“The Three-Step Process to Attaining the Life of Heaven Above”
Homily for Easter Sunday
April 9, 2023; St. Mary’s Cathedral
It is always a great joy to come together for Easter Sunday Mass, and a special pleasure for me to welcome all of our visitors here to our Cathedral today. It is a happy time for families to come together and celebrate this joyful day in the Christian calendar. This Easter Sunday Mass, too, contains a unique feature that is not found in any other Mass. Where we normally make the Profession of Faith after the homily, reciting the Nicene Creed, at this one Mass the people instead renew their baptismal promises and are sprinkled with the Easter holy water. The sprinkling rite replaces the Creed, whereas in other Masses, on solemn occasions, it can be used at the beginning of Mass, taking the place of the Penitential Rite.
Profession of Faith
However, even in those other Masses, there is no renewal of baptismal promises. Only at this Mass of Easter Sunday do we do that, using the formula that was used last night for those who were received into the communion of the Church all around the world.
This always takes place before the administration of the sacrament of baptism: adults in their own name, and parents and godparents for a child, make a profession of faith before baptism is administered. And Easter is the most indicated time for the celebration of this sacrament, as it is sharing in Christ’s own death and Resurrection, which we celebrate in a most dramatic way in these three days of the Easter Triduum which we have just concluded.
This is what St. Paul is talking about when he wrote to his fellow Christians in the ancient city of Colossae (in modern Turkey): “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above.… For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Dying and being raised: Paul is talking here about baptism, a death with Christ by dying to what is selfish and sinful in us, all that takes us away from what is holy, so that we may be able to be united to Christ in his Resurrection.
Renunciation of Sin
That is why before the actual threefold profession of faith, the articles of our faith corresponding to what is contained in the Creed, there is a threefold renunciation of sin. Sin must be renounced before the faith can be professed, just as there must be a turning away from sin before one can be joined to Christ in baptism and so received into the communion of the Church. There is no separating the two: one cannot claim to profess the faith, if one has not renounced sin. One would be guilty of duplicity to think it possible to profess faith while still clinging to a life of sin.
This is always a struggle in any age, and it explains the purpose of the Church’s penitential discipline from the very beginning. In a similar way to renouncing sin and then professing the faith, Easter is preceded by Lent, a time of fast before we celebrate the feast. We cannot truly feast unless we have first fasted. If we fail in this penitential discipline, then the great mysteries of our faith, even this great mystery of Easter, risk devolving into mere sentimentalism. The great liturgical scholar and nineteenth-century Benedictine Abbot Dom Prosper Guéranger already lamented in his time the decline in observance of the true spirit of Lent. In his treatise on the liturgical year he writes:
… Easter has not the same effect on the people of our own generation [as in the past]! The reason is that a love of ease and a false conscience lead so many Christians to treat the law of Lent with as much indifference as if there were no such law existing.… They have not observed the fast, or the abstinence of Lent…. Penance has not done its work of purification; it has not spiritualized them; how, then, could they follow the risen Jesus, whose life is henceforth more of heaven than of earth?”
The Process of Moral Conversion
The good Abbot is touching upon a basic reality of our human nature: one cannot experience true, deep, abiding joy without an authentic moral conversion. St. Paul told the Colossians to “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God,” and to “[t]hink of what is above, not of what is on earth” – in other words, to soar to the heights of all God created them to be. But this is not possible without the turning away – turning away from selfishness, from insisting on always doing things my own way even to the rejection of God’s way. To do things God’s way takes a lot of self-sacrifice – death to self – and I cannot help but wonder if the widespread refusal to do so in our own time explains why there is so much depression and anxiety in the world today.
Of course, living the demands of the Gospel has always been difficult in every age. What is different in our age is that there is a rejection in principle of the values that come to us from the Gospel, a refusal even in principle to renounce sin, sometimes even calling sin good. The process of conversion begins in the mind, acknowledging that sin is bad and it is good to turn away from it. But this acknowledgment must then sink into the heart, where we love the truth that Jesus teaches us, which leads us to love him personally in our lives. And that is where the transformation takes place: in the way we live our lives, in our attitudes, and in professing that truth in word and deed.
This explains the three signs of the cross we make right before the Gospel is proclaimed at Mass: on the forehead, that with our mind we might know and understand what Christ teaches us in the Gospels; on the lips, that we might proclaim it; and in the heart, that we might love it. This is also reflected in the blessing the deacon receives before proclaiming the Gospel: the priest or bishop prays that the Lord might be in the deacon’s heart and on his lips that he might proclaim His holy Gospel worthily and well.
Apostle to the Apostles
This is nothing less than the journey to the fullness of life, the life that Christ extends to us. By refusing to take this journey, and living life on our own terms, rather than making the sacrifices necessary to acknowledge, understand and accept the way Christ teaches us in all the areas of life – in other words, dying with Christ by dying to self – we end up leading a very shallow life, leading ultimately to loneliness. Christ is risen from the dead, he is the light of the world and he teaches us how to walk in his light so that we might live a life filled with depth and abiding joy, that we might truly attain to the things that are above, and not of the earth. And the really Good News is that Christ makes this available to everyone.
All of the Gospels agree that the first one to see the empty tomb, and to encounter Jesus risen from the dead, was St. Mary Magdalene. And they all agree that she was the first one to bring this news to the apostles, as we hear in today’s Mass from the Gospel of St. John – which is why she is named “the apostle to the apostles.” She, who had undergone her own moral conversion of a life far away from God, to being one of His Son’s most favored disciples. This is so typical of how God acts: He always picks the most surprising collaborators in His plan of salvation, the ones who in human eyes would seem the most unsuitable and least likely. Yes, such is the love of God, beyond our imagining.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this in regard to St. Mary Magdalene in his Sunday Angelus address on July 23, 2006. He said:
The story of Mary of Magdala reminds us all of a fundamental truth: a disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death.
Merciful love that is stronger than sin and death: no one is beyond hope, no one is beyond redemption, no one is beyond attaining true spiritual excellence and reaching the spiritual realities that are above, and not of this earth. It all begins with that moral conversion, allowing ourselves to fall into the merciful embrace of Jesus Christ who gives us the grace to renounce sin so as to live with him forever in the glory of his Resurrection. To him be all honor and glory, now and ever and forever. Amen.
 Abbot Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, v. 7: Pascal Time Book I, 4th ed. Rev. Dom Laurence Shepherd (trans.) (Great Falls, Montana: St. Bonaventure Publications, 2000) pp. 21-22.