Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fire and water, darkness and light.

Last night I was privileged to serve as principal celebrant and homilist at the Easter Vigil at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in the Streetsville neighbourhood of Mississauga, Ontario. I'm grateful to the pastor, Father Marc-André Campbell, for giving me the opportunity to celebrate the Mass, which included six baptisms and ten confirmations (which were, respectively, the first baptisms and first confirmations I've ever performed). For those who may derive edification from my humble efforts at preaching, the text of my homily follows.


Tonight we're celebrating the Easter Vigil, which the Roman Missal describes as "the greatest and most noble of all solemnities," the summit of the liturgical year. At the start of tonight's liturgy, while preparing to bless the fire and to prepare the Paschal Candle that we now see in the sanctuary, I recited a prayer which speaks of the Easter Vigil as "this most sacred night, in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life." The same opening prayer also promises all of us that "[i]f we keep the memorial of the Lord’s paschal solemnity in this way, listening to his word and celebrating his mysteries, then we shall have the sure hope of sharing his triumph over death and living with him in God."

I. An Invitation to Mystery

The liturgy of the Easter Vigil is tremendously rich, and there is more going on here than I can hope to articulate in a few minutes. From the blessing of the new fire and the procession of the Paschal Candle to the baptismal rites which we will soon celebrate, from the singing of the Exsultet to the Gloria and the Alleluia and the stirring Easter hymns we sing on this night, from the creation account in Genesis and the story of the Exodus to the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospel, this liturgy offers a feast for the senses, a series of vivid reminders in word and image and symbol that Christ has overcome the power of death and shown us the way to eternal life. To try to capture the full meaning of the mystery we celebrate tonight would be impossible, and yet through this mystery we find ourselves invited to share in the very life of God. A Russian theologian of the last century named Sergius Bulgakov expressed this point very well when he wrote about the Easter Vigil. As Bulgakov put it, "In the Paschal night we are offered a foretaste of the age to come, the possibility of entering the kingdom of glory, the kingdom of God. The language of our world has no words to express this revelation of the Paschal night, its perfect joy." We have no words to sum up this mystery, and yet, as Bulgakov goes on to write, Easter "is life eternal, consisting in being led by God and communion with him."

II. Fire and Water

To reflect on what it means for us to be led by God and to share communion with him, I'd like to look briefly at two pairs of symbols that play an important role in the Easter Vigil. The first pair of symbols is found in the elements of fire and water. We began this liturgy with the blessing of the new fire, and soon we will bless the water with which our catechumens will be baptized. The prayer for the blessing of the fire reminds us that, through Jesus Christ, God "bestowed upon the faithful the fire of [his] glory," expressing the hope that through our celebration of Easter "we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires, that with minds made pure we may attain festivities of unending splendour." The great Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, calls on all the earth to "be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King." On this most sacred night, we pray that the love of God may so enflame our hearts that we can share his love with the world – and that we can live with such zeal and dedication that we can someday share in the gift of eternal communion with God, the "festivities of unending splendour" that the saints enjoy in heaven. We pray that the experience of this liturgy may help us to become like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them as they encountered the Risen Lord (Lk 24:32). In sharing our love of God with others, we can become more like the God we follow – a God whose love for humanity burned so intensely that he chose to become like us in all ways but sin, taking on the frailty of the human condition, and suffering death on our behalf so that he could rise again and rescue us from the death of sin, giving us the ability to live with him forever.

As I noted already, tonight's liturgy also makes much of the role of water. This comes out strongly in the blessing over the baptismal water which I will impart in a few minutes, which reminds us that water has played a part in salvation history, from the account of the creation of the world that we heard in the first reading (Gen 1:1-2:2), to the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt through the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14:15-5:1), to the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, to the baptism which our catechumens will shortly receive. The prayers of this baptismal liturgy remind us that through baptism God "has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit," forgiving our sins and restoring our human nature to its original image. As the Apostle Paul tells us in tonight’s epistle, "we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).

