“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light!” Eph.5:14
Today is the day that crowns the year, a day of new beginnings and a day of victory. Today the Church celebrates the Resurrection of Our Lord and His triumph over sin and death. Today we sing, “Alleluia!” and rejoice with all the saints in heaven and all Christians around the world for the saving gift of the Paschal Mystery. Easter reminds us that we are people of the Resurrection, called to live with renewed and radiant spirits. For when we live in the spirit of Easter, we bear witness to the joy of living for Christ and inspire others to live for Him.
The “Easter spirit” to which I refer can best be described as confident faith in God’s saving love accompanied by expectant joy. It brightens one’s countenance and imbues one’s actions with gentle vigor and loving warmth. This lively spirit shakes off the dust of melancholy and regret and opens one’s eyes to the real hopes and possibilities for which to strive; by God’s grace, this spirit enables one to overcome obstacles and to place one’s trust completely in Him for whom nothing is impossible. To illustrate the richness of this “Easter spirit”, consider this excerpt from a second-century homily written by an anonymous Greek author.* Like other great Christian meditations, this text conveys core tenets of our Catholic faith in an aesthetically and spiritually moving manner. Recounted in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday, this lyrical discourse paints an intense and beautiful picture of Christ’s triumphant descent into hell, as it depicts an exchange between Jesus and Adam, our first parent. Jesus proclaims the good news of freedom to all the righteous who are there and, taking Adam by the hand, commands them all to rise, saying:
Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light! I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
Jesus’ spirit rejoices as He rouses His people. Love Almighty enthusiastically grasps Adam and Eve by the hand and lifts them from the darkness of Sheol. What a magnificent moment when the Son of God entered victorious into the realm of the faithful departed and brought them Himself into the presence of the Triune God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What a graced and happy reunion that must have been!
Although the entire homily captures the exuberance of Eastertide, this particular passage indicates the primary reasons for Christians to live as people of the resurrection. First, we live with joy because God commands us. That may seem counterintuitive– an order to rejoice– yet it’s not the order of a tyrant, for it does not violate our freedom nor our nature. As related in this passage, God did not make us to be prisoners of misery, locked in the Hell of ours or others’ making: he made us for joyful lives. As St. John Paul II once taught, we are not meant for merely human happiness, like the satisfaction of a job well done or the joy of human friendships, we are made for ultimate happiness, life and love everlasting in union with the Blessed Trinity. The happiness God desires for us is the delight He felt in creating and saving us. “Jesus did not come to lay burdens upon us. He came to teach us what it means to be fully happy and fully human” [Angelus Address, Australia, 1986].
Secondly, Christians are called to rejoice at Easter because by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have been saved from despair and death. For this reason, St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” [4:4] and in our second reading today, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and… when Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory” [Col. 3:2-4]. Because of our baptism we are members of Christ’s Body, hence Jesus says in this homily, “you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.” Here lies one of the greatest truths of the Christain faith: Christ became one of us so we could become one with Him. Christ Jesus offers us a friendship, a union with God so complete that “we cannot be separated.” O res mirabilis! For what else could we wish or for what greater gift could we hope? This is the Good News of Christianity. Heaven is our birthright!
Lest someone accuse us of escapism or a naive pretending that all life is wonderful, we could reply that the hope of Easter was born on Golgotha, amidst the most tragic circumstances. The spirit of resurrection necessitates a crucifixion beforehand: the death of the ego, the experience of great loss, the humbling defeat from life’s trials. A grain of wheat must die to bear fruit, and so must each one of us. And so, Christians can undergo the severest of sufferings by the grace of the resurrection; we can even accept our pains joyfully because of our faith. For we trust that we who have died in Christ will live with Him, and so we need not lose our peace.
No, this Easter spirit is not one of cowardice and denial, it is among the most pragmatic attitudes to adopt. It faces both the reality of death and the reality of the resurrection; the truth of human failure and the truth of God’s power to make all things new; the harmful divisions of wickedness and our inseparable unity with Christ. Realists deal with reality, and reality is that Christ Jesus is risen in triumph and He promises us eternal life. That is why Christians can live differently, can resist the dour pessimism which pervades our culture, and can shed any spiteful complaining. Rather than “play the martyr”, Christians can be martyrs, in the original sense of the word. The word martyr comes from the Greek martur and literally means “witness”, and we are called to be resilient in hope, witnessing to God by persevering in cheerful charity.
Just as the Father gave St. Peter a courageous spirit to preach the truth of the resurrection in today’s first reading [Acts 10], so too God has given all Christians His Holy Spirit to bear witness to His Son and the Gospel. We bear witness to our faith in God, our hope in the resurrection, and our loving friendship with Jesus Christ when we live in the spirit of Easter. When we open our hearts to receive the love of God and respond to His call to new life, we become beacons of hope for others. Not only does this spirit of joy fill our hearts and make us zealous in serving God, but it inspires gratitude and holy inquiry in others, moving them to seek and desire a relationship with God. By His grace, we can even welcome strangers in good humor, gentleness, and sincerity and thus reveal the divine love of Jesus. We can become channels of His grace in the lives of others if we allow the truth and grace of Easter to suffuse our souls and change our lives. Then we can become powerful instruments in the hands of our Lord, prophets and peacemakers. When acting in faith becomes our norm and rejoicing in the Lord becomes our strength [Neh. 8:10], there is no limit to the great things He can accomplish through, in, and with us.
Consequently, on Easter all members of the Church join in holy song and call one another to rejoice in Christ’s resurrection. Awake from your slumber of self-pity and seek out those who are lost; arise from the tomb of despair and fix your heart on Christ’s merciful love; and transcend your sorrow not by denying it, but by offering it as an oblation to the God who saves. “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth,” on the truths that ultimately matter, to rouse your spirit and renew your hope. Rejoice and be glad! Preach by your actions, comfort one another with these consoling realities, and revel together in the promise of resurrection. Then those who see your spirited deeds will glorify God, and one day we will all rejoice in the kingdom of heaven which has been prepared for us from all eternity.
Maria M. Miloscia, M.A.T.M. | Campus Minister at Aquinas House
*The full text of the Ancient Homily can be read here.