April 21, 2014

Homily for Easter, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

(Note: This homily is based on the readings for the Easter Vigil. The Old Testament readings cited are the third, fourth and seventh of those proposed in the Lectionary.)

Where to begin? There are so many readings to choose from, a real embarrassment of riches. A preacher can almost “pick a text, any text,” and just start talking.

There are, however, certain phrases that jump out at me this year. Let’s see where they lead.

In Romans, Paul declares emphatically: “Death no longer has power over Jesus.” A famous poet has expressed it even more powerfully and absolutely: “Death shall have no dominion.”

That is what the women in the Gospel story found out. There they were, on their way to pay their final respects by completing the anointing of Jesus’ corpse. And then, out of the blue, an angel says, “He is not here,... he has been raised!” The message is the same as in St. Paul: death no longer has power over Jesus.

So, following the angel’s instruction, the women hurry off to tell the other disciples, and then, out of the blue, “Jesus met them on their way!” Now they saw for themselves that what the angel said was true. Jesus had really shattered the bonds of death.

In Ezekiel, the issue is another kind of death, namely, exile. Here God seems more concerned about his own reputation: “Not for your sakes do I act, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name.” In other words, God wonders what people will think of him when they realize, “These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave their land.” They might wonder what kind of God this “Lord” is, to let his own people languish in exile.

But God also has a plan to preserve his reputation in the future: “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you.” Worship of alien gods will no longer be a temptation, exile will no longer be a threat.” He will shatter the bonds of sin, and his reputation will be safe!

The Lord had earned his reputation in Genesis and especially in Exodus. After the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses and all the people sang: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant.”

But some 700 years later, Isaiah (long before Ezekiel), witnessed the damage being done to God’s reputation by his people. He foresaw a time of punishment, but he foresaw also a time of reconciliation. And here we find the blessed, heart-easing words, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back..., with enduring love I take pity on you.” Tenderness, not punishment, will be the last word. Enduring love, not exile, will be the bottom line.

Which takes us back to Romans: Death no longer has power over Jesus. And so it no longer has power over us. This is true first in the literal sense, for St. Paul writes, “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

And it is no less true in the figurative sense. Nothing that we think of as a kind of death has power any longer. Not the loss of loved ones. Not the loss of friendships. Not the loss of our most precious possessions. Not even the loss of health. Death shall have no dominion!

Death’s reputation is forever ruined. In one of his “Holy Sonnets” the poet John Donne mocks death with these words: 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;...
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It’s all so wonderful. Where to begin?
And where does it end? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

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