Easter in Rome: The Secret Homilies of the Successor of Peter
They’re secret, except for those who were able to listen to them in person, while Benedict XVI was pronouncing them. In the "urbi et orbi" message, too, the pope presented much more than a list of countries at war. Here are the complete texts.
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, April 11, 2007 – The image above is taken from a painting by Caravaggio. The risen Jesus appears to the apostles, and to the doubting Thomas he says: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; put forth your hand and place it in my side, and be no longer unbelieving, but believe!"
The incredulity of Thomas and his following profession of faith – “My Lord and my God!” – are at the center of the message that Benedict XVI addressed to the world on Easter Sunday.
Pope Joseph Ratzinger said that “we may all be tempted by the disbelief of Thomas.” The countless evils that afflict men put faith to a hard test. But it is precisely in the wounds of the risen Christ that the true face of God appears: “the face of a God who, in Christ, has taken upon himself the wounds of injured humanity.” It is here that a nearly dead faith is reborn: because “only a God who loves us to the extent of taking upon himself our wounds and our pain, especially innocent suffering, is worthy of faith.”
At this point, Benedict XVI singled out by name the most wounded and suffering regions of the world: from Darfur to the Congo, from Afghanistan to Iraq, to the “blessed Land which is the cradle of our faith.” And he added: “Dear Brothers and sisters, through the wounds of the Risen Christ we can see the evils which afflict humanity with the eyes of hope.”
Earlier, he had said that “humanity today expects from Christians a renewed witness to the resurrection of Christ; it needs to encounter him and to know him as true God and true man.”
But little or nothing of this proclamation of the risen Christ was picked up by the major media outlets. These highlighted only the list of countries stricken by wars and calamities.
There is a limit beyond which the words of Benedict XVI do not go. They reach completely only those who listen to them in person, whether present physically or thanks to a live television broadcast. The number of these persons is substantial, more than for any earlier pontificate. The Easter “urbi et orbi” message and the Way of the Cross on Good Friday were followed by huge crowds and retransmitted in more than forty countries. But even more vast is the number of persons who receive the pope’s message in an incomplete form – or not at all.
Benedict XVI experienced this communications block to an even greater extent in the other celebrations of last Holy Week.
In the Chrism Mass on Thursday morning, the pope dedicated the homily to explaining the profound meaning of being a priest, “clothed with Christ” and thus able to act and speak “in persona Christi.” He did this by reviewing the symbolism of the liturgical vestments. But how many of the more than four hundred thousand Catholic bishops and priests did his words reach?
In the homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening, Benedict XVI illustrated the novelty of Jesus’ Passover with respect to the one celebrated by the Jews.
In the homily for the Easter Vigil, he described the victory of Jesus over death by using the depictions customary in the Eastern Churches: with the risen Jesus who descends into Hades, and thus “brings the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.”
But among those present at these Masses, only those who understood Italian were able to listen fruitfully to the pope’s homilies. The Catholic media outlets that translated and distributed the texts in various countries barely extended the listening area, to a niche audience.
For a pope like Benedict XVI, who has centered his ministry precisely upon the word, this is a serious limitation. The offices in the Roman curia that deal with communications have to this point done nothing new in order to remedy this, at least in part. For example, no one sees to a quick distribution of the pope’s texts by internet to all the bishops and priests of the world, in the various languages.
The only effective initiatives in this area are those of Benedict XVI in person. With his book about Jesus that will be issued in a few days in multiple languages, he will reach in a direct and personal way an extremely high number of readers all over the world.
And it is precisely Jesus, “true God and true man,” who is the heart of Pope Benedict’s message. Just as he was the heart of his Easter homilies.
Here they are in their entirety:
1. At the Chrism Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday
Dear brothers and sisters, the Russian author Leo Tolstoy writes in a short story about a strict ruler who asked his priests and wise men to show God to him, so that he might see him. The wise men were unable to satisfy this desire. So a shepherd, who was just coming home from the fields, offered to take upon himself the task of the priests and wise men. The king learned from him that his eyes were not sufficient to see God. But then the king wanted to know at least what it was that God did. "In order to reply to your question," the shepherd said to the ruler, "we must exchange clothing." With hesitation, but driven by curiosity, the ruler consented: he handed over his regal garments to the shepherd, and had himself dressed in the simple clothing of the poor man. Then came the answer: "This is what God does."
