Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Gift of Easter and How to Experience It

(Easter 2019: This homily was given on April 21, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-23; Romans 6: 3-11; John 20: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2019]

One night a man had a dream.  In this dream he saw Jesus tied to a whipping post while a soldier scourged him unmercifully.  The pieces of metal and bone that were attached to the ends of the whipping cords tore into our Lord's flesh again and again and again until his back was just a mass of raw meat.  This was a typically-brutal Roman scourging.  Mel Gibson portrayed it well in The Passion of the Christ.  Many people who experienced these scourgings died from them. 

The man watched this horrific scene for several minutes.  Finally he couldn't take it any longer.  As the soldier raised his arm for yet another strike, the dreamer rushed forward to try to stop him.  At that moment the soldier turned around quickly, and the dreamer let out a scream when he saw his face—because the soldier had HIS face.  He was the soldier!

My brothers and sisters, if you do not understand that story, then you will not understand today's story: the glorious Easter story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  That's because the only people who truly appreciate the gift are those who understand their need for the gift.  The only people who appreciate deliverance (from sin or anything else) are those who understand their need for deliverance.  I remember reading a story once about the last days of World War II.  At that time the prisoners at Dachau had heard a frightful rumor: Hitler had ordered the execution of all prisoners and the burning of all the concentration camps.  And so when these frightened, exhausted, emaciated men and women heard tanks approach the compound on this particular day, and when they heard one begin to smash against the front gate, they prepared for death.  They thought they were doomed.  Until they saw the American flag painted on the front!  They were being liberated, not exterminated!  Can you imagine how grateful they were at that moment?  In the midst of their suffering, they understood their need for deliverance, and they were elated when it finally came.  The man who had the dream about the scourging of our Lord had a similar awareness of his need.  The instant he saw that he was the soldier, he understood his need for deliverance: deliverance from his personal sins which were responsible, in part, for the sufferings that Jesus endured on Good Friday.

In this regard, I find it significant that the very first person to whom Jesus appeared on Easter Sunday morning was a woman named Mary Magdalene.  Why was she first?  Why not Peter or one of the apostles?  Wouldn't it have made more sense for our Lord to appear to one of them before he appeared to her or to anyone else?  Well, I'm convinced that Mary was given this incredible privilege because at the time she understood her need for Jesus more than anyone else did—except, of course, for the Blessed Mother.  The Bible tells us that during his ministry Jesus had cast 7 devils out of Mary Magdalene.  Traditionally she's also been associated with the prostitute who washed our Lord's feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Jesus had delivered this woman and set her free from sin and the forces of evil that were destroying her life.  And she knew that she needed to keep Jesus in her life in order to stay delivered.  (By the way, if she were a Catholic today, that means she would be at Mass EVERY Sunday—and probably every day.)  Consequently, because she recognized her great need for Jesus, she remained faithful to him—even when all the apostles had run away.  So it was fitting that she was the first one to see him risen from the dead.  It was not a coincidence.

The message of Easter is that Jesus Christ has won the decisive victory over sin and eternal death for Mary Magdalene and for each and every one of us.  But the Lord did not "force" his victory on Mary, nor will he "force" his victory on any one of us.  If we want to experience the fruits of his redemptive act, then we've got to be like Magdalene and come to Jesus, willing to admit our great need for his mercy.  Which means that we've got to be willing to confront our personal sins!  And not just some of them, but all of them!  The sins of uncharity, the sins of unforgiveness, the sins of greed and materialism, the sins of impurity.  This, of course—this idea of confronting our personal sins—is a radical one for those of us living in the early 21st century, when personal sin is frequently denied, and guilt is often looked upon as the worst thing in the world.  Well, let's be clear about it: guilt is not the worst thing in the world!  The worst thing in the world is the denial of guilt.  Because if we deny our guilt for our sins, we cannot be forgiven by the Lord.  And we cannot enter heaven!  I'll tell you quite honestly: it always amuses me when so-called experts say that all people need to do to be psychologically happy is to stop feeling guilty about things.  That's ridiculous!  Do you know what they call people who don't feel guilty about anything?  Psychopaths!  Psychopaths are the most guilt-free men and women on the planet!  They can murder a dozen people and think nothing of it!

If we wish to experience the fruits of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then our attitude must be like Mary Magdalene's—or like John Newton's after his conversion.  I’m talking here about the John Newton who wrote a hymn that we sing in church all the time.  He was born in the early 18th century.  His mother died when he was 7.  His father was a sea captain and good Christian, but early on Newton rejected the faith his father had tried to instill in him.  Then, from age 17 to age 23, he traveled all over the world and got himself into all sorts of trouble.  He led a promiscuous lifestyle; he was sold as a slave; then, when he escaped, he became a slave trader.  He went through many difficult times.  And nothing ever motivated him to change for the better—until he almost died in a storm at sea.  Then he finally cried out to God, as desperate people sometimes do.  He promised the Lord that if he came out of the storm alive he'd reform.  Now, unlike many others who make similar promises, Newton was true to his word.  In fact, he eventually became a Methodist minister.  That's when he wrote the words to that hymn that almost every Christian knows: Amazing Grace.  He wrote them out of his own experience of facing his sin and receiving new life in Christ.  "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see."  Recently I came across the words that Newton had them inscribe on his tombstone at the time of his death: "John Newton, Clerk.  Once an infidel and libertine; A servant of slaves in Africa; was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long labored to destroy." 

What strikes me about that inscription is the honesty behind it.  Newton was not afraid to admit to the world that he had been a scoundrel.  That's because he understood the power of the Risen Christ to wash away those horrible sins of the past and to eventually bring him to heaven.  Do we understand that power—that power that we have available to us as Catholics in the beautiful sacrament of Reconciliation?  As Newton wrote in the song: "Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, amazing grace will then prevail in heaven's joy and peace."

I said at the beginning of my homily that the only people who appreciate the gift of new life that Jesus brings us by his Resurrection, are those who know how much they need the gift—those who know their poverty, their imperfections, their sins, their need for healing.  People like John Newton, people like Mary Magdalene—and, hopefully, people like us.