Risen Life
(Easter Vigil Gospel: Mark 16:1-7; but especially Easter Day Readings: Acts 10:34, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9)
On Easter Sunday we celebrate the reality at the heart of our Christian faith. We celebrate the historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection brought hope and a new direction to the lives of Jesus' first followers, and so we pray that our celebration of Easter brings a similar increase in faith and hope in us.
As we prepare to commemorate the events of the first Easter morning we call to mind our unworthiness and lack of faith and we ask God for his forgiveness and his help.
The Easter Season takes us back to the experiences of the first followers of Christ, especially their experiences immediately after his Resurrection. The New Testament testifies that the reality which the first Christians announced to people wasn't the teaching or the parables that Jesus had given out during his ministry. The first thing they announced was the fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
This is what they invited people to believe in: that the same Jesus who went about doing good during his life was raised again to life after being killed on the Cross, and he appeared to certain witnesses - his own disciples.
And when the disciples met Jesus again after his Resurrection they understood what his life and ministry had been about. They understood that they were also being given the task of spending the rest of their lives proclaiming it. Saint Peter in particular claimed a certain authority on the grounds of being a witness to the risen Christ.
Obviously we can't have the same experience of actually meeting the risen Christ in the way his first followers did. Among many modern Christians this seems to have led to a tendency to imagine that the Resurrection is a kind of myth, or that it's just symbolic - the disciples somehow decided that they would "keep Jesus' message alive", and that meant he was "raised to life" in a figurative sense.
Or maybe, more often, it's more the case that all the other concerns and preoccupations in our lives mean that the Resurrection isn't something we give a lot of thought to. We accept it, but we wouldn't say our whole attitude to life revolves around it.
There are many sections of the New Testament which show that this was a problem for the Christian community right from the start.
St. Paul found himself having to tell the members of the Colossian Church "you must look for the things that are in heaven" and "let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth". Now that you've become Christians, he's saying, your real life is in God, and that means you should see your practical, day-to-day concerns in a different light.
What does St Paul mean? First of all, I think he means that when we genuinely have faith in Jesus' resurrection, it's our life here and now, which is always being spoiled by our weakness and selfishness, that is unreal, temporary, transitory. It's the life to come - the new resurrected life that lies ahead - that is real and permanent.
St Paul's advice is consistent, surely, with Jesus' own teaching. Jesus always indicated that his Kingdom started in this world and took shape in the world, in the concrete circumstances of people's lives and relationships. But he also insisted that the Kingdom was "not of this world" - that its fullest expression lies beyond this world and beyond the events of our lives in this world.
It's a mistake, or a misrepresentation, of the gospel to treat it purely as a vision of a transformed human society, as we are often tempted to do today. The truth is, I think, that both Christ's teaching and the preaching of the apostles after his rising from death, accept that there are certain features of human life and human sinfulness which are permanent as long as we're in this world here below.
At the heart of the paschal mystery, after all - our Easter faith - is the fact that Christ submitted to the effects of human sin, and it was by passing through that experience that he came to the Resurrection. It's a pattern that we're invited to duplicate in our own lives as an inevitable part of being a disciple.
This is a crucial part of our faith in Christ's Resurrection. It's not a case of having our head in the clouds or living in a mental world of childish, comforting fantasy. It's more a case of seeing what's really real and what's really important and being detached from the more or less selfish and earth-bound concerns that people who don't believe in Jesus' resurrection spend so much time and attention on.
Now whenever someone is baptised and becomes a new member of the Church the baptism liturgy makes the same connections between Christ's passage from death to resurrection, our new life and the idea of living the values of God's Kingdom now.
These are the themes that dominate the Easter liturgy as well, and every year we renew the promises that we made - or were made for us - when we were baptised. We do it every year on Easter Sunday and so, when we all have our small candles lit from the large Pascal Candle in the sanctuary, that's what we'll do again now.