In fact, the Son of God – true God from true God – left behind his divine splendor: "he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself [...] even to death on a cross" (cf. Philippians, 2:6ff). As the Fathers say, God has established a "sacrum commercium," a sacred exchange: he took upon himself what was ours, that we might be able to receive what was his, to become like God.
Saint Paul explicitly uses the image of the garment to describe what happens in baptism: "All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27). This is what is achieved in baptism: we clothe ourselves with Christ, he gives us his garments – and these are not something external. It means that we enter into an existential communion with him, that our beings flow together and compenetrate each other. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ is living in me" – so Paul himself, in the letter to the Galatians (2:2), describes the event of his baptism. Christ has put on our clothing: the pain and the joy of being human, hunger, thirst, weariness, hopes and disappointments, the fear of death, all of our anguish, even death. And he has given us his "clothing." What he presents to us in the letter to the Galatians as a simple "fact" of baptism – the gift of a new mode of being – Paul presents to us in the letter to the Ephesians as a permanent commitment: "You must put away the old self of your former way of life... [You must] put on the new man, created according to God in justice and true holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin..." (Ephesians 4:22-26).
This theology of baptism returns in a new way and with a new insistence in priestly ordination. As in baptism there takes place an "exchange of garments," an exchange of destiny, a new existential communion with Christ, so also in the priesthood there is an exchange: in the administration of the sacraments, the priest acts and speaks now "in persona Christi." He does not represent himself in the sacred mysteries, and he does not express himself in speaking, but he speaks for the Other – for Christ. Thus the sacraments make visible in a dramatic fashion what being a priest means in general, that which we have expressed with our "Adsum – I am ready" during priestly consecration: I am here so that you may do what you wish with me. We put ourselves at the disposal of him "who died for all, so that they who live may live no longer for themselves..." (2 Corinthians 5:15). Putting ourselves at the disposal of Christ means that we let ourselves be draw into his "for all": by being with Him, we can truly be "for all."
"In persona Christi": at the moment of priestly ordination, the Church made visible and tangible to us this reality of the "new garments," even outwardly, through our being clothed with the liturgical vestments. In this external act, the Church wants to make evident to us the interior event, and the task that we receive from it: to put on Christ; to give ourselves to him as he gave himself to us.
This event, this "putting on Christ," is continually represented to us anew in every Holy Mass, through our clothing ourselves with the liturgical vestments. Putting these on must be for us more than an external fact: it is entering ever afresh into the "yes" of our task – in that "no longer I" of baptism that priestly ordination simultaneously gives to us in a new way and demands from us. The fact that we are at the altar, dressed in liturgical vestments, should make clearly visible to those present and to ourselves that we are there "in the person of Another." The priestly vestments, as they were developed over the course of time, are a profound symbolic expression of what the priesthood means. And so I would like, dear confreres, to explain on this Holy Thursday the essence of the priestly ministry by interpreting the liturgical vestments that, for their part, intend to illustrate what it means to "put on Christ," to speak and act in persona Christi.
Putting on the priestly vestments was once accompanied by prayers that helped us to understand better the individual elements of the priestly ministry. Let’s begin with the amice. In the past – and still in the monastic orders today – this was placed first on the head, like a sort of cap, thus becoming a symbol of the discipline of senses and thought necessary for a proper celebration of the Holy Mass. My thoughts must not wander here and there, behind the worries and expectations of my daily life; my senses must not be drawn by what within the church might chance to captivate my eyes and ears. My heart must docilely open itself to the word of God, and be recollected within the prayer of the Church, so that my thinking may take its direction from the words of proclamation and prayer. And the gaze of my heart must be turned toward the Lord who is in our midst: this is what is meant by "ars celebrandi," the right way of celebrating. If I am with the Lord, then with my listening, speaking, and acting, I will also draw the people into communion with Him.
