Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, gave the below homily at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica on Easter Sunday, 2020.
There’s a little book on prayer, which I have always treasured. It is by the Russian Orthodox Archbishop, Anthony Bloom. And he describes how in his youth, as he grew a bit older, out of his teenage years, he began to think and study and reflect and he began to drift into a kind of agnosticism and atheism.
This is quite common when people first take the intellect out for a spin, because the mind is like a powerful car – we get into it and we step on the gas and it is very easy to go into the ditch instead of down the road. And so it is with Anthony. He began to question his faith. He began to wonder about all kinds of things, misusing the gift of intellect.
But he thought, I’ll give God another chance, one last chance. So he took one of the Gospels. He said, “I’m going to read a Gospel.” So to get it over with quickly, he picked the shortest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. He opened it up and began to read. As he began to read it, page after page, he began to have a profound experience of the presence of the Risen Lord.
And at the end of that, his life was changed. He began to go deeper, beyond the mere sparkle of an undigested and unused intellect. An intellect not properly focused. He came then to a profound wisdom to see in the experience of that encounter, through God's holy word with the Risen Lord, the meaning of this life. And so he shares it with us.
And so it is. It is that encounter with the Risen Lord, which is really what we celebrate above all on this day. The resurrection is an event and an encounter. It is surely an event. It’s a historical event. When and where did it happen and how do we know? Well, it happened about April of the year 30 and just outside of Jerusalem. And we know, because hundreds and hundreds of people had encounters with the Risen Lord. And there is the empty tomb.
And so it is historic. It is something rooted – nailed – into time. We’re not caught on a merry-go-round of pantheism, of the worship of nature – around and around and around. And we’re not caught in the merry-go-round, goes faster and faster to nowhere and nowhere. The kind of philosophy that goes on to this kind of, you know, one thing that leads to another – around and around, in a flurry of words. No, no, that's not for us.
We’re not dealing in a world of mere words, ideas, disconnected from historical reality. The resurrection is a real, historic event and so is our whole life in Christ. Even in the history of our own lives, we do not seek simple metaphors to console us. The cross of Christ makes a very poor security blanket. No, no, we're into the event, the reality. But it is an event that is marked above all, not simply by the empty tomb, but by the encounter with the Risen Lord. And Anthony Bloom, that young man, experienced that encounter through God's holy word.
And so it is. We say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And the word of God, if we have our hearts open to, it becomes a pathway to our hearts. If we say, “Lord, forgive me. Forgive me my sins. Speak to me. Let there be no blockage of ego that blocks the way to you. Let me not be caught up in the static of my concerns and all of my various things that so occupy my mind that I block out the still, quiet voice of God. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
And so it is. And, yet, I think the encounter with the Risen Lord isn’t found until He comes in glory and we see Him face-to-face. It is found in word, yes indeed, the word of God. And prayer and contemplation, yes. But it is found, above all, in sacrament. In that physical – risen – resurrection. The resurrection of the body, incarnation leading to resurrection.
Our faith is not from the neck up – that doesn't have any future. It is that real presence of the Lord, whom we encounter, above all, in the ways He has given to us during this middle time until He comes again, while we are called to serve Him in this valley of tears.
He gives us through the word, through becoming incarnate in language in the word of God. But He gives it above all through the sacraments. Baptism, through which we become the very dwelling place of the blessed Trinity – coming to us, within us. He comes to us in so many different ways. In the vows of marriage. In Christ, our Risen Lord. In ordination, where He sends the Holy Spirit upon the one to be ordained and that one is ordained a priest forever. As so it is in confirmation, that great gift of the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. And so it is.
We encounter the Lord in word, but also in sacrament, now presently. Not only a memory of a historic event that happened years ago. But a present encounter. That's what we celebrate when we say, “Christ is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
There’s an experience that I look forward to every year, although I don’t think that we’re going to be able to do it this year. It is an experience I’ve always looked forward to. And that is what’s called the Steubenville Weekend. Young people, thousands, gather together and we have some time where we are together and we have music and talks on faith. Wonderful things. Wonderful encounters. But the high point of that is sacramental. As the holy Eucharist is celebrated every day and our risen savior comes to us through the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. And that is extended, in time, for our complementation, through exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. And so there is a time on one of the evenings in which the consecrated host is placed within the monstrance and it is carried through young people, through the throng of young people. Slowly. Majestically. And that experience is just such a powerful encounter with the sacramental presence of our Risen Lord. It must be experienced to be described.It is awesome.
And then from that it flows to another sacramental experience, when there’s a big gymnasium and 40, 50 of us priests are hearing the confessions of the young people. And our incarnate Lord, our risen savior, forgives them. Physically. Directly. Historically. Here. God the Father proceeds through the death and resurrection of his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. And then – I'm not giving you general absolution here, no – then the priest says, “I absolve you from your sins. The name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.” Then, there it is, an act of God. Incarnate. The resurrection of the body. Our risen saviour.
