Homily Preached at the Easter Vigil at St. John's Seminary
He is Risen! He is Truly Risen!
Tonight, and for the next fifty days, we will pray in this chapel under the light of the Paschal Candle. This light of Christ illuminates our minds and our hearts and can assist us in seeing and understanding the priestly vocation more clearly.
Yesterday, I received a text message and a photograph from a former parishioner a man named Niall. Niall and his wife were both faithful parishioners of mine. The photo was of one of his sons, Matthew. The text said, “This wee lad is nine years old today.”
On the Monday of Holy Week, nine years ago, I was vesting for the evening Mass when Niall called from the hospital. During birth, some catastrophic event took place and the doctors were telling Niall that neither his wife nor his baby might survive. After saying the fastest Mass I’ve ever said, I went to the hospital. Niall and members of his family were gathered around his newborn son, while his wife was undergoing surgery. The baby was connected to tubes, wires, and machines. Everybody, including the nurses was crying. Medical equipment was eerily beeping and machines were revving up and revving down. I was really struck by the fact that as wonderful as all of this medical technology and scientific knowledge was, Niall—a man of great Faith--knew that it was not enough. Those things could attend to Matthew's medical needs, but they could not attend to the deepest and most profound needs.
So there, in the midst of all of this amazing, state of the art, technology, was me, holding a little container of water and a little container of Chrism. I leaned in and poured a few drops of water on this tiny infant’s head, saying, “Matthew, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And then, I delicately applied Chrism to his head, and said, “Matthew, be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.”
In that moment, Matthew’s entire life was incorporated into the Paschal Mystery, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is certainly true that on that night, medicine, technology, science, and incredibly dedicated and skilled doctors and nurses saved the life of Matthew (and the life of his mother), but only Jesus Christ could truly save Matthew. Only Jesus Christ can truly save us-- entirely and completely.
The Easter Vigil begins with the priest carving into the Paschal Candle the Cross, the numerals of the year, and the Alpha and the Omega. This is an apt image of the priest’s whole life and ministry. It is the priest—in every age and in every place—who unites people to Christ. All time belongs to Christ and all of the ages. Most especially through the Sacraments, the priest unites people to the death and resurrection of the Lord. He, in a sense, carves them irrevocably, into the very body of Christ. The priest inserts them—and every single moment of their life—the good, the bad, and the ugly, into the saving mysteries. Not just a part of their life. Not just select moments of their life, but every moment. All time belongs to Christ. And all of the ages.
Next, the priest places five grains of incense into the candle, commemorating the five wounds of Christ. These holy and glorious wounds are our offenses, they are our wounds. And yet, Christ willingly takes these upon himself. He who knew not sin, became sin. Christ takes us entirely and completely.
Yes, all time and all ages belong to Christ. Nothing is outside of his dominion. And so, the priest in his ministry—especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Sacrament of Penance, and in the Anointing of the Sick—brings the sins and wounds of fallen humanity to Christ. Christ saves everything.
No philosophy, no science, no technology, no political system or party can save us in our totality. We are saved only through the death and resurrection of Christ. And it is the privilege of the priest continually to be a minister of these saving mysteries, uniting persons in every age and in every time to Christ. Christ takes everything unto himself. He saves everything. Tonight, the Church even sings of Adam’s sin as the happy fault because it won for us so great a Redeemer. Christ does not stand aloof from our sins and failures. They have been carved into his flesh. By his stripes we are healed. Even death is swallowed up by Christ’s victory. In Christ, earthly realities are now mingled with heavenly. Heaven is wedded to earth.
A second way the Paschal Candle teaches us about priesthood is that the light of Christ burns relentlessly, but also patiently. The subtlety of the Gospel of Easter has always been a bit frustrating for me. I want something a bit more spectacular than a few women meeting some guy in a white robe who tells them to go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is risen and will meet them in Galilee. After the intensity of the past few days, I’d like something more earth-shattering than a message that says, “See you in Galilee.”
