of suffering, passion, beauty and artistic genius.

We have just completed our journey through Lent; as we recalled the agony of Christ: the last supper, the passion, death and burial of Jesus. But now we see to where it has lead – to the ecstasy of the risen Christ, the birth of new members in the Christian-Catholic faith through the gift of the Holy Spirit in the waters of Baptism, the anointing with sacred Chrism in the sacrament of Confirmation, and the food which sustains us as the very true presence of Christ among us - his body and blood in the Eucharist. There is no doubt that the resurrection is the very foundation of our Christian faith – it is the rock we stand on; the meaning and purpose in our life of faith.

But, we cannot prove the resurrection – it defies reason, logic and every conceivable law of nature. Dead bodies do not come back to life. But Jesus now assumes some mysterious, touchable, visible form which combines spirit and matter, no longer subject to the natural laws of death and decay. This is resurrection – a form yet to be seen and experienced in eternity. Scholars agree that Jesus’ resurrection is not at all a miraculous return from the dead or something like a near death experience. If that is what the resurrection was, then Jesus would have died again. When Jesus appeared to his Apostles, he told no story of a tunnel of light, or hovering over his body, or seeing long lost dead relatives waiting for him.

Yet we will hear this Easter season of the reaction of the Apostles, of Mary Magdalene, of Thomas who doubted, of talking angels who questioned visitors at the empty tomb that early morning, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Lk 24: 1-10). We will hear of disciples whose lives were instantly transformed from fear to overwhelming joy, wonder, and bold courage. So convicted were they that Jesus was alive and eternally present again that no force or threat on earth could change their minds. So, Easter indeed challenges us to imagine a God with no boundaries – this God with no limits; a God for whom nothing is impossible (Lk 1: 37).

This is not a celebration of science and logic but this grand feast of Easter is the beginning point of deep faith - of time and space beyond time and space. It is about our belief and identity as God’s people. Easter reminds us that God’s invitation is extended beyond boundaries, beyond race and nationality, beyond politics or geography – God’s invitation in Christ Jesus is open to anyone who “testifies” that Jesus is Lord and universal Savior of humanity. That he is the anointed one – come to bring freedom from sin and death to all humankind.

The rising of Christ from the dead gives hope to those who have died. And if the dead have hope then the living also have hope. If we the living have hope, then the death and resurrection of Christ is true.

The great witness we have today in our Gospel story is that of the empty tomb. Women, named Mary Magdalene and Joanna and men named Peter and John who could hardly contain their joy and wonder once they came to conviction – because of an empty tomb. But, that alone would not be enough.
Something more needed to happen and it did as Jesus appeared to them – but something even more was needed. How they interpreted what happened and what happened to them as a result is the most convincing truth of the resurrection.

Where do we find the risen Christ today? We no longer look in empty tombs but in His Church, His Body – Jesus baptizes, confirms, becomes our food of liberation in the Eucharist, unites in marriage, comforts the dying, forgives sin, chooses and calls in the priesthood. In those holy sacraments the risen Christ continues his work.

And, in our world today, where there is far too much agony and not enough ecstasy, many are confused, lost, abandoned, hurt, empty, despairing, filled with prejudice and hatred, unloved and forgotten. Many people are dead in spirit and mind or numbed by a world which presents promises that cannot fulfill; that the answer to every problem can be found only in science, technology, money, or fame.

The rising of Christ reminds us that faith in Him overcomes the feelings of death and the empty promises – that death has no power over us and that we are of equal value in the eyes of God. That no matter how far away we have gone, we can always come home. That death is never the final end and life beyond death is a guarantee we are assured of.

This is the good news of Easter and the invitation to every one of us to share in the life of His Church. God has no limits. To bring this good news to a world that is empty - To replace the agony of meaninglessness, or science and technology alone, of loneliness and rejection, of poverty and sadness with the ecstasy of faith and hope.

Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!

O God, who on this day, 
through your Only Begotten Son,
have conquered death
and unlocked for us the path to eternity,
grant, we pray, that we who keep
the solemnity of the Lord's Resurrection
may, through the renewal brought by your Spirit,
rise up in the light of life. 

(Roman Missal - Easter Collect)