To celebrate this Easter day, the final day of our email pilgrimage to Easter, I’m happy to give the floor to Bishop Paul Martin, Bishop of Christchurch, sharing his homily at last night’s Easter Vigil in St. Mary’s pro-Cathedral in Christchurch.
Transcript of Easter Vigil Homily of Bishop Paul Martin SM:
What a great way to begin a liturgy on an autumn evening, gathered around a fire, flames giving light and warmth and serving as a beacon for those arriving, then sharing the light with candles in lively procession (as we are reminded in the Easter proclamation): “the pillar of fire banishing the darkness of sin.”
It wasn’t like this for the people of Paris as they watched their cathedral burn on Monday night. In those hours fire as a destructive power was at work destroying beauty and causing fear and grief. Thanks be to God there was no loss of life, but our grief is real for any building which houses the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of human life as a house of worship does.
We have been through similar suffering with the loss of our own cathedral. We recognise our need for stability in the midst of the ups and downs of life, and we know already that our own attempts at happiness using projects, possessions and relationships repeatedly leave us unsatisfied. So if beautifully crafted, well-constructed rock-solid buildings can’t provide the stability we need, where can we look? What can deliver us healthy and happy human life?
Tonight’s liturgy gives us the answer. Beginning with fire, this liturgy of Holy Saturday evening is the highlight of the Church year. This night gives us a feast of faith and it’s no exaggeration to call this holy night the high-point of all human existence.
Without this night, human life ends with death. “Our birth would have been no gain had we not been redeemed,” but because of the resurrection of Jesus we are offered abundance of life forever, and today. Yes! This life, which is our deepest human desire and longing, is given to us as a gift. But a gift must be received and herein lies the human struggle, the saga we call our salvation history.
Tonight we have heard this history summarised in several key scripture readings. These reports are not simply a secular account of the rise and fall of buildings, but neither are they superficial tales of humans’ interactions with one another coloured by a winner’s bias. In tonight’s scriptures, after hearing of the creation of our world and man and woman created in the image of God but then rejecting this gift, we hear of the repeated attempts by God to re-establish full relationship between God and people.
Without the resurrection of Jesus, our human existence stops at the grave, the dust and ash of the cemetery and crematorium. Note that Jesus’ resurrection is not like the raising of Lazarus, a resuscitation of a corpse – the poor man had to die again! But on this holy night we are given new hope, reminded of Moses called and inspired by God from the flames of a burning bush that was not destroyed by the fire that enveloped it. Moses: who lived in relationship with God and was therefore able to lead people from slavery to freedom.
And so after the first two parts of tonight’s liturgy (The Liturgy of Light and Liturgy of the Word), we will move in a few moments to the Baptismal liturgy, where water (which can be so destructive in flood) becomes the pathway to life: “This is the night, when once you lead our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea”.
After Pentecost the first Christians had some big decisions to make as they grew to understand that Jesus had not departed in his Ascension, but had entered the realm of life that is the human desire and destination for every one of us. After witnessing his Ascension and receiving the Holy Spirit of Jesus in Pentecost they realised that Jesus was more present with them now than he had been when he walked alongside them and chatted and ate and drank with them as a human friend.
Take a moment to let that sink in: Because of his resurrection Jesus is more present and available to us today than he was to his disciples before his crucifixion. And with two thousand years of Christian experience and powerful examples of Christian life in our own time we can see the supreme advantage of living in relationship with Jesus – a God who is indeed with us.
Having learnt from their Jewish roots that people of faith who live daily in relationship with their God gathered weekly to worship together, the first Christians needed to make a decision about which day would be their new Sabbath. Perhaps Thursday evenings to recall the Last Supper and Washing of feet? Maybe Friday afternoons at three to mark the suffering and death of the Lord? Or would Saturday be best, to proclaim the fulfilment of the Jewish Sabbath?
But these first Christians were clear in their decision and tonight’s Gospel proclaims it clearly: On the first day of the week (that is Sunday) at the first sign of dawn, for the SON has risen and the evidence is not simply the word of a friend but a cosmic light, the rising of the sun in the east, recognised by and visible to all who seek Him. This is why the first Christian churches were built to face east, the rising sun, with morning Mass celebrated as the sun through open doors illumined the worshippers: the darkness of suffering and death transformed by a cosmic event, the rising of the sun.
Friends we gather here tonight in desperate need of resurrection life. In our own lives there is suffering and anxiety. At times we feel burdened beyond what we think we can bear. But this suffering brings us to our knees, the appropriate posture for the disciple who seeks to be an intimate friend of Jesus.
Just as the earthquake shook the land at the moment of Jesus’ death, it was an earthquake that helped to bring our diocese to its knees nine years ago. This places us firmly with the first disciples of Jesus, His friends who knew that they were weak since they had abandoned Him when he most needed their presence and support. But after the resurrection Jesus seeks them out again. “But we are not worthy” they say to him – “we have proved that we are not reliable – we are the wrong people for your mission”.
But Jesus gazes at them with love causing a new fire to burn in their dark and fearful hearts: Now their hearts burned within them as Jesus reminds them that it’s not their success that He needs, but their need. Jesus needs their need. And now, at last, they accept that they are needy.
Friends, we disciples of Jesus know our need. That’s what has brought us here tonight. My conviction is that here in Christchurch we have (through pain and suffering) been gifted with a new beginning, a new resurrection. Each one of us knows our own person suffering and struggle. Following the tragic mosque shootings we see a new friendship growing with people who experience and relate with God in different ways. Our diocese is about to embark on a new era of sharing the life-saving reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, unafraid of decisions that might involve restructuring and rebuilding.
Let us like the first resurrection disciples of Jesus allow our Jesus Christ our saviour to cast aside all our fear giving a renewed flame to faith burn within us:
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.