Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Vigil Year C

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 54:5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15,32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-17a,18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

Were we to ask four great artists to make a portrait of the same person we would be very disappointed if what they produced was exactly the same. Works by Raphael, Rubens, Matisse and Picasso, for example, would be quite different, revealing not just the subject of the portrait but a lot about the artist as well. So too with the portraits of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - the differences between them are informative, just as is the agreement between them. When it comes to the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances of Jesus, one thing that is very striking is the sobriety of all the gospel accounts, compared for example with the florid accounts we get in other texts that have not been included in the Bible. The discrepancies between the accounts in the four gospels are actually an argument in favour of the reality of the facts they relate. What they speak about is something wonderful, puzzling, terrifying and amazing - it would be more suspicious if they had agreed precisely on every detail when witnessing to such things. That would have looked like a conspiracy.

Angels or men at the empty tomb is one example. Were there one or two? Were they inside or outside? Were they standing or sitting? Read the gospels and you will get different answers to these questions. This year we read Luke's account of the women finding the tomb empty. As they stand inside wondering what on earth has happened two men in brilliant clothes appear beside them. The last time we heard about two men appearing and brilliant clothes it was five weeks ago when we read Luke's account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. We were told then that these were Moses and Elijah, talking with him about the exodus he was to accomplish in Jerusalem, his passion, death and resurrection. Now we are not told who the two men are but the conversation continues as they remind the women about the predictions Jesus had made, precisely at the time of his Transfiguration.

The two men appearing at the tomb and at the Transfiguration throw light on the ministry of Jesus. But they also teach us that we must search much further back in the history of God's people if we are to enter fully into understanding that ministry, the meaning of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the meaning of his suffering, death and resurrection. Moses and Elijah are the Law and the Prophets, the two main parts of the Hebrew scriptures. Later in Luke 24 we will read how Jesus joined two disciples on the road to Emmaus and opened the meaning of the scriptures for them, beginning with Moses and all the prophets. On the return of those two disciples to Jerusalem, Jesus appeared again, this time to all the disciples gathered there, and taught them that everything written about him in the law, the prophets and the psalms, had to come true.

The whole story, from the very beginning, has to be re-read in view of the ending and this is what we have been doing tonight in the Easter Vigil, reading from the law, the prophets and the writings, in order to understand who Jesus is and what his mission is. In re-telling his story we see our own story also everywhere in these scriptures, we hear about exile and exodus, about Abraham and creation, we hear about fear and joy, hope and desperation, loss and restoration. Above all tonight we hear about resurrection, that God, the living and true God, is God of life, of justice, of faithfulness.

The women are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Their preaching meets with disbelief on the part of the apostles and the rest of the disciples who regard it as 'pure nonsense'. So there is a transition to be made, an expansion of consciousness we might say, a radically new understanding. The angels offer their help. The stones to be removed are not just physical ones. The reading from Ezekiel speaks about the hearts of stone that need to be removed from human beings if they are to be given hearts of flesh. The God of creation re-affirms his work in the resurrection. By raising Jesus from the dead he says once again of creation that it is very good. There was evening and now there is morning, the eighth day, the day of the new creation, on which the created image of God comes to be in a way that cannot be touched by sin. And this is the risen Lord.

He rose, and shares his risen life with us, not to make us angels but to make us human. Luke is described by Dante as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, the scribe of the gentleness of Christ, showing us Jesus full of tenderness and compassion. We saw it in the words of Jesus from the cross recounted by Luke: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do; today you will be with me in paradise; Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

The resurrection of Jesus means resurrection for all of humanity because Jesus is the head of all humanity. The grace that is his as the only Son of the Father, Son of God and Son of Man, is for all human beings and not just for him alone. And the resurrection of Jesus means new life now, not just in the future, a transformed life, as we emerge from the death that comes with sin to the life that comes with being united to God. This is not to remove us from this world and its concerns but rather to insert us even more fully within them, not as spiritualised beings but as humanised beings.

Tonight we are born again, not as super-human or super-spiritual beings but simply as human beings, as we were meant to be. God's desire from the beginning was a creature made in God's own image. He has finally found such a creature, in Jesus of Nazareth, and now he calls all men and women to associate themselves with Jesus, to be re-fashioned through his work into images of the Eternal Father, brothers and sisters of Jesus, temples of the Holy Spirit.

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