Christmas is easy. The lovely manger scene and the sentiment that surrounds it make an immediate appeal. Christmas tugs at the heartstrings of millions of people who may or may not understand the mystery of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God.
Easter is, literally, another story. The historical event itself is a challenge. Jesus, who truly died on the cross, just as truly rose in his body from the dead. Though the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul affirm this truth, they do not actually describe how it happened. It is a divine event attested to in human history, but it is finally beyond the grasp of both history and our human intellects.
At Christmas, God entered into our familiar life. At Easter, God broke through the limitations of human life and entered into a realm beyond death. The body in which Jesus emerged from the tomb is the same, yet profoundly changed. Jesus rises in his own body; but it is now immortal, glorified, transcending our normal physical universe.
The risen Christ goes beyond our familiar pattern of life and, even more amazing, he invites us to follow him into this new life. Yet our hope for salvation is not an escape from the material universe and from our bodies; on the contrary, our material bodies are to be redeemed and will be as at home in eternal life as our spiritual souls. That is the promise of Easter for us. Already we begin to live this risen life with baptism, when we are plunged into the death and resurrection of Jesus. We take into ourselves the seeds of immortality in Christ's risen body each time we receive Holy Communion.
In an address last month, Pope Benedict XVI said that Jesus' resurrection means two things for us: presence and truth. In his glorified body, the risen Lord is present wherever he wants to be, and he wants to be with us. Almost immediately after he left the tomb, he began to be with the witnesses chosen from among his disciples. Today Jesus continues to be with us, especially under sacramental signs in the Church. He, the Lord of glory, is present, perceptible to faith, and acts in the community of believers who belong to him and share in his life through faith and baptism. He continually deepens that life and restores its strength through sacraments that are his continuing gift and action in his Church. The mission of the Church is to announce the risen Lord and the salvation he brings for the whole world until he returns in glory.
In the fourth century, St. Epiphanius, a bishop on the island of Cyprus, wrote an Easter hymn in which God says: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. I have not created you to be in prison forever." This hymn contains the whole message of Easter. The Easter light is the truth that God makes known to us in Christ. The prison in which we are cut off from the light and plunged in darkness is our ignorance of Christ and our turning from his truth. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus as he tried him: "What is truth?" Pilate didn't want an answer. He remained in darkness and was enslaved; Jesus declared himself to be the Truth and was free to set us free.
Throughout the year, the members of the RCIA teams in our parishes announce that Christ is risen and explain the truth of what that means to the catechumens and candidates who receive the sacraments for the first time at the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday night. This is a marvelous liturgy, made more marvelous by seeing the working of God's grace in the lives of those who present themselves to the Church and ask for life and light from Christ. I am always grateful to the teams in our parishes who spend so much time and give so much love to this work at the heart of the Church's mission.
The fact of Christ's resurrection is the basis of our faith; the promise of our own resurrection is the basis of our hope. A merciful God wants to share his very life with us; and his Son shapes that life to conform to his own, even in his bodily reality. After Easter, as the whole Church with those recently baptized contemplates our destiny in Christ, the mercy of God causes deep rejoicing. We rejoice in the truth: Christ is risen. We rejoice in Christ himself and in his mystical body, the Church. We rejoice in those who witness to the truth in their conversion. We rejoice in the mercy of God, which leads us to truth and forgiveness and freedom.
May our Easter celebration this year be for all Catholics of the Archdiocese a source of great joy. Christ is risen and the mercy of God is available to all. Alleluia!