Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
In high school, we took a theology class called “Jesus of History, Christ of Faith.” Early in the semester, we had to write a paragraph about who we thought Jesus was and what we thought he came to do.
I wrote a few sentences. It was something standard, boilerplate. Jesus was sent by the Father. He saved us from our sins by his blood. He won our place in heaven for us.
I finished the exercise. I passed it up to the front of the row. As I did, I remember thinking ever so briefly: “Wait. Do I even know what any of this actually means? Why did it feel so dull and flat when I wrote it?”
But within a split second, I banished the thought. After all, what I had written was what I knew. Nobody ever told me any different. The whole Christian shebang revolved around such language:
This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you and for all. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. For by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
Jesus saves! Right?
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
I was a nervous teenager and had a depressive streak. I needed a structure, something to ground me. I chose the Catholicism I inherited. I went to Mass and wore my faith like a badge. My religion preserved me, with fluctuating success, from my perpetual panic that I was about to slide all over the place.
Asking too many cosmic questions was not helpful in this context. Knowing correct answers, on the other hand, was.
So I took ubiquitous answers as correct ones. We are washed in the blood. Jesus paid the price. Jesus saves.
Jesus better darn well save.
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!
I grew older.
One night I stood on a front porch in northwest Indiana with friends. It was a frosty fall evening, post-homecoming game. We talked about another friend, who thankfully was not here to listen to any of this.
We were wondering if she would go to hell because she was a Hindu. (Or she was, at any rate, raised Hindu. I recall her as a sharp-tongued skeptic who didn’t adhere to anything in particular.)
“But we know her and she’s a really good person,” we said. Did believing in Jesus, and his cross, really trump somebody’s character?
We didn’t want to send her to hell. And God was supposed to be more loving than we were. The great otherness of God was not perforce the impassivity and inhumanity of God.
This is our passover feast,
when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night when first you saved our forebears:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
In college, I heard much about Latin American martyrs. If you go to a Jesuit college or university, and you take part in the religious life, someone will inevitably start talking about the Jesuits who died in El Salvador, about Romero and the four churchwomen, and about many others who shared their work and their fate.
The twentieth-century Latin American martyrs were not the classic martyrs of the old acta. They did not seem to die for “the name” or “the faith,” at least not directly. Nor did they function as reminders of how getting to heaven was worth more than anything else (“after they shot St. Sebastian full of arrows, he received his eternal crown,” etc.).
Rather, these martyrs died while standing for and with others who were oppressed. They were defined by solidarity, by accompaniment in extremis. They inspired those who came after them to remain in solidarity, to keep accompanying.
I sensed that the acta of these modern witnesses could illuminate the original Jesus story. Was the cross really the setting of the “substitutionary atonement,” the blood transaction that pays down our hopeless debts? Or was it the logical outcome for someone who embraced the marginalized and spoke truth to their oppressors? An outcome interwoven with the imagery of the Passover feast that was happening at the time?
Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God
to see Christ rising from the dead!
Of this night scripture says:
“The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy.”
Over the years I paid attention, too, to those who worked with the abused, particularly abused women. They reported that Christianity was an aggravating factor. Those women who were Christian, and who sought Christian counseling, were often exhorted to imitate Jesus by enduring their abusive partners and making the first move to reconcile with them (“obedient unto death, even death on a cross…forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”). What was good enough for God’s son, the master, was good enough for you, the servant.
Thus the cross, when wreathed in traditional language, could easily become a weapon. It had everyday life-and-death consequences. And many of these consequences disproportionately impacted women. For church culture was run by men, on behalf of a God called “He.”
“Jesus saves” had to account for all the foregoing. It had to do so without resorting to the sophistry of “God’s ways are not our ways.” Such is too often a cop-out for ways that are worse than our ways.
The power of this holy night
dispels all evil, washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.
I have come to believe that Jesus, the image of God, came not to die but to live. His love, his mercy, his radical freedom to be a person for and with others, is the only life that is worth living. His willingness to pursue these values until a final confrontation (as I’ve heard it said, “If you don’t love, you’ll die, but if you do love, they’ll kill you”) emphasizes that they are absolute values. We must embody them despite all who seek to dominate us through force and threats and fear.
Meanwhile, the empty tomb exposes domination and fear as null and void, the ultimate bounced check. On the morning of the first day of the week, the throne of every principality and power suddenly became a sede vacante, or “vacant seat.” The last enemy, St. Paul says, is death. Death was the insurance policy of the Romans and the Sanhedrin who collaborated with them. But the third day revealed that death has no power. If it has no power, you are free. When you are free, you can stand up and love. And God, as the First Letter of John reminds us, is love.
It is the freedom to love and therefore live the divine life, not so much what we believe about it, that saves us. But Jesus, on Easter, offers us a privileged glimpse of this freedom. The sight seizes and compels us. And so Jesus saves.
“In and with Jesus we believe that each of us is situated in the love of God,” John Shea writes, “and the pattern of our life will be the pattern of Jesus–through death and resurrection.”
Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!
I am not a model for freedom from fear. I remain much the anxious wreck I have always been. But as my understanding of the Paschal Mystery has changed, my understanding of how I must respond has also changed. If at one time it was about gratitude for some otherworldly bill of sale, written in sanguinary red and fulfilled in eternity, today Easter is about seeing earthly life anew.
There is freedom, now, to embrace wildly and to love passionately. There is freedom to insist on my own dignity and that of others. There is freedom to build community, to risk standing arm in arm with people who are “walking around shining like the sun,” as Merton put it. They are shining because they are those who will be raised.
And should I choose to inhabit my freedom, then everything–my work, my writing, my relationships, my life, my death–will be about participating, with those who will be raised, in the break of dawn.
May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all humankind,
your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
*Resurrecturis (Lat.), “for those who will be raised.”
Block quotes: the Easter Exsultet, attr. to St. Ambrose of Milan (340-97 CE). Translation adapted from the Sacramentary of the Second Edition of the Roman Missal.