Christ is risen! Alleluia!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The great Fifty Days ring out with the glorious message of certain triumph over all earthly doom and despair because of the Lord’s resurrection. Its message is one of life, vitality and the answer to all man’s frustrations and fears. What more wonderful news could there be in all the world than that of God the Son, born in lowly surroundings and dying as a common criminal on a cross is the victor of all this world could do to mankind, even death. The Father raised Christ from death, and thus the sting has been removed from the grave, and the risen Lord becomes “a life-giving Spirit” (I Cor.15. 45). The Easter bells ring out not only Christ’s victory but also of our own. As St. Paul reminds us “‘O Death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and sin gains its power from the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor.15. 55 - 7). As St. Gregory Nazianzen, one of the great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century exclaimed:
Today is salvation come unto the world, to that which is visible, and to that which is invisible; Christ is risen from the dead, rise thou with him. Christ is returned again to himself, return thou. Christ is freed from the tomb, be thou freed from the bond of sin. The gates of hell are opened, and death is destroyed, and the old Adam is put aside, and the New is fulfilled; if any man be in Christ he is a new creature; be thou renewed.
These glorious Fifty Days begin with the Easter Vigil Liturgy. On this great night we recall all the wonderful deeds God has done for His people in bring them forth from darkness into His marvellous life. There is a correlation between the delivery from slavery in Egypt for the Hebrews under the leadership of Moses to the Promised Land of Israel and for Christians under the new Moses, Jesus Christ who leads His people to the new Israel. Passover and Easter are intertwined as evident in the Exsultet:
This is the night when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when the pillar of fire
destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ
broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.
The celebration of the Christian Pascha began very early amongst Christians. There is evidence of its keeping in the Ephesian letter: “Awake, sleeper, rise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5. 14).
The importance of this night in the early church is again illustrated by Gregory Nazianzen in one of his hymns:
But, O Pascha, great and holy and purifier of the world,
for I shall speak to Thee as to a living person.
O Word of God and Light and Life and Wisdom and Might,
for I rejoice in all Thy names.
O Offpsring and Expression and Signet of the Great Mind;
O Word conceived and Man contemplated, Who bearest all things,
binding them by the Word of Thy power;
receive this discourse, not now as firstfruits,
but perhaps as the completion of my offerings,
a thanksgiving, and at the same time a supplication,
that we may suffer no evil beyond those necessary
and sacred cares in which our lives have passed,
and stay the tryanny of the body over us.
As mighty and wonderful as the Resurrection of Christ is, it is not complete or effectual for us without the Ascension. The Jacobean prelate, Lancelot Andrewes, in his 1622 Easter Day sermon clearly demonstrated this:
The Resurrection itself is for an end, it is not the end; it is but a state yet imperfect, but any entry to a greater good, which unless it leads us and brings us to, ‘non habetur propositum’, it is short, short of that it should be. ... To rise is nothing but to ascend out of the grave, ... to rise as high as heaven, then we are truly risen. ... The resurrection itself is no Gospel, not of itself unless ‘ascendo’ follow it.
Christ had to return to His Father’s home in order to fulfil His promise to the Twelve and the disciples that He would always be with them through His Spirit, which would lead them into all truth and be their comforter and guide. Thus His Ascension enabled the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon them as they awaited His coming in prayer, the breaking of bread and fellowship. To realize the implication of all this we only have to compare the lives of His chosen before and after Pentecost. As we ponder on the events of that first Pentecost we behold the power of the Spirit in transforming and mending lives. Peter and the apostles simply cannot contain their experiences of the Spirit as they ardently desire to share their knowledge of Christ with others. Thus on that Pentecost morning after Peter preached that stirring pesher (an interpretation of scripture) the people responded to know what they must do. The answer from Peter is to repent and be baptised and receive this same Spirit (Acts 2. 14ff). Furthermore when Peter addressed the lame man at the Gate Beautiful he told him, “I have no silver or gold; but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk” (Acts 3. 6).
Those early days after Christ’s ascension manifested what it meant to live in the power of the risen and glorified Lord. People repented and were baptized as they responded to the preaching of the Good News; they sold their goods and lived communally; they prayed and broke bread together; they cared for one another through acts of charity. Their lives took on that other dimension, that essential dimension of experiencing eternal life now.
