Easter Sunday Sermon: Witnesses of the Resurrection
“He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.” When pilgrims to the Holy Land approach the most holy of all sites in the world – the Lord's tomb, the place of His Resurrection – they are greeted ironically by these words spoken today by the angel: “Non est hic – He is not here.” It is an ironic greeting because those who come to venerate the Lord's tomb are in search of Christ, desperately longing to come into contact with the living God by their presence at His tomb. Perhaps they have visited the places where He was born, where He was raised, where He preached and now they finally arrive at the tomb, only to be greeted by these words: “He is not here.”
Today's Mass of Easter Sunday morning is actually full of this irony. Christ has upended the entire order of created reality and now everything is different. We heard in the Sequence, the musical piece after the second reading and before the Alleluia: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: The Price of life, who died, reigns immortal.” A more literal rendering of the original Latin would be, “The dead leader of life reigns alive.”
The supreme irony of the day is this: Today we venerate the tomb, not of a dead person, but of One who is living. Maybe you have gone on a pilgrimage before to a church where a saint is buried, or where a saint's relics are kept. Similarly, we have been on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land these past three days of the Sacred Paschal Triduum. On Holy Thursday, we celebrated His last supper – the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood. On Good Friday we venerated His cross, lovingly kissing the feet and hands that bore the weight of our sins, but today, as do those millions of pilgrims who enter His tomb every year, we venerate Him who was once dead, but is now alive. We come not to the tomb of one who is dead, but to the tomb of one who is living. In this, Christ is absolutely unique.
Ironic too are the witnesses who bring this joyful news to us: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and John. In the ancient world, the testimony of women was not accepted as proof of an historical event, and yet, the Gospel records that Christ appeared first to them, and sends them to the Apostles with the message that He will precede them into Galilee. This is not the kind of story that someone would invent to convince others of a falsified account. Rather, it is one of many proofs of the historical truth of Christ's Resurrection.
All of us are here today because we too are in search of the Resurrected Christ. We have come to hear that joyful announcement of the angel: “He has been raised just as he said!” And yet we too are struck by the irony of a God who continues to hide Himself, who is not visible to our eyes, who reveals Himself not in bright, shining glory, but in messengers and signs. No one actually sees the Resurrection, even in the Gospels – they only experience its effects. How then, brothers and sisters in Christ, can we find this risen Christ as did the two women in the Gospel today?
Firstly, we will find Christ through our growth in virtue. We head from St. Paul in the second reading: “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough!” This is what we have been doing all through Lent: working to eliminate sin and vice from our lives so that we will be ready to be made new by Christ's Resurrection today at Easter. “Do you not know,” St. Paul writes, “that a little yeast leavens all the dough?” A little bit of wild yeast has the power to turn the entire batch of dough sour. Likewise, sin, though it may seem small and inconsequential, has the power to sour our lives. Thus we have worked through our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to purge our lives from the sour yeast of sin. But with what will we replace this sour, wild yeast of sin?
We must replace sin and vice with virtue. St. Paul again tells us, “Let us celebrate the feast not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” If we do not strive to replace the bad habits we have expunged with virtues – with good new habits of prayer, sacrifice, and spiritual discipline – those bad habits and sins will return just as strongly as they were before, or perhaps worse yet. But if we strive to grow in virtue, we will experience not only Christ's death in our lives through the sins we have given up, but also His Resurrection in the strength He will give us to remain faithful to Him.
This is why we have made such an intense effort to focus on prayer this Lent. Don’t let your dedication to prayer fade simply because our 30-day, One Percent Challenge has finished. Allow Him to share the joy of His Resurrection with you during this Easter season by continuing to give Him at least one percent, fifteen minutes of each and every day.
Secondly, we will find Christ in proclaiming Him to others. It was not until the women in the Gospel went to announce Christ to the Apostles that He appeared to them. Likewise, when we share our faith in Christ, when we announce His Resurrection to our family members, our friends, our co-workers, our classmates, it is then that we will encounter the Christ whom we are seeking. The first reading provided a model for this in St. Peter's bold proclamation: “This man [Jesus] God raised from the death on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” We must likewise be bold! If you ever find that your faith is lagging, that you struggle to believe in Christ or to follow His teachings, becoming a witness of His Resurrection has the power to strengthen your faith and renew your trust. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus caritas est, 1). When we help others to have that encounter with Christ through our witness, it is then that He is truly present to us.
Just as those with whom the Apostles shared the Christian faith two thousand years ago, the people to whom we proclaim this good news cannot see the Resurrected Christ. They can, though, see us transformed into joyful witnesses in His image and likenesses. No one can see the Resurrection, but they can see its effects in us.
Lastly, St. Peter tells us that Christ became visible not to all people, but to those whom God chose, those who ate and drank with him after His Resurrection. Christ is present to us today under sacramental signs of bread and wine: He is present to those who will eat and drink of His Body and Blood today in the Most Holy Eucharist. Today, we are those chosen witnesses. Just as no one can see the Resurrection, none of us will see the bread and wine becoming Christ's body and blood, not even the priest who holds in His hands the host and the chalice. However, we do experience the effects that receiving Christ's precious Body and Blood works in our lives – the ways that we are transformed as the followers of Him who was raised from the dead. Today, we experience the same call as the Apostles, to share this banquet, this Easter feast, with Him. And if we are so privileged as to receive this call, we must also accept the same responsibility as they did: To be sent out to announce the Good News of Christ's Resurrection.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Sunday of the Lord's Resurrection, MMXIX