The prayers that [accompany the vesting with] the alb and the stole both move in the same direction. They evoke the festal garment that the father gave to the prodigal son who had returned home threadbare and filthy. When we approach the liturgy to act in the person of Christ, we all recognize how far we are from him, how much filth there is in our lives. Only he can give us the festal garment, make us worthy of presiding at his table, of being at his service. So the prayers also recall the words of Revelation, according to which the vestments of the 144,000 elect were worthy of God – but not by their own merit. Revelation comments that they had washed their garments in the blood of the Lamb, and so these had become brilliant white (cf. Revelation 7:14). Already as a young boy, I thought to myself: But when something is washed in blood, it certainly does not become white! The answer is: the "blood of the Lamb" is the love of the crucified Christ. It is this love that makes our dirty clothing white, that makes our darkened spirits genuine and illuminated; that, in spite of all of our darkness, transforms us ourselves into "light in the Lord." In putting on the amice, we should remember: he suffered for me also. And it is only because his love is greater than all my sins that I can represent him and be a witness to his light.
But with the garment of light that the Lord has given us in baptism and, in a new way, in priestly ordination, we might also think of the wedding garment of which he speaks in the parable of God’s banquet. In the homilies of Saint Gregory the Great, I have found a reflection worth noting in this regard. Gregory distinguishes between Luke’s version of the parable and that of Matthew. He is convinced that Luke’s version speaks of an eschatological wedding banquet, while – according to him – the version handed down by Matthew deals with the anticipation of this nuptial banquet in the liturgy and in the life of the Church. It is, in fact, only In Matthew that the king visits the crowded hall to see his guests. And in this multitude there is also a guest without a wedding garment, who is then cast out into the darkness. Gregory then asks, “But what sort of garment is it that he lacked? All of those who are gathered together in the Church have received the new garment of baptism and faith; otherwise they would not be in the Church. What is it, then, that is still lacking? What wedding garment must still be added?” The pope responds: “The garment of love.” And unfortunately, among the guests to whom he had given the new garment, the white vestment of rebirth, the king finds some who are not wearing the purple garment of the twofold love toward God and neighbor. The pope asks, “In what condition do we mean to draw near to the heavenly feast, if we do not put on the wedding garment – meaning love, which is alone capable of making us beautiful?” A loveless person is dark inside. The external darkness of which the Gospel speaks is only the reflection of the heart’s inner blindness (cf. Homily 38: 8-13).
Now that we are approaching the celebration of the Holy Mass, we should ask ourselves if we are wearing this garment of love. Let us ask the Lord to take away any hostility within us, to strip us of any sense of self-sufficiency and truly clothe us with the garment of love, that we may be people of light, and not dwell in darkness.
Finally, a brief word on the chasuble. The traditional prayer for the vesting with the chasuble sees in it a representation of the yoke of the Lord that has been placed upon us as priests. And it recalls the word of Jesus, who invites us to bear his yoke and learn from him, who is “gentle and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29). Bearing the Lord’s yoke means, above all, learning from him. Being always willing to go to school with him. From him we learn meekness and humility – the humility of God that is shown in his becoming a man.
Saint Gregory Nazianzen once asked why God wanted to become a man. The most important and, for me, touching part of his answer is: “God wanted to learn what obedience means for us; he wanted to take stock of everything on the basis of his own suffering, this invention of his love for us. In this way, he can himself bear what it is that we experience - what is asked of us, how much leniency we deserve - calculating our weakness on the basis of his suffering” (Discourse 30; Theological Discourses IV, 6).
Sometimes we would like to say to Jesus: Lord, your yoke is not at all light. It is, rather, tremendously heavy in this world. But in looking upon him who bore it all - who knewin his own person obedience, weakness, pain, all the darkness - then our complaints die off. His yoke is that of loving together with him. And the more we love him, and together with him become persons who love, the more light his seemingly heavy yoke becomes for us.
Let us pray that he help us to become together with him persons who love, that we may experience ever more how good it is to bear his yoke. Amen.