Water is a powerful symbol of our spiritual rebirth, our regeneration in Christ. Water can also be seen as a symbol of the way in which God works in each of our lives. There may be times when God touches our lives in dramatic ways, bestowing on us "the fire of [his] glory," to borrow from one of the prayers of this Mass. At other times, though, God works quietly and slowly, so much so that it may take us a while to perceive the presence of the God who has been gently working in our lives to draw us closer to him. God often speaks to us in very subtle ways, not only through prayer but through the experiences of our lives – through conversations with others, through relationships, through the many sights and sounds that we see each day. Rather than entering in a blaze of glory, God sometimes enters our lives through many small experiences of grace, experiences which may seem like tiny drops of water – when God comes to us this way, it may take us a while to see how much God has given us, as we are slowly filled with the grace of God’s presence.

For those who are being received into the Church tonight – as well as for all of us Christians – it may be worthwhile to reflect on how God has invited you to follow him. How did God's grace come into your life? Did God reveal himself to you as dramatically as he did to Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, or to Mary Magdalene and the other women who came upon the empty tomb? On the other hand, did God's invitation to you come quietly and gradually, slowly giving you the certainty and the courage to respond to his call?

Some of you may be able to relate to St. Paul, struck down on the road to Damascus by a blinding vision of Christ in glory. Others may relate more easily to St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions of the long and often winding journey that led him to choose to be baptized, of his struggles to come to know the truth and to respond to God's invitation to follow him. Reflecting on your own journey to the faith, seeing the signs by which God led you to this decision, you may be able to make your own the words which St. Augustine offered in prayer: "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace" (Confessions, Book 10, para. 38).

III. Darkness and Light

Finally, I'd like to say a few brief words about another pair of symbols: darkness and light. The movement from darkness to light is a major theme of the Easter Vigil; we began in a darkened church, illuminated at first only by the light of the Paschal Candle, then by many candles held by each of us, and finally by the all the bright lights that now surround us. The Exsultet which was sung at the start of this Mass speaks of the light of the Paschal Candle as "a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light," a light which we pray may "mingle with the lights of heaven" and "be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets," Jesus Christ. The light of Christ that has overcome the darkness is a light that we are called to share with others, just as we have shared the light of this candle. My prayer for all of us – and especially for our catechumens – is that our faith in the risen Christ may help to illuminate our community, just as the light of the Paschal Candle illuminates this church. May the light of faith we celebrate this evening be a light to our world, that we may help to bring others to the goal we seek – the goal of eternal life in the kingdom of God, where the light of Christ shines brightly for eternity.


Easter blessings to all who celebrate today. AMDG.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Es ist vollbracht.

Resuming a Good Friday tradition of this blog, here is the aria "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is accomplished") from J. S. Bach's Johannes-Passion, BWV 245. This video comes from a 1985 performance by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (RIP); the soloists are Panito Iconomou (alto) and Christophe Coin (playing the viola da gamba, a Baroque instrument).

In the Johannes-Passion, this aria comes immediately after Jesus' final words on the cross - "Es ist vollbracht" in the German text - and right before the Evangelist announces Jesus' death. Given below in the original German and in an English translation from the Bach Cantatas Website, the words of the aria move from mournful lament to sure yet somber faith in Christ's final victory:

Es ist vollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schließt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!


It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

Prayers for those who are celebrating the Paschal Triduum, and good wishes to all. AMDG.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Lenten homily.

As I've done occasionally in the past, I'm going to share the text of one of my homilies - in this case, one given earlier this afternoon at Regis College in Toronto for Wednesday in the Fifth Week of Lent. Having embraced the choice provided by the lectionary of replacing the readings of the day with another set of readings provided for optional use this week, I preached on the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). I offer the homily here in hopes that it may offer consolation and edification to the readers of this blog.

I. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (Jn 11:21, 32)

At first glance, today's Gospel reading does not present Jesus in the best of lights. Martha and Mary were eager that Jesus should come to visit their ailing brother Lazarus, and his refusal to do so until after Lazarus's death clearly caused them great anguish. Indeed, the text can even be taken to present Lazarus's death in crudely instrumental terms – it seems that Jesus intentionally waited for Lazarus to die in order to provide an occasion for a miracle. Justifying his decision to stay away, Jesus tells his disciples: "For your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe" (Jn 11:15).