Wherever Christ is in this world, there is also found the gifts of the Holy Spirit: humility, meekness, gentleness, long-suffering, patience, temperance and above all love. It is only these attributes which bring peace to a hostile world and heal the broken-hearted and the injured. It is only through the power of the glorified Lord that each man, woman and child can live without any fears whatsoever. To those who believe in Christ are freed from any kind of yoke which strangles and finally kills. Instead they savour that serenity and security of living within the kingdom of the Lord who reigns for ever and ever. Their lives do express that tremendous joy which rings out in the Easter Proclamation sung at the Easter Vigil Liturgy.
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choir of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fill you! Darkness vanishes for ever! Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Saviour shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people! It is also important for us to realize that Pentecost is not a separate festival but the culminating celebration of these joyful Fifty Days during which we have truly experienced the liveliness of our faith. Nevertheless Pentecost does have its own distinctive message with new surging of energy, making our hearts afresh and fearless. Just as the Christian Pascha is born out of the Jewish one, so the Christian Pentecost is rooted in the Jewish Feast of Weeks, held fifty days after the Passover when the first-fruits of the harvest were offered to the Lord. St. Paul spoke of Christ being “the first-fruit”. Our Lord is not only the “first-fruit” for “all who have fallen asleep”, (I Cor. 15. 20) but also the “first-fruit” of this new life begun with Calvary’s victory. The more we ponder on Easter and Pentecost, the more we shall realize how intertwined these two celebrations are - Christ and the Holy Spirit with the Father are all united. This indeed unfolds as we read the set lessons for this time. It is no accident I think that in the revised lectionary in time of Paul VI that we read side by side the Johannine Gospel with its beauty and mystical appeal but also its emphasis on discipleship and the Paraclete being the teacher with The Acts of the Apostles, in which the real life experience of the Spirit is present in the preaching of Paul and Peter, which led to many conversions.
The unity of all these are celebrated on Trinity Sunday when the creative, redemptive and sanctifying works of God are all praised and honoured. On this day we give thanks for all God’s goodness as so aptly summed up in one of the loveliest prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, the General Thanksgiving: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”
Often the Trinity is seen as being too complex for our understanding. How can God be one in three and three in one? Perhaps at no other time of the Christian year is it easier to see how the three persons are one, and one in three. As St. Irenaeus explained, “the Lord redeems us ... and pours out the Spirit of the Father to unite God and man. ... The Word of The Father and the Spirit of God, united with the material substance of Adam, God’s primal handiwork, had made man living and perfect, receptive of the Father.” The overwhelming joy of the great Fifty Days is that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are always active. The Church is also the Living Christ. Corpus Christi celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday honours that Living Christ and assures us that Christ and the Spirit are always present within the Church. After the gifts of bread and wine are placed on the altar through the operation of the Holy Spirit (the epiclesis) they become the Body and Blood of the Lord. The institution of the Eucharist thus has this special place of honour and celebration on Corpus Christi, even though we know it was instituted by Our Lord the night before He died. The reason for this is that the Passion of our Lord with its fast moving events on Holy/Maundy Thursday through to Good Friday in a sense dwarfs the institution of the Eucharist. Thus on this day we can truly express our thanks for the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation as we reverence our dear Lord in His most holy and wonderful Sacrament. On this day all over the world, processions are held to proclaim and praise Jesus as Lord in His Sacrament:
Blessed and praised be Jesus Christ
In the most holy Sacrament.
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest!
Just as this series of meditations began with life, that new and risen life in Christ which transforms everything, so it ends with the gift of life, Christ’s Body and Blood given to us day by day. Christ told us He is the “Bread of heaven” and the “Bread of Life,” and as such He is our daily food for our pilgrimage towards heaven where we shall never, never part from Him. We also drink from the Cup of Salvation - that blood poured out at Calvary manifested the love that flowed from our Saviour’s sacred heart as He embraced the whole cosmos.
This period of the Christian Year is undoubtedly one full of much contemplation as it unfolds one blessing after another. Let us savour each of the those moments and allow them to enrich our Christian experiences.