EASTER VIGIL 2023
Dear friends in St. John’s,
Once again, we gather to celebrate God’s ultimate act of reckless generosity in liberating humankind from death and sin. The icon that each of you received with your order of service depicts Jesus’ descent into hell. It’s what we celebrate tonight, and the party goes on for the rest of our life. If you look at the icon you will see Jesus standing with his legs braced over two lengths of wood. These are the gates of hell, and this is Jesus in what our young people would call kick-ass mode. He has kicked down the gates of hell and, flattened beneath them, you can see a dark figure bound and chained. That is Satan, the binder of humankind, bound himself and forever impotent. In the dark emptiness around him you can see little white squiggles. If you look closely, you will see that these are locks and chains, which represent the addictions, sinful compulsions and toxic habits by which Satan binds us. They have all been burst open by the power of Jesus, crucified and risen.
The French philosopher Rousseau wrote, ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’. Some eighteen hundred years earlier St. Paul put this human dilemma into powerful words in his letter to the Romans:
‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. […] although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!’
Tonight’s vigil liturgy tells the history of our unfolding liberation, but it’s not about the history of religion. It’s about the fundamental and essential truth about the human condition and about God’s dream and our own for us to be fully alive. It’s also about our common struggle with what prevents human flourishing and Christianity’s answer to these deep questions of the human heart. Anyone here who has ever struggled to kick a habit will know what Paul is talking about. Anyone who has ever been in an embattled relationship, falling into the elephant traps of emotional damage we can inflict on one another despite our best intentions, anyone who has fought to overcome persistent faults and weaknesses in their own character will know. Anyone watching the television news & seeing the persistent failure of governments and nations to tackle poverty, racism, disease, violence and corruption is seeing writ large the civil war that is fought within each human heart to do good and overcome evil. The whole Bible is a testimony to the fact that it’s a war that we cannot win for ourselves.
The less than happy history of Christianity itself bears the most eloquent witness to this struggle. Christ was barely cold in his grave and risen out of it when his followers began quarrelling among themselves. Peter against Paul, Paul against Mark, all of them against the women. These were good people, who gave up all that they had to dedicate their lives to others. They were some of the greatest saints in human history, who shared with you and me and all humankind the struggle to be truly free. Since then we have seen in the lives of countless Christian women and men shining examples of heroism, courage and true devotion to the suffering poor, human lives lived to full capacity. But in each of them there has also been a shadow.
Go into any book shop and some of the fastest business is being done in the self-help section. You can buy any book, go on countless courses, watch the video, wear the T shirt, go to the meeting and drink the smoothie. One of the reasons that there’s such an endless supply of self-help material is because it doesn’t work. Profound, lasting personal transformation is not a matter of human will power. Ask anyone who has ever struggled with addiction. I spent twenty-five years in prison ministry, talking to murderers, prostitutes, drug addicts. and drug pushers. They bore eloquent testimony to the truth of this. I live in a convent, where I like to say that a good day in community is one in which no murder has been committed. Any member of a religious order will tell you the same. It’s not a matter of will power. It’s a matter of grace and of co-operation with the power of God.
The capacity of our race to shoot itself in the foot is definitively born out by our treatment of Christ himself. In the fullness of time, God entered the human arena in person to transform the human condition by living it from within. In Jesus Christ we had at last a human being fully alive, totally open to what it is to exercise true human freedom. The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner claims that,
‘That which is amazing and even confusing in the life of Jesus is that it remains completely within the framework of everyday living; we could even say that in him concrete human existence is found in its most basic and radical form. The first thing that we should learn from Jesus is to be fully human!’
We human beings found the freedom of Jesus and the freedom to which he called us unbearable, so we killed him. The central image of our faith is of a human body supremely unfree, skewered hands and feet onto a Cross. This is what we did to God, and this is how God allowed God’s self to be treated, because God’s greatest gift to us is precisely our freedom, including the freedom to refuse to believe and to reject the God’s self-revelation to us in Jesus. Most of humankind is currently enjoying that freedom to the full. We see the fruits of this every night on our television screens and on our streets.
Moral relativism and indifference to the truth have brought our world to where it now stands, and the poor are paying the price in their blood. The currency is all human suffering. In The Brothers Karamazov, Jesus stands imprisoned and accused by the Inquisitor. Because ‘Instead of taking over man’s freedom, (he) increased it, and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments.’ In another epic about the struggle between good and evil Milton wrote:
‘Liberty hath a sharp and doubled edge,
fit only to be handled by just and virtuous men.’
Down the ages, in an attempt to legitimize the status quo or the seizure of power by claiming the mandate of God, people have oppressed one another and have started wars, violent persecutions and massacres in the name of Christ. That is an abomination and a lie. The fundamental freedom of all human beings is exercised precisely when we act like God, not by claiming omnipotence but by living in love. Christianity is not principally about systems of belief or codes of behaviour. It’s a love affair with the only power that can free us from our slavery to the contradictions of our human condition. Many of our contemporaries enjoy pointing an accusing finger at Christianity as one of the principal loaders of chains on the ankles of humankind, listing such iniquities as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the pogroms against the Jews, the collusion with the slave trade, religious wars and the church’s historical treatment of women and people of homosexual orientation. These are indeed some of the darkest aspects of human history, made worse because, in blasphemous contradiction of the Gospel, they were perpetrated in the name of Christ, the ultimate liberator of all human beings.
In our icon, Jesus is pulling Adam and Eve out of the grave, as the first fruits of his resurrection, and he’s not asking nicely. He’s hauling them out of death and darkness by the wrist and with them all who died in unfulfilled hope of salvation. Tonight, our hope is fulfilled, and we are reminded that, as we heard on Palm Sunday, ‘the one who has hope lives differently’. The challenge for us as Easter people is to live differently so that we give witness to the hope that is within us. Our freedom was bought at a great price. Our lifelong task is to show that it was worth it.