Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012

“Christ Is Risen, As He Said”

Rome was grey and cool this morning, but the sun broke out just before the consecration at Pope Benedict’s Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, bathing the square in light, and heat.

(Some 200,000 people gathered in and near St. Peter’s Square for Easter Mass at the Vatican (photo credit: AP/Pier Paolo Cito)

In fact, one of the two con-celebrants with the Pope, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, seemed to feel faint, and was helped to a seat near the altar to sit down, and he remained there, unable to complete the celebration of the Mass at the Pope’s side. (I was able to observe the incident from a few yards away.)

(Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, one of the Vatican’s top diplomats and the head of the Vatican’s dialogue with Islam seemed to feel not well and could not continue to celebrate the papal Mass this morning)

The other concelebrant was Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American, who is the head of the Apostolic Signature, the supreme court of appeals in the Catholic Church.

Who is Cardinal Tauran? He is one of the Vatican’s most learned, thoughtful and courageous diplomats. Born on April 3, 1943, he is a relatively young 69 years old. His career in the Church has been almost meteoric. Born and educated in France, he was made the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State on December 1, 1990, by Pope John Paul II, at the young age of 47. He received his episcopal consecration on January 6, 1991, from John Paul II himself, with Archbishops Giovanni Battista Re and Justin Francis Rigali serving as co-consecrators, in St. Peter’s Basilica. As Secretary, Tauran served, in effect, as the “foreign minister” of the Holy See. This put Tauran in the center of a number of tense conflicts, including the conflict between the US-led coalition and Iraq. In regard to that conflict, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of dialogue and the role of the United Nations, and said that “a unilateral war of aggression would constitute a crime against peace and against the Geneva Conventions.”

He was elevated to the cardinalate in 2003, and is the current Cardinal Protodeacon.

Several years ago, he began to suffer from what is diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. However, because his condition seemed to be stable or improving, and because of his immense talent, in 2007 Pope Benedict chose him to be President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Roman Curia. In this office he also heads the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims.

In recent years, Tauran been one of the clearest voices in the Church on behalf of dialogue, especially between the Church and Islam, as a way to increase mutual understanding and avoid tensions and possible bloodshed. Tauran made an historic trip to India last fall, and just a few days ago was in Nigeria for a week, participating in meetings with Muslims and in religious ceremonies in Lagos, Jos, and Kafanchan, where there have been violent clases between Muslims and Christians.

It is perhaps not by chance, then, that among the points touched upon by Pope Benedict was the need for dialogue and peace between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.

Pope Benedict, though slightly hoarse in comparison to recent days, seemed strong despite a grueling schedule which included his 6-day trip to Mexico and Cuba two weeks ago, then a demanding series of Holy Week liturgies.

There was no homily during the Easter Sunday liturgy, just a moment of silence to reflect on the meaning of the Gospel account of the resurrection.

Then Benedict delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city (of Rome) and to the world”) message, precisely at noon, from the main loggia in the middle of the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, about 20 minutes after the end of the Mass. Here is the complete text of that message.

8 APRIL 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Rome and throughout the world!

Surrexit Christus, spes mea” – “Christ, my hope, has risen” (Easter Sequence).

May the jubilant voice of the Church reach all of you with the words which the ancient hymn puts on the lips of Mary Magdalene, the first to encounter the risen Jesus on Easter morning. She ran to the other disciples and breathlessly announced: “I have seen the Lord!” (Jn 20:18). We too, who have journeyed through the desert of Lent and the sorrowful days of the Passion, today raise the cry of victory: “He has risen! He has truly risen!”

Every Christian relives the experience of Mary Magdalene. It involves an encounter which changes our lives: the encounter with a unique Man who lets us experience all God’s goodness and truth, who frees us from evil not in a superficial and fleeting way, but sets us free radically, heals us completely and restores our dignity. This is why Mary Magdalene calls Jesus “my hope”: he was the one who allowed her to be reborn, who gave her a new future, a life of goodness and freedom from evil. “Christ my hope” means that all my yearnings for goodness find in him a real possibility of fulfilment: with him I can hope for a life that is good, full and eternal, for God himself has drawn near to us, even sharing our humanity.

But Mary Magdalene, like the other disciples, was to see Jesus rejected by the leaders of the people, arrested, scourged, condemned to death and crucified. It must have been unbearable to see Goodness in person subjected to human malice, truth derided by falsehood, mercy abused by vengeance. With Jesus’ death, the hope of all those who had put their trust in him seemed doomed. But that faith never completely failed: especially in the heart of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ Mother, its flame burned even in the dark of night. In this world, hope can not avoid confronting the harshness of evil. It is not thwarted by the wall of death alone, but even more by the barbs of envy and pride, falsehood and violence. Jesus passed through this mortal mesh in order to open a path to the kingdom of life. For a moment Jesus seemed vanquished: darkness had invaded the land, the silence of God was complete, hope a seemingly empty word.