And so, in word and in sacrament, the Lord encounters us and that happens in so many churches throughout our diocese. Around the world. In normal times, which we pray will return soon as possible, here, over here, every afternoon we have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament after the noon Mass until the afternoon Mass. And people come here out of the busyness, the struggles of their life, to kneel before our Risen Lord, sacramentally present to us in the holy Eucharist. And they spend that time in adoration, which brings a deeper awareness of what happens when the experience the Lord in holy Communion. It is my Lord and my God.
This is why Bishop Sheen, in a book I read as a teenager, which has changed my life, he said, the priest is not his own. Spend every day an hour in adoration before the Lord and the Blessed Sacrament. And so it is at the end of his Mass as we celebrate, as our risen savior celebrates this Mass for us, as he does every day, when I, as His priest, and as priest throughout the diocese and priests around the world, take the bread and the wine and, by God's power, becomes for us, becomes the body and blood of Christ. Our Lord and God.
So we celebrate that now. And we are not able, because – only because of charity and love of others – which our risen savior tells us that the message of the Gospel is that: love your neighbour. For that reason, temporarily, we just do not have the real sacramental Communion of the people who should be here and who are not here only out of love of neighbour. And we pray that it may be over soon and that we may come to be where we're meant to be. But we experienced that and it is an act of God, in any case, before the throne of God. And at the end of this Mass, as is done every day in benediction here, I will take the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance and I will bless everyone in the archdiocese: north, south, east and west. And in my heart, I’m praying for all of you.
May the Lord bless us and keep us and guide us, for we encounter our risen savior now in a way that is profound in word and sacrament.
And so we see in the Gospel today, the great Gospel of the road to Emmaus. There we have the disciples despondent, because the hope they had was crushed, because they saw the historical event. They saw the event of the death of the Lord in whom they had a had such hope. And so, they are headed out into the darkness. The day is far spent. They are heading out into the darkness, away from where they should be, in Jerusalem. They are going the wrong way. But they’re heading out into the darkness talking amongst themselves, caught up amongst themselves.
And quietly our risen savior quietly comes beside them, as He always does. No thunder and lightning. No clashing of drums or cymbals. He just quietly comes and walks beside them. As our Risen Lord is always walking with us in our daily life. On the road, not in the temple, but on the road. And even when the church is closed, the Lord is with us on the road and in our homes. Quietly, gently.
He walks beside them and He says, “What are you talking about?”
And they say, “Don't you know about Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified? And people have said that the body is not there. Something has happened. They don’t know.”
And then He begins to speak to them of the word of God. How it foreshadowed all of that, down through history and their hearts begin, as they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He spoke to us on the road.”
As by word, as with Anthony Bloom and that event in his life, the Lord, the Risen Lord, unveils Himself to them in the word. But still their eyes are blocked. And then they get to Emmaus. He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and their eyes are opened and they see the Lord. But He withdraws from them, for they have seen, they have encountered the Risen Lord. Did we not recognize Him in the breaking of the bread? Indeed, down through history ‘til He sees us, ‘til we see Him face-to-face. And all sacraments will cease then. Until then, it is in the holy Eucharist that we experience most profoundly the presence of our Risen Lord in word and in sacrament.
And then, they raced through the dark, no long weighted down. They raced back to Jerusalem to proclaim the good news. They’re going in the right direction now, not fleeing, but returning through the dark, but their path is lighted by the presence of the Risen Lord. And so it is with us.
It is an event, the resurrection of the Lord, nailed into history, under the reign of that Roman bureaucrat, Pontius Pilate. It's nailed into history, as it is in our lives – historic, real, no metaphor there. And it is an encounter with our risen savior, different from when He walked the streets of Galilee, as indeed after the resurrection, it was is somewhat different from when He did that before the resurrection. And now it is somewhat different, the experience, it is now through word and sacrament. But just as real and just as profound.
And we now in this time of tribulation, suffering. The cross and suffering. We are in the presence of our Risen Lord as well. He comes to us in word and sacrament, as He always does. And sacrament we hope more fully when we get through this, so we can have that physical contact once more. But He is still here. He is always here. He’s here in every celebration of the holy Eucharist, reaching out to us. No walls can block Him. Now, ever, our Risen Lord is not blocked. He’s reaching out to us. Every Mass is celebrated for everyone. He blesses and strengthens us. And the Blessed Sacrament is present in every church. Our Lord, the Lord, the Risen Lord, our Eucharistic Lord. We just turn to Him in our hearts if we cannot come physically close to Him, at the moment. And He is with us every step of the way on the road, as He was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
This is a time of deep meditation, because we are face-to-face with life-and-death, and all trivialities are blown away by the seriousness of this pandemic. And we are forcibly, unexpectedly given this time very often, very many of us, to stop and stay home and think of what really matters and what really doesn't. And in all that, the Lord, the Risen Lord, our savior is with us every step of the way on this journey to the glory of the resurrection. Through cross to the crown.
As we say in the prayer of the Angelus, which so fully represents our whole faith – it’s good to pray it morning, noon and night – but it speaks of what really matters: the event, the suffering and death and resurrection and the encounter:
“Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts; that we to whom the incarnation of Christ, thy son, was made known by a message of an angel, may by His Passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection through the same Christ our Lord.” Amen.