But this teaches us about the nature of the Gospel. There is a part of us that would like the Gospel to be more like a spotlight, turning it on, shining it on the unsuspecting, and resolving everything quickly. But the Resurrection and the spreading of the light of Christ is more like the mustard seed. It grows slowly and imperceptibly.
The disciples are to go back to Galilee because the light of the resurrection now shines a new light on their past and all that had happened to them. Our journey tonight had us go back. Back to the very beginning when the earth was a formless wasteland. Back to Abraham. Back to the Red Sea. In the light of the Risen Christ, all things are clarified. And so too, the disciples are to go back to Galilee in order to see all that happened during those years with Jesus in the light of the Risen Christ. We too must constantly return to our own Galilees, to our own history to see it in the ever increasingly bright light of the Risen Christ. It is only in the light of Christ that we come to know ourselves truly.
As we sit over the next fifty days beside this candle, let us be enlightened by its example. It steadily and relentlessly flickers. We are here today not because God suddenly turned a spotlight on us, but because a few women in Jerusalem two thousand years ago met a man in a white robe. They told others who then told others. There is a patience and a gradualness to the spreading of the Gospel. The effective priest does not need to tell everyone everything all at once. He does not need to shine a blinding spotlight into the eyes of those in darkness. Instead, he can live his ministry as one who is an attractive and warm presence to those who are afraid, to those who are ashamed. This way of living priesthood is faithful to the method of God himself.
At a moment when a new dark age—an age of unbelief--is settling upon the world, we could be tempted to think that we must somehow fix it all and fix it immediately. But the Paschal Candle shows us how to fulfill our mission. The light of Christ is symbolized by a candle, not a flamethrower. The Paschal Candle teaches us to be steadfast, but also gentle ministers of the Gospel.
Lastly, a third way that the Paschal Candle can instruct us how to live our priesthood: The candle is entirely consumed by its work. As the Paschal Candle gives off light, it expends itself. The good priest is the priest who gives himself entirely for the sake of his flock. Not begrudgingly, but willingly.
There is a temptation to see the needs of our people as an obstacle to our life. “If only these people would leave me alone, then I could get my work done.” Even if we attend to their needs, we can be tempted to give a look that lets them know that they are inconveniencing or interrupting us. I remember many years ago, the Cardinal had come to Mass at my parish and after Mass, I was trying to get him to the reception downstairs. As I went down this narrow staircase with the Cardinal behind me, a disheveled man blocked the way. (If you don’t know this already, let me assure you that beggars are experts at hitting you up for money at the perfect and most inconvenient times). We stopped on the stair case and this simple and disheveled man said, “Are you a priest?” In a very annoyed tone, I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Can you do me a favor?” I said something like, “I’m kind of busy right now. What do you need?” (I was waiting for the “I need ten dollars” request.) Instead, he pulled out a pre-paid cell phone, still in its package and held it up. He said, “I really need to make an important phone call and I just bought this telephone, but I don’t know how to read so I can’t read the instructions.” Then he said in all purity and simplicity, “So, I thought that I’d come to a church because priests are really smart and nice, and they help people.” Whenever I read Matthew 25, I think of that man. The needs of others are not interruptions to our work. They are our work.
In the light of the Paschal Candle, (in the light of the Risen Christ) we learn that our priesthood is for the people. The priest—like the Paschal Candle (like Christ himself)—is to spend his life in the midst of his people, not remote from them. The paschal candle burns in the midst of the people and for the sake of the people. Our life is meant to be spent with the people and for the people.
Tonight brothers, the Risen Lord shines here among us. This light of Christ can teach us how to be priests. In this light, we can see the priestly ministry, fraternity, and example of the priests who serve here. And in this light, we can begin already—in our mind’s eye--to see all of the people who—in their sufferings and joys--will one day be incorporated into the Paschal Mystery through your ministry, all of the people to whom you will ardently and gently preach the Gospel, and all of the people with whom and for whom you will spend your life. Because of your ministry, their lives will be truly saved, and they too will encounter and will live in the light of Christ. And for that, we can only say with joyful gratitude, “Thanks Be to God.”