The Empty Tomb (1889), Mikhail Nesterov
Happy Easter, everyone!
A very warm welcome to everyone who has joined us for this most sacred of celebrations. In a particular way, I would like to welcome those guests who are visiting from out of town and those who come from religious traditions other than the Catholic one. It’s an honor to have you here. I would especially like to extend a welcome to the nine men and women who will be receiving Catholic sacraments today, as well as to their family and friends; we rejoice that you are here to celebrate with us.
As some of you know, I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Rome, a place where I studied for four years while I was in seminary. It was my first time back as a priest, and despite several years of being away, I was surprised by how familiar everything felt. A few things were different since my last time there – Pope Francis for one, my own ability to celebrate Mass in some of the shrines and churches for another – but on the whole, I was amazed by how easily I felt right at home again amid all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Rome. I guess that's why they call it the Eternal City!
There was one particular experience though that, while not unfamiliar, struck me again in a new way. Rome is full of a lot of tombs. A city with such history is of course full of churches and basilicas, and in every one, you find tombs of countless saints, men and women alike. It is an ancient Christian practice to honor the dead, and for those who believed to have lived particularly holy lives, to build churches over their tombs in those churches, construct altars over their graves, and even to display their mortal remains or fragments of their bones in cases for all to see.
For those unaccustomed to the practice, it can seem a bit grisly or morbid. But actually it is rooted in an amazing belief, a belief we celebrate tonight more than any other. The men and women who lie in those tombs, whether as saints or as the great unknown, are remembered, are honored, are even displayed because they had faith in a reality greater than this world, in something – in Someone – who has conquered even death itself.
On this Vigil in the Holy Night of Easter, our hearts and minds are focused not on death but on life, not on any occupied tomb but on the Empty Tomb, the one from which the Author of Life has risen. It is the tomb, as we heard in the Gospel reading, in front of which the angel declared to the women, “He is not here, but he has been raised.” What those women experienced nearly 2000 years ago, what the disciples experienced and came to believe, what you and I are doing here tonight is to make a very particular, very bold statement of faith: that the man Jesus of Nazareth is also the Christ of God, his own Son, who though put to death for our sins, is now Risen, the Lord of all things, alive for all eternity.
That is the heart of our Christian faith, and ever since it was first proclaimed two millennia ago, the world has tried to refute it, ignore it, and persecute it. You can find today those who will argue against faith in the Resurrection; the broader culture that we live in certainly seems increasingly contemptuous of it; and you just have to watch the news to know that throughout the world there are believers in Jesus who are literally shedding their blood rather than give up their faith.
We are privileged to have with us tonight nine men and women who are not afraid of all that. They will not let those things or more keep them from fully embracing the Risen Lord. Instead, they stand ready to declare their faith in him and so to take their place among us, and among the countless men and women who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Some of them will receive the sacrament of baptism, by which we are first given a share in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the new life of grace given to us. Some of them will receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time, taking into themselves the Risen Jesus himself as spiritual nourishment. All of them will be confirmed with the sacred chrism, receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that they might in turn become witnesses to the Resurrection, ready to do or say all that they can to share the Good News of Jesus. How inspiring is their example to us, that the Spirit of God is still active in our midst and leading us to come to know Jesus.
The gift of faith, which they have received, which all of us pray to receive ever more fully, is not invulnerable however. It can be lost – if we allow ourselves to be burdened by distractions and discouragements, if we begin to let our spiritual lives be dictated by our experiences – how we feel rather than what we believe, if we start focusing on satisfying ourselves rather than serving others, then it is possible to lose the grace of new life. But because Jesus is Risen, it is always possible to get it back, to turn our lives back toward following the Risen One. The light of Jesus is never conquered by the darkness that we may find ourselves in; rather, all of our darkness – yes, even the darkness of death – is transformed by his light.
Our nine catechumens and candidates have undergone months of learning, prayer, and preparation, and they are ready to make a definitive act of commitment for the Lord who committed himself to them on the Cross. What I hope they remember – indeed, what I hope all of us remember – is that the essence of Christianity is not an idea, or a system of thought; it’s not a philosophy or a social plan of action. At the heart of authentic Christianity is a realization that the tomb is empty, that the one who gave himself over to death for our sake, is now alive and invites us to share in his new life. To be a Christian means to know the Risen Jesus, to encounter him through the sacraments of his Church, and to learn from him how to live each day filled with his grace.
My friends, as I walked around Rome a few weeks ago, I was indeed surprised again at the number of tombs and graves and remains I encountered. But even more I found myself moved by their faith – that their love of Jesus and belief in his Resurrection led them to endure every suffering or malady or insult, even to the point of their own death, rather than lose the encounter with the One they had come to know. For those who hope in Christ, for our nine catechumens and candidates, for us, even death is just transitory, just a stopping-over point on the way to the final reality of heaven. For those with faith, the tomb is merely a pause in the drama of salvation.
May the the Risen Christ, whose glory brightens this night, be for us all a constant guide through the darkness so that one day we may rejoice to share in his eternal Light.