Rising From The Ashes
Of all the sermons of the year, I somehow find the Easter sermon
the hardest to write. The reason is purely psychological—somehow, in
the midst of all the sorrowful meditations of Holy Week I have to
come up with something that conveys the pinnacle of joy. I have to
forcibly switch mindsets from the horrors that surround the most
terrible deeds of history, to write about the most glorious event of
But that’s Easter, isn’t it! It’s not like Christmas, where we anticipate the joy of the holiday through the whole of December, putting up decorations, lighting Christmas trees, planning gifts and parties for everyone. We follow Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, with the anticipated joy of their soon-to-be-delivered baby, who will be the Saviour of the world. But Easter, that’s a different kind of story altogether. We start with Shrovetide, and the anticipation of the Lenten fast. Ash Wednesday comes all too early and we’re reminded that we’re dust and unto dust we will return—not a happy thought, really, but one which is designed to motivate us as we launch out on the path of penance. Now we’re following our Lord into the wilderness, with the prospect of a forty-day fast in front of us. We eventually arrive at Palm Sunday, and we follow Christ into Jerusalem, singing with trepidation our Hosannas, as it hits us like a kick in the stomach that the last week of our Saviour’s life has begun, and that something most terrible is about to happen. This year was more terrible than most when the very day after Palm Sunday, Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was horribly disfigured by a fire that came very close to reducing the structure to the same ashes that were placed on our foreheads just a few weeks earlier. But the destruction of a building, no matter how venerable and hallowed, is as nothing compared with the murder of the Son of God. We now reach the very depths of the liturgical year, those terrible three days of darkness, the Sacred Triduum on which our Creator suffered in far worse ways than any of us poor creatures ever will. And he suffered because of us poor creatures, that’s the worst part of it!
But then comes Holy Saturday, and from the absolute lowest point of all history, there is a flash of light in a distant tomb, and we gasp to catch our breath as our Saviour walks out of that tomb, transforming death into life, and all our sorrows into joy. No theme park roller coaster can ever reproduce the rush of exhilaration we feel as we acknowledge that Christ is risen, and we force our lips at the Easter Vigil service to pronounce once again that forbidden word, Alleluia!
But from alleluia to alas! For we human beings are so very shallow, are we not! No sooner do we recover from the shock that the Lenten fast is over, the covers have come off the statues, and we’re back in white vestments, than it’s back to business as usual. Sure, we offer our annual tributes to the Easter traditions, painting a few eggs with the kids, then hiding them, then looking for them, never actually eating them though. We might even go so far as making a leg of lamb for dinner. But let’s face it, we didn’t find it any easier to get out of bed this morning than any other Sunday, we still have work tomorrow, and of course we’re still getting older, with more aches and pains every week. On a far more serious level, our friends are still dying, a cathedral in France is still, and will be for a long time to come, a skeletal ruin of its former glory. So really, at the end of it all, are we any better off than when we let the good times roll on Mardi Gras forty days and forty nights ago?
The answer, my friends, is staring us in the face, if only we would stop and think for a moment, and then acknowledge it in all its glory. Christ is risen! Risen from the tomb where he lay dead. By his glorious Resurrection he has transformed death, conquered death! He has transformed our despair into hope. Notre-Dame Cathedral will no doubt rise again from the ashes—they’ll rebuild the roof and the spire, clean up the stained glass, repair the organ. But far more importantly, those friends of ours, those loved ones who await death from terminal cancer or heart disease or whatever, they too will rise from the ashes. And so, my friends, will you and I. When I placed those ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday, I told you to remember, man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. But today on Easter Sunday, I tell you this: Remember man, thou hast a soul, and though your body may return to dust, your soul shall live forever.
Even that very dust of which you’re made, that too will one day rise again. For our faith tells us that we believe in the “resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” This is how St. Paul describes that glorious day: “Behold, I tell you a mystery, says St. Paul; “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” By rising from the dead, our Lord and Saviour has shown us that death is not the end, death is not the victor over life. When we die, it is not because we have failed to stay alive any longer. “Death is swallowed up in victory!” says St. Paul, and the end of our lives is actually the beginning of something far greater.