It is probably easy for us to identify with the words with which Martha and Mary both greet Jesus: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (Jn 11:21, 32). These words speak to a kind of spiritual pain which many feel in times of personal loss – when people we love die, especially when their deaths are unexpected, God may seem absent to us. At some point, we may also have cried out in prayer, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" – or if not my brother, my sister, my father, my mother, my child, my spouse. The anguish that Martha and Mary feel is very raw, and it has an effect on Jesus. John tells us that, in seeing how his friends grieved for their brother Lazarus, Jesus "was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved," such that he too began to weep (Jn 11:33,35).

II. "Jesus began to weep" (Jn 11:35)

The emotion displayed by Jesus is highly instructive for us, not simply as people who have experienced suffering but also as people who wish to be better followers of Jesus, and who wish to bring his message to others. As I noted above, Jesus suggests that the death of Lazarus is meant to convey a kind of lesson, revealing that the Son of God is able to overcome the power of death (cf. Jn 11:4, 11, 15). John makes this very clear, but he also us another lesson by reminding us that the God we worship and the Lord we follow is one who suffers with us. Jesus does not stand by impassibly as Martha and Mary grieve for their brother Lazarus; he expresses the depth of his compassion by weeping with them, showing a willingness to enter into their suffering and to make it his own. At times we may feel alone and abandoned, as Martha and Mary did, yet the response of Jesus reminds us that we are never alone, that God remains with us even when we struggle to feel his presence.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to imitate his example as best we can. I suspect that raising others from the dead is not in the cards for any of us - but if you've somehow found a way to pull it off, please let me know. What we can do is seek to imitate Jesus in his compassion. Lent is a good time to take stock of the ways in which we have done this, and the ways in which we have fallen short. How do I enter into the suffering of others, and make it my own? How do I extend the love and the compassion which Jesus models for us to those who need it most? If I struggle to answer these questions, can I find in that struggle an invitation to do more – to become more compassionate, even to weep as Jesus does in the company of his friends Martha and Mary?

III. "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" (Jn 11:22)

As I said earlier, I think we can easily identify with the reproach that Martha and Mary offer to Jesus – "if you had been here, my brother would not have died" – but I wonder if we can also identify with them on another level. Of the two sisters, Martha is traditionally seen as the embodiment of the active life, while Mary is regarded as a classic contemplative. In Luke's Gospel, Martha is the one who busies herself with the task of preparing to welcome Jesus, while Mary is content to sit at Jesus' feet listening to his words (Lk 10:38-42). We don't find that story in John's Gospel, but John does tell us that Mary of Bethany was "the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair" (Jn 11:2). To my mind, this detail suggests an essential harmony between what Luke and John say about the two sisters: the act of anointing that John describes is an act of adoration, an act that seems more fitting for the contemplative who sits at Jesus' feet than it does for the person who busies herself with the practical demands of housekeeping.

Given the difference in temperament or personality between Martha and Mary, I find it very striking that Martha, the one who was "busy with many things" (Lk 10:41), is also the one who follows her reproach of Jesus with a profession of faith: "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" (Jn 11:22). Mary, who had chosen "the better part" of contemplation, makes no such statement; she only says again: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died."

In the Ignatian tradition, we seek to bring action and contemplation into harmony – to show that the life of Martha is not in tension with that of Mary. The synthesis of the two is very important, but for now I'd simply like to end by noting that Martha makes her profession of faith in a moment of great personal anguish – she professes her faith that Christ can do all things, even raising the dead, at precisely the moment when her faith has been put to the test, when she has experienced the disappointment of feeling the Lord’s absence at the time when she most desired his presence. As we continue our Lenten journey, let us pray that we can make Martha’s faith our own – that even at times of great personal struggle, we can also courageously profess the faith that has determined the course of our lives.


Prayers for all readers who are presently engaged in the spiritual combat of Lent. AMDG.