The following homily was provided to us by Fr. Michael McGourty, Pastor of St. Peter's Parish in Toronto.
The celebration of Easter is for all Christians the highpoint of our year of faith. At Easter we celebrate the fact that Christ has risen from the dead and destroyed death for all who place their hope in Him. Easter means that, because of Christ's resurrection, we shall not die but rather we are all invited to spend eternity with our loving God in heaven. At Easter we think of our loved ones who have died and we rejoice that they have been spared death because of Christ's resurrection and are with Him in Heaven for all eternity. Ultimately, at Easter we celebrate that God loves us so much that He destroyed death so that He might spend eternity with each of us. Easter is the greatest celebration of God's unconditional and undying love for each of us; a love so strong that death cannot destroy it.
The Good News about Christ's resurrection and His destruction of death is so overwhelmingly joyful that it can sometimes overshadow another aspect of Christ's victory. Christ's resurrection from the dead is so powerful that not only does it destroy death, it also destroys all other barriers which stand in the way of our encountering Him—even the barriers of time and space. Christ's resurrection does not just announce God's desire to be with us in Heaven; it also proclaims His passion to love and live with us today. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead not so that He could live with His disciples and apostles once they got to Heaven. The Father rose Jesus up in order that all people of all times and places could live in communion with Himself and the other persons of the Holy Trinity at every moment in time and history. Easter celebrates the fact that God will not let anything stand in the way of His love for us. At Easter we celebrate that God's love is so strong for us that He cannot wait to be with us in Heaven. God loves us so much that He desires to be with us "today." All that is required for this to happen is that we open our hearts to His presence.
The Easter Vigil is the most powerful celebration of God's love for us that the Church knows. In this beautiful annual celebration, the Church celebrates Christ's victory over death and recounts all that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done to share their love with each of us today. The Easter Vigil proclaims that our God loves each of us so much that He cannot wait to be with us. He does not want to wait until we are in Heaven with Him. The resurrection of Christ was intended to break down the barriers which stand in the way of us living in communion with Christ today. Understanding how this is celebrated at the Easter Vigil can help all of us to understand how Christ wishes to encounter us every day of our lives. The Easter Vigil is made up of four essential parts: 1) the Liturgy of Light; 2) the Liturgy of the Word; 3) the Liturgy of Baptism; and 4) the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It is worth spending a little time looking at each of these in order to appreciate how much God desires to relate to each us today. His is a love that cannot wait to be in communion with each of us.
1) The Liturgy of Light:
The Easter Vigil begins with the blessing of the Easter Fire and the Paschal Candle and the singing of the Exultet, the great hymn of our Easter victory. As the Easter Candle is lit, we celebrate that Christ has destroyed the darkness of sin and death and become the light of the world. By sending the Holy Spirit on the Church as tongues of fire, God the Father illumines the hearts of all the Baptized. We enter the Church following the Paschal Candle, which represents Christ, just as God once led His people through the desert out of slavery in Egypt with a pillar of fire. The candles that are held by the Baptized testify to the gift of the Holy Spirit that we all received in Baptism and to the fact that God wishes to dwell within us today and lead each of us by His Holy Spirit. The individual candles that we hold also proclaim the responsibility that belongs to each Christian to be Christ's witness in the world. The Liturgy of the Light is a testimony of God's love by which we are to be guided today by the grace of God's Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit reveals Christ as the light by which we are to guide our pilgrim journeys to Heaven, testifying to our brothers and sisters and illuminating the world today by our Christian witness. The light proclaims a God who is with us and active in the world today. The Paschal Candle used at the Easter Vigil is also used at our Baptismal and Funeral liturgies to proclaim the love of our God who wishes to be with us always.
2) The Liturgy of the Word:
The Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil recalls the history of salvation. It proclaims God's tireless efforts to love and live in communion with His people. While this part of the Vigil may be shortened, when the seven Old Testament readings are proclaimed, an account is given of the extent to which God will go to love and relate to all of us. Since the human person first sinned and turned away from God, He has not given up on us. Everything God has done to reveal Himself in the Old Testament has been a preparation for that final victory over all that divides us, which we celebrate at the Easter Vigil. The emphasis that is placed on God's Word reminds us how important it is that we pray and study the Scriptures in order to know God and understand how to relate to Him today. Discerning God's presence in our lives today requires that we all study and pray the Scriptures regularly. Attending Mass every Sunday also helps us to know God's Word as it exposes us regularly to different aspects of God's revelation and weekly guides us and draws us closer to God. As at the Easter Vigil, no Mass is ever celebrated without God's Word being proclaimed from the Lectionary which contains the Scripture readings that are used at Mass. The Word is proclaimed at the Vigil and at each Mass because Jesus does not want to wait to speak to us only when we get to Heaven. He loves each of us so much that He does not want to wait that long. He desires to speak to us today in His Word and invites us to come to Mass every Sunday to hear it proclaimed in His community, which is the Church.