[Translation by Matthew Sherry]
2. At the Mass of the Lord‘s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday
Dear brothers and sisters, in the reading from the book of Exodus that we have just heard, the celebration of Israel's Passover is described as it was set out by Mosaic law. In the beginning, there could have been a spring holiday celebrated by nomads. However, for Israel, this had been transformed into a feast of commemoration, thanksgiving and, at the same time, hope.
At the heart of the Passover supper, ordained by the specific liturgical rules, was the lamb, as the symbol of liberation from slavery in Egypt. Thus, the paschal "Haggadah" was an integral part of the lamb dinner: the narrative recollection of the fact that it was God himself who had liberated Israel "with a raised hand."
He, the mysterious and hidden God, had been stronger than the pharaoh with all the power that he had at his disposition. Israel was not to forget that God personally had a hand in the history of his people, and that this history was continuously based on communion with God. Israel was not to forget God.
The words of the memorial service were surrounded by words of praise and thanksgiving taken from the Psalms. Giving thanks and blessing God reached its apex with the "berakha," which in Greek is called "eulogia" or "eucaristia:" To bless God becomes a blessing for those who bless. The offering donated to God returns blessed to man.
All this erected a bridge from the past to the present and toward the future: The liberation of Israel had not yet come about. The nation still suffered like a small population in the middle of tensions between great powers. The thankful remembrance of the action of God in the past became at the same time both a plea and a source of hope: Bring to fruition what you have begun! Give us definitive freedom!
This supper, with it multiple meanings, was celebrated by Jesus with his disciples on the eve of his passion. Taking into account this context, we can understand the new Easter, which he gave to us in the holy Eucharist.
In the narrations of the Evangelists, there is an apparent contradiction between the Gospel of John, on one hand, and what, on the other hand, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us. According to John, Jesus died on the cross precisely at the moment in which, in the temple, the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. His death and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.
This means that he died on the eve of Passover, and that, therefore, he could not have personally celebrated the paschal supper; at least this is what it would seem.
On the contrary, according to the three Synoptic Evangelists, the last supper of Jesus was a paschal supper, in its traditional form. He introduced the innovation of the gift of his body and blood. This contradiction, until a few years ago, seemed impossible to resolve.
The majority of the exegetes thought that John did not want to communicate to us the true historical date of the death of Jesus, but had opted for a symbolic date to make the deeper truth more evident: Jesus is the new and true lamb that spilled his blood for us all.
The discovery of the manuscripts of Qumran has led us to a convincing possible solution that, while not accepted by all, is highly probable. We can now say that what John referred to is historically correct. Jesus truly spilled his blood on the eve of Passover at the hour of the sacrifice of the lambs. However, he celebrated Passover with his disciples probably according to the calendar of Qumran, that is to say, at least one day earlier – he celebrated without a lamb, like the Qumran community who did not recognize the Temple of Herod and was waiting for a new temple.
Therefore, Jesus celebrated Passover without a lamb... no, not without a lamb: Instead of the lamb he gave himself, his body and his blood. In this way he foresaw his death coherently with his announcement: "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own" (John 10:18). The moment he offered his body and blood to the disciples, he truly fulfilled this statement. He himself offered his life. Only in this way the old Passover obtains its true meaning.
St. John Chrysostom, in his Eucharistic catechesis, once wrote: What are you saying Moses? That the blood of a lamb purifies man? That it saves them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify man? How can it save mankind, have power against death?
In fact, Chrysostom continues, the lamb can only be a symbol, and, therefore, the expression of the expectation and the hope in someone that would be capable of doing all that an animal couldn't do.
Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb and without the temple, and nevertheless, he was not lacking a lamb or a temple. He himself was the awaited lamb, the true one, the one that John the Baptist had foretold at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry: "Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
And he himself was the true temple, the living temple, the one in which God lives, in which we can find ourselves with God and adore him. His blood, the love of he who is at the same time Son of God and true man, one of us, this blood has the power to save. His love, this love in which he gives himself freely for us, is what saves us. The nostalgic action, in some sense inefficient, of the immolation of the innocent and immaculate lamb, found an answer in the one who became for us both lamb and temple.