And lo, on the dawn of the day after the Sabbath, the tomb is found empty. Jesus then shows himself to Mary Magdalene, to the other women, to his disciples. Faith is born anew, more alive and strong than ever, now invincible since it is based on a decisive experience: “Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own champion, slain, now lives to reign”. The signs of the resurrection testify to the victory of life over death, love over hatred, mercy over vengeance: “The tomb the living did enclose, I saw Christ’s glory as he rose! The angels there attesting, shroud with grave-clothes resting”.

Dear brothers and sisters! If Jesus is risen, then – and only then – has something truly new happened, something that changes the state of humanity and the world. Then he, Jesus, is someone in whom we can put absolute trust; we can put our trust not only in his message but in Jesus himself, for the Risen One does not belong to the past, but is present today, alive. Christ is hope and comfort in a particular way for those Christian communities suffering most for their faith on account of discrimination and persecution. And he is present as a force of hope through his Church, which is close to all human situations of suffering and injustice.

May the risen Christ grant hope to the Middle East and enable all the ethnic, cultural and religious groups in that region to work together to advance the common good and respect for human rights. Particularly in Syria, may there be an end to bloodshed and an immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation, as called for by the international community. May the many refugees from that country who are in need of humanitarian assistance find the acceptance and solidarity capable of relieving their dreadful sufferings. May the paschal victory encourage the Iraqi people to spare no effort in pursuing the path of stability and development. In the Holy Land, may Israelis and Palestinians courageously take up anew the peace process.

May the Lord, the victor over evil and death, sustain the Christian communities of the African continent; may he grant them hope in facing their difficulties, and make them peacemakers and agents of development in the societies to which they belong.

May the risen Jesus comfort the suffering populations of the Horn of Africa and favour their reconciliation; may he help the Great Lakes Region, Sudan and South Sudan, and grant their inhabitants the power of forgiveness. In Mali, now experiencing delicate political developments, may the glorious Christ grant peace and stability. To Nigeria, which in recent times has experienced savage terrorist attacks, may the joy of Easter grant the strength needed to take up anew the building of a society which is peaceful and respectful of the religious freedom of its citizens.

Happy Easter to all!

(Following the noontime message to a crowd which spilled over St. Peter’s Square and so must have been more than 200,000, the Pope delivered Easter greetings in 65 languages.)

“Let There Be Light”

The night before, on Holy Saturday, the Holy Father presided over a majestic 3-hour liturgy inside St. Peter’s Basilica for the vigil of Easter.

(Below is the complete text of the Pope’s Easter Vigil homily.)

One thing I noted in the homily which struck me was the Pope’s use of a quotation of Christ’s words from a non-biblical source. Here is the passage:

“‘Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,’ as Jesus is reported by Origen to have said.” (I have bold-faced the passage in the text below; it is toward the end.)

The use of a citation of Christ’s words from a source outside of the Bible struck me as quite unusual. I am not able now to determine how unusual it is, but I do not recall another instance of it occurring in a papal address.

Usually, all citations of Christ’s words in papal discourses are taken from the scriptures, that is, from the Gospels, or the Epistles.

In this case, the words of Christ cited are not found in any of the Gospels, or Epistles, but only in one of the writings of Origen, a third century Christian theologian who was arguably one of the greatest theologians, and perhaps the greatest theogian, of the early centuries of the Church.

However, as a creative, brilliant theologian, Origen was also quite speculative, and in his speculations, he risked taking certain positions, especially in regard to the universal salvation of all souls, which were later judged to be heterodox or even heretical. And this, tragically, cast a certain shadow on all the great, marvellous corpus of Origen’s writings.

Therefore, Origen has, to my knowledge, not been cited often by previous pontiffs. (If I am wrong on this point, i will be happy to receive correction.)

Benedict XVI, however, has cited Origen on more than one occasion. This alone would be enough to raise some eyebrows, at least a tad. But last night, by citing Origen’s citation of a non-biblical expression of Jesus, Pope Benedict raised some eyebrows — my own, anyway — a little bit further.

At the very least, what this suggests is that Benedict feels that it is possible that some citations of Christ’s words by early Church Fathers which do not appear anywhere in the Gospels or Epistles are actually worthy of being considered as authentic, or at least valuable and useful. If this is so, we logically must admit the possibility of expanding our search for Christ, for his authentic words, into writings outside of the Gospels and Epistles, which are of course canonical, and authoritative. Others will be more able than I am to comment further on this decision of the Pope, and what it may mean for biblical scholarship and for Christology; for the moment, I simply note that the Pope made this unusual citation.