3) The Liturgy of Baptism:
At the Easter Vigil, the Church welcomes those adults who are to be baptized. As they are baptized they experience concretely that Jesus does not want to wait to share His life with us. All who are baptized share in the death and resurrection of Christ; they are freed from original sin; and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit so that they may live in communion with God now and for all eternity. Those who are baptized by submersion experience how close God wishes to come to them as they are surrounded by the saving water of the Baptismal Font. Those who are baptized also remind those of us who are already baptized that we have already received the gift of God's Holy Spirit and are already called to be living our lives each and every day in communion with Him.
The renewal of our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil and all of the other Easter Masses is a powerful reminder to all of us that, as we celebrate Easter, we are already living in relationship with the God who cannot wait to love us. While this is one of the more significant times that we renew our baptismal promises in the course of the year, it can help us to realize that we should and actually do remind ourselves of our baptisms quite frequently. Every time that we cross ourselves "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," we recall the words with which we were baptized and established in a relationship of grace with the Blessed Trinity. The Holy Water at the entrance to every church helps us to recall how it is that by Baptism we were brought into the Church and called into relationship with our God who desires to be in relationship with us today. It is through our Baptism that the Holy Trinity wishes to share eternity with us today.
4) The Liturgy of the Eucharist:
The importance of the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil as the highlight of the celebration points to the importance of the Eucharist at each and every Mass. Nothing speaks more powerfully of God's desire to begin to spend eternity with us today than the gift which Christ gives us at every Mass of His Body and Blood. We can sometimes lose sight of the fact that every Sunday is a celebration of the day of Christ's resurrection. Every Sunday, Christ invites us to celebrate His resurrection and to receive His Body and Blood so that He might share His life with us today.
Christians in our society are losing sight of the importance of Sunday and what it is that we celebrate on this day. For so many people there is a mistaken notion that to be a Christian means only to be a "nice" person. Thankfully, the word "nice" is not used once in the Easter Vigil. To be a Christian is to recognize that God has loved us so much that He has sent His only Son into the world to save us by raising Him up after He died to forgive our sins. The Christian professes his or her faith in Christ's resurrection by attending Mass on Sunday, the day on which He rose from the dead. Every Sunday is intended to be a little weekly celebration of Easter. By receiving Christ's Body and Blood on Sunday, the Christian does what Christ has asked us to do "in memory of me." The Eucharist at the Easter Vigil emphasizes beautifully what we celebrate at every Sunday Eucharist and shows us how we are to live our faith today in communion with the same Jesus who gave us the Eucharist because He loves us so much that He desires to be with us today. God does not wish to wait until we get to Heaven to share His life with us. He wishes to do so every Sunday at the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist in our parish. Easter puts before us the question of how we are going to respond to His invitation.
God loves us now and will always love us. He invites us to be in relationship with Him now, to give Him a place in our lives now and to open our hearts to the transforming power of His grace now. As we celebrate this Easter that God loves each of us so much that He cannot wait to be in relationship with us, let us also pray for the grace to respond to His invitation today.
Because God desires to be in relationship with us today, He also asks us to respond to Him today. Because He does not wait to share His love, we are invited to accept His invitation to be with Him for all eternity, not when we get to heaven, but now. Easter is a celebration of God's offer of salvation and an invitation to respond to this offer. We are not to renew our baptismal promises only in word. We are called to give God a place in our lives today. We do this as the Vigil shows us by: 1) allowing His Holy Spirit to be the light by which we are guided on our pilgrim journeys to heaven; 2) listening to His Word and being guided by the Scriptures; 3) living our baptismal faith in relation to God and our brothers and sisters in Christ; and 4) opening our hearts to Christ's presence in our lives today by remembering Him every Sunday at the Eucharist where He gives us His Body and Blood so that we may love others as He has loved us.
May God bless all of us this Easter with an awareness of His love today so that we might spend all eternity with Him, starting right now.