Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, gave the below Easter Vigil homily at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica during Holy Week, 2020.
There is a hilariously funny novel by a great English writer, Evelyn Waugh, and it's called Helena. And it is about the mother of the great emperor, Constantine. In Helena, as she is presented at least in this novel, and probably with a lot of foundation in history, is a very down-to-earth lady.
She's the mother of the emperor, she has a lot of power and things like that, but she's really down-to-earth. And she's in the court one day, and there's this professor giving a lecture on religion and philosophy. And he's going on and on about the emanations of the eons of the this and the that. Kind of what we call now New Age, but in those days they called it Gnosticism.
This kind of religion and philosophy that's sort of floating around up there. All kinds of beautiful words spinning out again and again, and all over the place. Very impressive at first, but then you wonder what's really there?
And so, the people of the court noticed that the empress is beginning to giggle and laugh and can't hold it back. And finally at the end, she says, “Professor, when and where did this happen and how would you know?”
That's a very good question. It kind of punctures the bubble of a religion or philosophy that's floating out there – beautiful to hear, wonderful to soothe. A kind of nice, gooey concoction, theological meringue, but which has no substance to it. When and where did this happen and how would you know? Those are the kind of questions we need to ask as we live our life in Christ. Because the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.
We're not dealing with the emanation of the eon of the who-knows-what. The word became flesh in Bethlehem and grew amongst us. And walked and talked in the streets of Galilee and Judea. And then under the governor's rule of a minor Roman bureaucrat, Pontius Pilate, He was crucified in Jerusalem around the year 30 in April.
And He died, and He was buried in a tomb. And three days later, the women on the way to the tomb, as we hear in today's Gospel, went and found the tomb empty.
“He is not here,” said the angels. “He is gone before you to Galilee.”
And then they encountered Him, as so many did – hundreds did – right after the resurrection. They encounter Him. And He says, “Tell the brothers, I am going before them to Galilee.”
And then at the end of Matthew's Gospel, just after this, we see Him there saying to them, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have taught you. For behold, I am with you right to the end of the ages.”
When and where and how do we know?
Well, that's how we know. The people witnessed it – the witnesses to the resurrection. It happened at a certain time and place. It's not a theory, it's not the kind of vague emanation of something.
And so we learn that and think of that on this day – the historical events of the resurrection. It's more than a historical event. It goes beyond everything we can imagine, but it is located in history as well. We look back to that, we recognize it. And we recognize through this, that God works in history, as we've heard through the readings this evening. From Genesis to Abraham. Moses and the people – bringing them out of Egypt.
God intervenes in our history. Faith is not a matter of watching the cycles of nature go around and around and around. The kind of merry-go-round of nature worshipping nature.
No, we worship God who created nature. And we don't simply worship the Lord of some kind of ideas or feelings or whatever. Not at all. It happened, it's real.
When and where did this happen and how would you know?
Well, because of what we hear in today's Gospel. The Lord intervenes in our history. We do not worship nature, we do not worship ideas, we do not spin a kind of therapeutic religion that makes us feel good.
Our symbol is not a happy face. Our symbol is the cross of Jesus Christ who was nailed to that on Calvary around the year 30 AD under the rule of Pontius Pilate. That's how Pontius Pilate gets into the creed.
He's totally unimportant in so many ways. Who knows, who cares? But it nails it down into history. And even from the earliest days, a Christian realized that was important.
And it goes forward beyond the history we have heard tonight. We see this in the writings of Saint Paul that prophesying and showing us that this history goes on to the coming of the Lord. And this speaks as well to each of us, for each of us has a history from the moment of our birth and moment of conception, through our birth, to our life in this world until the moment when we lift off from this world and we're headed home to the Lord.
And we have on our tombstone one date and another date – our birth and our death. And I think at times, we forget about the significance of those very closely packed together dates, really, for any of us, no matter what it might be. And they always say what matters is not the birth date or the date of death, it's the hyphen in between. It's how we live that time.
But we act and move in our own little history, every one of us. And just as God comes into the life of Abraham and Moses and the people in the time of Ezekiel and to Mary Magdalene hastening towards the tomb, He comes into our lives as well. He is risen – alleluia – it is the Lord.
The resurrection is a hard, tangible, sublime, majestic event of God entering into history, acting in history, but taking us beyond this world. For we are meant to go where Jesus has gone before us. And it is not just that our minds float on somehow, it is the resurrection of the body which we profess in the creed.
We are to be, as Christ is now, our bodies matter, our physical tangibility matters. That's one of the reasons we can't really worship as we should digitally or virtually. We do our best for good reasons in these days, because we love our neighbour and need to work and protect.
