For many people, Easter is just another holiday, differentiated merely by its pastel color scheme, chocolate bunnies, and Easter egg hunts. But in the Church’s liturgy we are reminded why life and death have been forever changed by the power of the Resurrection.
Before Jesus’ Resurrection, most of the ancient world thought that man was under the power of the movements of stars and other forces of nature, and many people ignorantly worshipped them or gods thought to control them. These capricious deities were worshipped by equally capricious, and sometimes quite vicious, acts. Love and friendship did not figure in man’s relation to the divine. The gods were appeased in fear.
This was the darkness of the world into which Christ entered, which we symbolize in our celebration of the Easter Vigil by carrying the Paschal candle into a darkened church. The deacon proclaims, “The Light of Christ,” to which we respond, “Thanks be to God!” Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has revealed to us the true nature of God, whom we can now address as Our Father. By rising from the dead, Jesus has also demonstrated his power over the laws of nature, which re-characterizes our relationship with the world as well. All things are subject to his providence. As children of God we are free and need no longer fear and appease dark and mysterious forces. Thanks be to God, indeed!
Many Eastern religions teach that we are reincarnated over many lifetimes. Accordingly, the good you enjoy in your current life you earned for yourself previously. Whatever you suffer now, you earned by the evil you did in a previous life. This leaves little room for gratitude or mercy. Far from a psychedelic fun-land, a world ruled by Karma is dark. In India I visited the Missionaries of Charity, who share the light of Christ through their works of mercy to the poor. Several well-educated, Hindu young adults told me, “it’s okay to help those people if it makes you happy but you are interfering with Karma.” Apparently, acts of mercy interfere with the suffering that poor, sick, handicapped, and “lower-caste” people deserve. That is darkness. But through the lives of Christians like the Missionaries of Charity, the light of Christ continues to spread and dispels the darkness, just as the light of the Paschal Candle is passed among the candles of the faithful gathered at the Easter Vigil to illuminate the church.
Similarly, the light of faith and confidence in human reason, created by God to know truth, have been spread throughout the world by the Church throughout its history, contrary to countless philosophies and ideologies that claim that truth is ultimately unknowable. Thanks be to God that the world is filled with hospitals, charities, and universities that flowed out of the Christian commitment to love as Jesus loved and to share the truth. The confidence to engage in such works stems ultimately from Jesus Christ, who rose victorious over death and ignorance as the Lord of life and truth.
Christ’s Resurrection also solves challenges faced by every person: our own faults, injustice, and unfulfilled desire for happiness. Before Jesus there were some who strove for virtue, but tax collectors and sinners were not “born anew” (John 3:3) from vicious lifestyles. Perhaps we take for granted the opportunity for conversion that Jesus gives us, having heard many stories of infamous sinners, including celebrities, who later “found Jesus” and began to live a totally new life. By his resurrection Jesus conquered sin and death, which makes possible for us a new life in Christ.
“Why do the wicked prosper?” is a common question in the Scriptures (Job 21:7; Ps. 73:3; Jer. 12:1). Jesus explained in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) how during their lives the wicked may receive good things and the righteous evil things, but in eternity the righteous will be comforted, while the wicked will receive the anguish they have sown. By rising from the dead Jesus proves that we too will one day rise to receive according to what we have done in this life (Rom. 2:6; Matt. 16:27; Rev. 22:12). This new horizon removes the burden of judging others and pursuing justice at all costs, since we can have confidence that God will bring this about in his time.
Carpe diem was the motto of the pagan world. This anxiety to quickly grasp what one can while one can has returned as large parts of our society become secularized. And yet, even while trying to suck the marrow out of life, we are still confronted by our inability to achieve total fulfillment. Some, especially those who have hit rock bottom in a futile pursuit of happiness, may conclude then that life is merely “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:11). However, by rising from the dead Jesus has won for us new life with a new horizon – eternal life in communion with God, who alone is man’s ultimate happiness.
As we continue to celebrate this Easter season, may we be blessed to know Christ and “the power of his Resurrection” (Phil. 3:10), so that, sharing in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death, we may live a new life in the Spirit and one day experience the ultimate joy of beholding God face to face for all eternity.
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., Easter Vigil 2016 at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC