Easter Sunday April 24, 2011 10 AM Liturgy

Easter Sunday
April 24, 2011
10 AM Liturgy
J.A. Loftus, S.J.
You’ve probably all heard the one about the bishop and the
confirmation class. Let me refresh your memory. In days past, bishops
would ask public questions during Confirmation services. And young
men and women would sit squirming in the front pews, while “Sister”
religious educator sat even more uncomfortably to the side. This one
bishop was doing his best to be nice.
He lobbed all the easy questions about the Holy Spirit, and Mary,
and the Church, and home runs were hit by all the young folks. Then he
said: “Okay. Here’s the final question. Who can tell me the meaning of
Easter? What does the resurrection mean?
The stillness was deafening. The squirms more pronounced. And
Sister was now breaking into a cold sweat. No hands were raised.
Everyone seemed lost in a hazy stupor. Until one young man started
shaking his hand and saying quietly “I know. I know.” The bishop
looked relieved. He said: “Go ahead, young man.” And the young man
proceeded to say slowly and reflectively: “Easter is the day when Jesus
rose triumphant from the grave.” Then he paused. The sighs of relief
were reflected in Sister’s broad smile and the bishop’s toothy grin.
Unfortunately, the young man was not finished. He repeated
himself even more thoughtfully: “Easter is the day when Jesus rose
triumphant from the grave....And if he saw his shadow there was six
more weeks of winter.” Only a few in that congregation dared to laugh.
My brothers and sisters, we are not here this morning to celebrate
Groundhog Day! But what exactly are we here to celebrate? It always
seems easier to say what we’re not celebrating than what we are.
Bishop Tom Wright is a scripture scholar of great renown; a few
years ago he completed his 800 page magisterial book called The
Resurrection of the Son of God. More recently he published a popular
version called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection,
and the Mission of the Church. In that book, speaking of the resurrection
and the Easter experience he writes: “I am convinced that most people,
including most practicing Christians, are muddled and misguided on
this topic and that this muddle produces quite serious mistakes in our
thinking, our praying, our liturgies, our practice, and perhaps
particularly our mission to the world.”
He is not alone in issuing a caution. Another distinguished
theologian, Joseph Ratzinger (now known as Pope Benedict XVI), wrote
in his recent book Jesus of Nazareth: “Anyone approaching the
resurrection accounts in the belief that he knows what rising from the
dead means will inevitably misunderstand those accounts and will then
dismiss them as meaningless” (p. 243).
The classic Christian position is, and has always been, that Jesus
rose bodily through death and that we shall follow his path–one day.
Jesus did not just return from death to life–like Lazarus or others in the
gospels. In his body he destroyed death. And God’s gift to Jesus is for us
as well. This is what we will say again in a few minutes as we renew our
baptismal promises. I will ask: “...do you believe in the resurrection of
the body and life everlasting?” Most will answer: “I do.” You may want
to think about that for a minute. Do you? Is that what Easter is really
A wise preacher once said it was nearly impossible to talk for long
about the resurrection without falling into heresy. Christian history is
littered with heretical descriptions of this day. So at least we should
know what we’re not celebrating today.
We are not celebrating Jesus’ “spirit” or soul returning to God
whence he came. No, it is his body that is raised–a strangely glorified
body to be sure (in St. Paul’s phrase), but his real, old, body recognizable
eventually by his all old friends. Jesus is strangely different, but the
same old Jesus.
We are not celebrating what Fr. Leo O’Donovan calls “the Rip Van
Winkle Easter experience.” Jesus did not just “sleep” for three days and
then wake up. No, he was actually, really, completely dead–as the
proverbial door nail! And yet he returned. He didn’t “seem” to die; he
did die.
These two account for only a few of the heresies down through the
centuries. We could be here all morning if I continue. So what can we
say with any assurance?
As usual, artists seem to help the most. But scientists are catching
up quickly. One unlikely artist is Gene Rodenbury, the creator of Star
Trek. Week after week in that original television series, we were invited
into what Rodenbury called “parallel universes.” Worlds that touched
and were interdependent, and were both alluring and frightening. But
we could be “transported” rather easily between worlds. “Beam me up,
Scotty!” Sounds like the scriptures portrayal of heaven and earth,
doesn’t it? Overlapping dimensions, not separate entities at all.
[Lest you think I alone go too far here, Pope Benedict also refers to
the resurrection as “space travel” of the heart (p.286) and suggests it
describes an “evolutionary leap” (p. 244) and reveals “a new dimension
of reality” (p.247)]
A second artist is back again on the big screen with his Chronicles
of Narnia. For C.S. Lewis as well, the seemingly simple world of an old
armoire can open a door onto the most fantastic of universes. Just open
the door, he says, and enter. Worlds are not as distant or perhaps
distinct as we might think.
Fantastic, you might say. But so whimsical. So listen to a 21st
century physicist explore “string theory.” We seem now to have at least
eleven dimensions in a very strange world indeed wherein we can only
actually experience a few. And where we thought not too long ago there
were only three or four. Whimsy or the hidden poetry of Easter in
scientific garb?
God’s gift to the world in Jesus’ resurrection might be a
breakthrough–perhaps a literal breakthrough–of heaven on earth.
God’s space is now fully ours, and our space is God’s, as it was in the
beginning. God’s will be done “in heaven as it is on earth,” suddenly
seems more possible and more inviting a challenge. It is a
breakthrough! And the breakthrough benefits not just Jesus, but the
Groundhog as well. Indeed all creation awaited the new dawn. In
Hopkins’ inviting phrase: Let God Easter in you. And enjoy God’s gift to
us all.