Our faith in the Resurrection, then, must transform our attitude towards the daily pains and grief we suffer into nothing more than the price we pay for our eternal reward. Sure, Christ paid for these himself by his own sufferings and death, but let’s not forget he admonished us that we too must take up our cross if we would his disciples be. It is not for us to sit back in our recliners, sip our gin and tonic, and smugly claim that “we’re saved”. It is for us to join our Lord on our own path to Calvary, because it is in the Holy Cross we find there that we come to really understand why we must first die if we are ever to rise from the dead. So let’s embrace that Holy Cross and exalt that it today stands empty!
From Christmas to Easter we have come full cycle. “From the Virgin’s womb to an empty tomb.” It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey, filled with joys and sorrows, much like our own journey from womb to tomb. But it is a journey that, because of the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead, we now know is one that ends in glory. “Thanks be to God,” says St. Paul, “which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Listen now, and watch, as our Lord reveals to you this greatest of all mysteries, that no matter what sorrows await us in this vale of tears, we will one day rise again from the dead to join him in everlasting glory. If we have followed him to Calvary, we will surely follow him to heaven. This is our future, this is our destiny. It remains for us to do our part.
Where Charity and Love Abide
On the night before he suffered, that is, on
this night, there were two things our blessed Lord wanted to
accomplish. We read about the first in the Epistle, and the second
in the Gospel.
In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul summarizes the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Mass. Here, in the solemn words of the Word of God, Biblical words that Protestants simply ignore or deliberately misinterpret, but words that have resounded daily in every true Catholic Church ever since that first Maundy Thursday, we hear the command to take and eat this bread, for this is no longer bread. It is his Body which is broken for us. And then the command to drink of this cup of wine, for it is no longer wine but the cup of his Blood, the Blood of the New and Everlasting Testament.
After an event of such paramount significance as the institution of the Holy Mass, we may feel that our Lord’s washing of his disciples’ feet, recounted in the Gospel, is rather an anti-climax. Is this simple action so very important when we compare it with the great miracle of Transubstantiation that has just taken place, the gift to us of not just a new sacrament, but one that would be the central trunk from which all the other sacraments would be the branches? And yet, if we think about it, this simple act of Jesus is a story that must be told, and the events of the night would not have been complete without it.
Let’s take note, first of all, that he washes the feet of all twelve apostles, including those of Judas. Knowing that Judas was about to betray him, our Lord says “Ye are not all clean,” and yet he makes this last ditch effort to clean Judas of his wickedness, knowing all along that it would be in vain. The act of washing his disciples’ feet was obviously one of supreme humility, and for our Lord to wash Judas’ feet in particular demonstrates the extent of that humility. For no sooner did his Lord and Master complete this humble washing of Judas’ feet as he arrogantly sat there, than the betrayer stood up on those feet and turned them in the direction of the waiting High Priests of the Synagogue. Here he would collect his blood money and tell them where they could arrest our Lord later that same night. In fact, those same feet would then lead the Jews to the very Garden of Gethsemane, where he would heartlessly ignore the pools of blood already sweat by our Lord, and seal his betrayal with a sacrilegious kiss.
But why did our Lord wash the feet of his twelve apostles? Ultimately, it was an act of love. The love of our Lord for his apostles. The love of God for man. It demonstrates clearly the humility of the Son of God. Our Lord had already humbled himself by becoming incarnate, being made “man”, and now on this very night, he had shown his disciples how he would perpetuate this act of humility and love, by dwelling forever amongst them and their successors as the Bread of Life in our tabernacles, upon our altars, and in our very souls and physical bodies. But the Son of God is hidden in his human form. He is likewise hidden in the form of bread on our altars. Some clear and unambiguous signal of this humble, hidden Son of God was needed. And so our Lord knelt before each of his apostles, abasing himself before them to wash their feet.
Today is not called Last Supper Thursday, nor Gethsemane Thursday, Betrayal Thursday, or Bloody Thursday. It is called “Maundy Thursday” after the Latin word from which “Maundy” derives. The Latin word is Mandatum, which means “command”, and refers to the words of our Lord after he has washed the feet of the Apostles and declares that he has given them an example to follow, “that ye should do as I have done to you.” That today is named after this specific command of our Lord underlines its significance and importance for us. It is a command to have the same humility with which our Lord washed his disciples’ feet. It is a command that we should never again look down on our neighbor, but that we should deliberately allow our neighbor to look down on us if needs be. We must always put our neighbor first, even if we don’t like him, even if he’s our enemy, like Judas.
