Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Vigil (B)
The Power of the Word

Readings: Genesis 1:1--2:2; Exodus 14:15--15:1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

Dear sisters and brothers, tonight is truly a night to be joyful, a night to celebrate. And you will think me silly if I were to ask: “why are we so happy tonight? What exactly are we celebrating?” As the younger ones among us will say: “Duh!” It’s Easter! The Lord is Risen! Indeed, we began our celebrations by joyously hailing “Christ our Light,” who has triumphed over the darkness of sin and death. We were exhorted, in the Exultet, to “rejoice!” because “Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!” Yes, we are truly excited and exultant because Christ – who was crucified, died and was buried – now lives no more to die!

We all know that much. And yet, we dare not claim to fully comprehend the reason for our joy, let alone its implications for our lives. The mystery is too deep – so deep that we will spend the next fifty days of the Easter Season, and every Sunday after that, attempting to plumb its depths. Still, we can make a start, by considering how we will celebrate this liturgy together tonight. What significance does the Lord’s resurrection have for us here and now?

One aspect stands out. In a few moments, we will baptize forty-five new members into our community. Among other things, the ritual will require them to publicly renounce sin and to profess the Catholic faith. Following their lead, the rest of us, including the ten who will be received into full communion with the Catholic Church, will also publicly renew our baptismal promises. In making and renewing these promises we will neither be paying mere lip-service, nor simply going through the motions. Instead, our words are meant to have an effect on our lives.

By making and renewing these promises, we are saying that we will continually strive to live for God alone. In the words of that popular hymn by Paul Inwood, “O Lord, you are the centre of my life: I will always praise you, I will always serve you, I will always keep you in my sight.” Through these promises ours, we will commit ourselves to allowing God to be the one unifying force that holds together the fragments of our daily existence, and in this way, to give our lives new meaning. More than that, we are saying that we will allow God to be the centre of our life as a community. We, though many and different, will commit ourselves to letting God draw us together ever more closely into one people, into the one Body of Christ, and through us to continue to draw all peoples, indeed, all creation, into the embrace of God.

Simply put, in making and renewing our baptismal promises, we are declaring our faith in the unifying power of the word.

But is this not something very daring and even presumptuous? Will we really be able to faithfully live out these promises that we are making and renewing tonight? Just a week or so ago, one of our elect emailed me to ask if it would be all right if, after baptism, she were to refrain from receiving communion at Mass from time to time out of a sense of unworthiness. It is a good question, I thought, especially because it shows that she is reflecting very seriously on the concrete implications of her baptism. And isn’t it understandable that she should doubt the strength of her own commitment. Isn’t it natural that she should question the power of her own spoken word, her own promise, to unify her life in Christ and his church? Do not many, if not all, baptized Christians stumble from time to time?

And are we not living precisely at a time when the human word seems to be losing its power to unify? Is our daily reality not filled with the tragedy of broken promises? Do we not often postpone marriage because we despair over the possibility of remaining faithful “till death do us part?” Are our commercial transactions not often determined solely by economic considerations, such that the breaking of one’s word is tolerated, and even encouraged, if the price is right? Are not even the words of religion regularly misinterpreted and manipulated to suit our own selfish and perverse purposes? And on the international scene, are we not witnessing an ever growing polarization of views and interests – even in well-established democracies – often resulting in civil unrest?

And yet, important as it is to be honest and realistic about our own ability to live up to the promises we make, do we not also have to careful not to forget something essential to our faith, something that we are celebrating tonight? Isn’t the crisis of the word that we have just described precisely part of the darkness that the light of Christ has come to dispel? And if we indeed dare to make and renew our baptismal promises tonight, isn’t it only because we trust first in the unifying power of the Word of God, rather than solely in our own frail human utterances?

Indeed, this is the power that we heard proclaimed in our readings today. As God said, through the prophet Isaiah, “the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.” Which brings to mind that song popularized by Don Moen: “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.” We heard as much in the reading from Genesis, describing for us how God’s Word powerfully opens an avenue through the waters of chaos and darkness to bring into existence the goodness of creation. Similarly, in the reading from Exodus, we heard how the power of God’s Word, working through Moses, blazes a path for the Israelites, leading them through the Red Sea waters of confusion and defeat to the opposite shore in safety and triumph.

But powerful as these acts of God are, they point to something even greater. They draw us into the mystery of the power of Christ, the Word of God made flesh, who pioneers for us a way through death to new and more abundant life. In Christ, the Divine Word becomes a human word, so that, as we pass through the waters of our baptism, we too can share in his power. As we heard in the letter to the Romans, “when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.” And it is our trust and hope in this same Word of God that gives us courage and strength to make, renew and live out our baptismal promises. Even if further along the road we should falter, our hope is in the One who also stumbled on the way to Calvary, and who fell into darkness on the cross and in the tomb. But, as we are told in Mark’s gospel, that same tomb is now empty. The Lord who was crucified is now risen. And he frees us from the snare of the fowler who seeks to destroy us (cf. Psalm 91:3).

Is this not more than sufficient reason to be joyful: that weak though our words and hearts may be, we yet have a share in the power of God’s Word made flesh; and that even as we share in his power to unify us, we may, in turn become agents of unification and peace in our world?

My sisters and brothers, I wish you all a blessed and powerful Easter!

The Lord is risen!
Indeed, he is truly risen!
Alleluia! Alleluia!

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