After the Mass, as the basilica emptied, I was able to greet briefly near the altar a friend from Moscow, Russia, Archpriest Igor Vyzhanov, pastor of the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, which is on the grounds of the Russian Embassy to Italy. I first met him in 1999, in the Catholic cathedral in Moscow, and was with him when he met Pope John Paul II after a papal general audience in October, 2001.

I also had the privilege of meeting the US Ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Diaz, and his wife, who also attended the Easter Vigil liturgy.

7 APRIL 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Easter is the feast of the new creation. Jesus is risen and dies no more. He has opened the door to a new life, one that no longer knows illness and death. He has taken mankind up into God himself. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”, as Saint Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:50).

On the subject of Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, the Church writer Tertullian in the third century was bold enough to write: “Rest assured, flesh and blood, through Christ you have gained your place in heaven and in the Kingdom of God” (CCL II, 994).

A new dimension has opened up for mankind. Creation has become greater and broader. Easter Day ushers in a new creation, but that is precisely why the Church starts the liturgy on this day with the old creation, so that we can learn to understand the new one aright.

At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word on Easter night, then, comes the account of the creation of the world. Two things are particularly important here in connection with this liturgy.

On the one hand, creation is presented as a whole that includes the phenomenon of time. The seven days are an image of completeness, unfolding in time. They are ordered towards the seventh day, the day of the freedom of all creatures for God and for one another. Creation is therefore directed towards the coming together of God and his creatures; it exists so as to open up a space for the response to God’s great glory, an encounter between love and freedom.

On the other hand, what the Church hears on Easter night is above all the first element of the creation account: “God said, ‘let there be light!’” (Gen 1:3). The creation account begins symbolically with the creation of light. The sun and the moon are created only on the fourth day. The creation account calls them lights, set by God in the firmament of heaven. In this way he deliberately takes away the divine character that the great religions had assigned to them.

No, they are not gods. They are shining bodies created by the one God. But they are preceded by the light through which God’s glory is reflected in the essence of the created being.

What is the creation account saying here? Light makes life possible. It makes encounter possible. It makes communication possible. It makes knowledge, access to reality and to truth, possible. And insofar as it makes knowledge possible, it makes freedom and progress possible. Evil hides. Light, then, is also an expression of the good that both is and creates brightness.

It is daylight, which makes it possible for us to act.

To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love. Matter is fundamentally good, being itself is good. And evil does not come from God-made being, rather, it comes into existence through denial. It is a “no”.

At Easter, on the morning of the first day of the week, God said once again: “Let there be light”.

The night on the Mount of Olives, the solar eclipse of Jesus’ passion and death, the night of the grave had all passed.

Now it is the first day once again – creation is beginning anew. “Let there be light”, says God, “and there was light”: Jesus rises from the grave.

Life is stronger than death. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies.

The darkness of the previous days is driven away the moment Jesus rises from the grave and himself becomes God’s pure light. But this applies not only to him, not only to the darkness of those days.

With the resurrection of Jesus, light itself is created anew. He draws all of us after him into the new light of the resurrection and he conquers all darkness. He is God’s new day, new for all of us.

But how is this to come about? How does all this affect us so that instead of remaining word it becomes a reality that draws us in? Through the sacrament of baptism and the profession of faith, the Lord has built a bridge across to us, through which the new day reaches us.

The Lord says to the newly-baptized: Fiat lux – let there be light. God’s new day – the day of indestructible life, comes also to us. Christ takes you by the hand. From now on you are held by him and walk with him into the light, into real life. For this reason the early Church called baptism photismos – illumination.

Why was this? The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil.

The darkness enshrouding God and obscuring values is the real threat to our existence and to the world in general. If God and moral values, the difference between good and evil, remain in darkness, then all other “lights”, that put such incredible technical feats within our reach, are not only progress but also dangers that put us and the world at risk.

Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?

With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.

Faith, then, which reveals God’s light to us, is the true enlightenment, enabling God’s light to break into our world, opening our eyes to the true light.

Dear friends, as I conclude, I would like to add one more thought about light and illumination. On Easter night, the night of the new creation, the Church presents the mystery of light using a unique and very humble symbol: the Paschal candle. This is a light that lives from sacrifice. The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up. It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself.

Thus the Church presents most beautifully the paschal mystery of Christ, who gives himself and so bestows the great light.

Secondly, we should remember that the light of the candle is a fire. Fire is the power that shapes the world, the force of transformation. And fire gives warmth.

Here too the mystery of Christ is made newly visible. Christ, the light, is fire, flame, burning up evil and so reshaping both the world and ourselves. “Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,” as Jesus is reported by Origen to have said. And this fire is both heat and light: not a cold light, but one through which God’s warmth and goodness reach down to us.

The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect. It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees. So the whole of creation plays its part.

In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light. But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church. The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.

Let us pray to the Lord at this time that he may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world (cf. LG 1). Amen.

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