But it's just not the same. The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The Lord rose from the dead. And we see later on in the accounts we'll hear in the coming days of the witnesses to the resurrection: next Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, when the Lord says to Thomas, “Here, put your hand in my side and believe.” My Lord and my God.
Or as He says in those immortal words to the beloved disciple on the beach, “Come on, let's have some breakfast.” Just like cagey and down-to-earth and plain and simple and clear Helena saying, “Ah, when exactly did this happen and how would we know?”
So in our life of faith, we need to flee to the doors whenever we come upon an approach to religion that is all whee – up in minds, afloating and all kinds of things like that.
The word became flesh. Christ is risen from the dead. It is the resurrection of the body that we proclaim. It is real and it touches us in the history of our own lives. Because the other dimension we see in today's Gospel reading, we'll see even more tomorrow in the reading from the Gospel of Luke on the road to Emmaus, in the morning Mass tomorrow. Is that it is above all, not simply the historical proclamation of the empty tomb that this actually happen in April of 30 in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, that nondescript governor.
Not just that, which is very important to get us locked into reality and not floating off in some kind of vague religiosity. And so to realize our own religion is that, our faith is that. But it's also that the resurrection is not only a historical event long ago, but it's a present encounter.
As those first witnesses encountered the Risen lord, so too do we, because He has established a way for us to do that. Through the word that is spoken in the sacred Scriptures, to the living faith of the church and, above all, in the sacraments. And our great pain in these days, because of the demands of charity to protect others, is that so many are cut off from the experience, the tangibility of the encounter of the Risen Lord through the sacraments.
May the day be quick and soon in coming when we can get back to the way we need to be. But that is really fundamental to who we are. And it's above all in the Blessed Sacrament of the holy Eucharist, it is the Risen Lord whom we encounter.
This is not just a remembrance of the Last Supper – it is that also – it's not just that. It's the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary – it is that too, made present sacramentally. But the one who celebrates this Eucharist through His priests is the Risen Lord and that's whom we receive in holy Communion.
It is that present encounter. And we think of that and we think especially – and maybe we might think – read ahead for the readings for tomorrow's Gospel of the road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. It is the Eucharist, which is so central.
It's where we encounter the Risen Lord most profoundly. It is where He acts. We're not just congregants, we're not – it's an act of God to which we're drawn, in which we're transformed. And from which He sends us out into this incarnate world of our own history that we might love our neighbor in that and so show the authenticity of our love of God.
Religion is not theoretical – kind of spaced out and Gnostic and gooey and words that are sort of sweet and nice. It is incarnate and God touches us and walks every step of the way in our own particular history and calls us by name from the moment of our baptism. It's that tangibility which we celebrate as so central in our encounter with Christ.
It is the heart and centre of the resurrection of the body. It is the centre of our faith. Christ is risen – He is truly risen. It is the Lord. It happened years ago, but it is now present. He is now ruling this universe.
And we encounter Him all the time, in a way He planned for us. So until we see Him face-to-face, at the moment of our death, whenever that may be – and we're called to think seriously these days about that and we hope it smartens us all up – until we see Him face-to-face, the way we most fully, profoundly encounter Him is in the holy Eucharist. And we learn of that on the road to Emmaus and should meditate on that. And tomorrow, I'll reflect a bit on that.
And tomorrow, at the end of Mass, this encounter with the Lord in which even we're not able to be physically present, He is here still, He reaches out to us. I will bless with the Blessed Sacrament – a risen savior sacramentally present – I'll bless the people of the whole archdiocese at the end of Mass with the Blessed Sacrament. This is real, this is God with us, our risen savior, Jesus Christ.
This is why there is nothing more important in our lives now as a way to encounter Christ than the holy sacrifice of the Mass. And it is being offered every day for every one before the throne of God, by Christ, our risen savior and by His priest's on Earth. And we pray, pray, pray that soon we may all gather around the table of the Lord to receive in holy Communion, my Lord and my God, our risen savior.
That's the heart of it all. It gives us life and joy and hope. And He comes to us as well, even in these days of fasting from the Eucharist – done because of love. He comes to us wherever we are. In our times of affliction, into the history not just of Israel, but into the history of our own life, it is the midst of that that we pray and we see and encounter him.
Not an idea, not a theme, not something like that. But our risen savior himself calling us, coming to us, speaking to us, touching us. He is our Lord and our God. And in the holy Eucharist, we experience Him most profoundly.
Jesus Christ is risen, alleluia. He is risen as He said, and we are His disciples. And He guides us on our way until finally, this world drifts off and we finally meet Him face-to-face. Lord Jesus Christ, son of living God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and help each one of us to be your faithful disciples.