When the Maundy ceremony is celebrated, one of the hymns that is sung is the famous Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. “Where charity and love abide, there is God.” And indeed, there is nothing that binds us closer to God than the love of God. That is why the command to love God “with our whole heart and mind and strength” is the first and greatest of all the commandments. But tonight, our Lord reminds us of that second great commandment “which is like unto the first...” namely, that we love our neighbor as ourselves.
And why? Because “where charity and love abide, there is God.” We don’t see very much of God in the course of our daily lives, do we? That’s because real charity and love are so lacking in those day-to-day lives. The world long ago replaced the true love of humility and sacrifice with the idea that love is a mere emotion, ranging from politeness through soppy sentimentality to the indulgence of every lust imaginable. To love, one must be politically correct, one must never say or do anything that could offend anybody at all, one must never challenge any erroneous belief whatever, no matter how insane. The only challenges now allowed are of those who stand up for truth and common sense.
Now and again, it’s a relief to see true fraternal love breaking through the clouds of intolerance, although it’s nearly always at times of crisis or grief, and only for a short time. We saw this, for example, in the days after 9/11, when we witnessed Republicans and Democrats linking arms and singing on the steps of the Capitol in their common love of their violated nation. We saw something similar this week with the terrible desecration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, when men and women from all walks of life stopped what they were doing to watch in horror as a part of their beloved heritage was destroyed, and how they too, instinctively, began to sing together the Hail Mary to the Mother of God, as her cathedral burned. In sharing a common loss and being reminded of the power and might of God, we seem to find our true brotherhood restored, as children of the same God, with a common bond uniting us together and to our Father in heaven.
“Where charity and love abide, there is God.” In one of the stanzas of this hymn, we sing about this unity, and we encourage ourselves to embrace it: “When therefore, we are joined together, let us see that we be not divided in spirit. Let all malicious wranglings and contentions cease, and let Christ our God be in the midst of us.” If all those who truly love God would be united in spirit, there would be no protestants, no modernists, no divisions, nothing but real Catholics celebrating together a real God and a true faith. If all Americans truly loved their country, the distinction between Republicans and Democrats would be limited to a question of the right tactics to make our nation a better place. There would be none of the kind of hatred we see today, where one party does everything in its power to prevent the other from succeeding in making America a better place for everyone.
As children of the same God, we are all called to unity with others who truly love the same things. Is it okay to have small and insignificant differences? Yes, and we should discuss them by all means. But to use them as a reason for dissension and schism? A house divided against itself cannot stand. If we are to prevail against the ever-worsening onslaught of modernistic principles that threaten to destroy our civilization once and for all, then we must have God on our side. And if God is to be with us, then charity and love must first abide.
Finally, let’s not forget the Last Supper we commemorate tonight. The Holy Eucharist is sometimes called the Sacrament of Unity. And why? Because it unites us with God and God with us. But alas, as our Lord pointed out, “Ye are clean, but not all.” There are those, perhaps in our very midst as Judas sat among the other apostles, who want nothing to do with charity and love. Who care not whether God is with them or he isn’t. Perhaps they don’t appreciate the enormous gift of grace they have been given to bring them here to the true apostolic Mass? Maybe they have listened with too much interest to the modernist lies? Or allowed themselves to be drawn in by the loose godless culture of the world that allows them to do whatever they want? It’s a very nice idea for some. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Just remember, these enticing words aren’t in our Bible! They’re in the Satanic bible, and will lead you, as willing victims, all the way to hell. Our blessed Lord himself tells us to love God and neighbor, and at the Last Supper he shows us how. Not by literally washing each other’s feet, but about having that state of mind towards our neighbor, of humility that is both a cause and effect of love. And most of all, by sharing with him in that Sacrament of Unity that he had just taught these same apostles to repeat in everlasting remembrance. True love of neighbor is to be found at the altar of God. For this is where we will find charity and love, this is where God is.