In this way, in the center of the new Passover of Christ, we find the cross. The new gift brought by him proceeds from there. And in this way, it always remains in the holy Eucharist, by which we can celebrate with the apostles through the ages the new Passover.
From the cross of Christ proceeds the gift. "No one takes it away from me; I lay it down." Now, he offers it to us. The paschal "Haggadah," the commemoration of the salvific act of God, becomes a recollection of the cross and the resurrection of Christ, a remembrance that doesn't just recall the past, but attracts us toward the presence of the love of Christ. In this way, the "berakha," Israel's prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, becomes our Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord blesses our gifts, the bread and wine, to give himself.
Let us ask the Lord to help us to understand ever more deeply this marvelous mystery, and to love it more and more. And within it, to love him more and more. Let us ask him to attract us more and more to him with holy Communion. Let us ask him to help us not to keep our lives for ourselves, but to surrender them to him, and in this way, to work with him so that all people find life, the authentic life that can only come from he who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.
[Translation by Zenit]
3. At the Way of the Cross on Good Friday
Dear brothers and sisters, following Jesus along the way of his passion we see not only Jesus' passion but we see all those who are suffering in the world. And this is the profound intention of the prayer of the Way of the Cross, to open our hearts, to help us to see with the heart.
The Fathers of the Church considered the greatest sin of the pagan world to be their insensitivity, their hardness of heart, and they loved the prophesy of the prophet Ezekiel: "I will take away your heart of stone and will give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). Converting to Christ, becoming Christian, meant receiving a heart of flesh, a heart sensitive to the passion and the suffering of others.
Our God is not a distant God, untouchable in his blessedness. Our God has a heart, indeed a heart of flesh. He became flesh precisely to suffer with us and to be with us in our sufferings. He became man to give us a heart of flesh and to awaken in us a love for those who suffer, for those in need.
Let us pray to the Lord in this hour for all those in the world who are suffering, let us pray to the Lord that he truly give us a heart of flesh, that he make us messengers of his love not only with words but with our entire life. Amen.
[Translation by Zenit]
4. At the Easter Vigil Mass
Dear brothers and sisters, from ancient times the liturgy of Easter day has begun with the words: "Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum" – I arose, and am still with you; you have set your hand upon me. The liturgy sees these as the first words spoken by the Son to the Father after his resurrection, after his return from the night of death into the world of the living. The hand of the Father upheld him even on that night, and thus he could rise again.
These words are taken from Psalm 138, where originally they had a different meaning. That Psalm is a song of wonder at God’s omnipotence and omnipresence, a hymn of trust in the God who never allows us to fall from his hands. And his hands are good hands. The Psalmist imagines himself journeying to the farthest reaches of the cosmos – and what happens to him? “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Let only darkness cover me...', even the darkness is not dark to you […]; for darkness is as light with you” (Ps 138 :8-12).
On Easter day the Church tells us that Jesus Christ made that journey to the ends of the universe for our sake. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read that he descended to the depths of the earth, and that the one who descended is also the one who has risen far above the heavens, that he might fill all things (cf. 4:9ff.).
The vision of the Psalm thus became reality. In the impenetrable gloom of death Christ came like light – the night became as bright as day and the darkness became as light.
And so the Church can rightly consider these words of thanksgiving and trust as words spoken by the Risen Lord to his Father: “Yes, I have journeyed to the uttermost depths of the earth, to the abyss of death, and brought them light; now I have risen and I am upheld for ever by your hands.”
But these words of the Risen Christ to the Father have also become words which the Lord speaks to us: “I arose and now I am still with you,” he says to each of us. My hand upholds you. Wherever you may fall, you will always fall into my hands. I am present even at the door of death. Where no one can accompany you further, and where you can bring nothing, even there I am waiting for you, and for you I will change darkness into light.
These words of the Psalm, read as a dialogue between the Risen Christ and ourselves, also explain what takes place at Baptism. Baptism is more than a bath, a purification. It is more than becoming part of a community. It is a new birth. A new beginning in life.
The passage of the Letter to the Romans which we have just read says, in words filled with mystery, that in Baptism we have been “grafted” onto Christ by likeness to his death. In Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ – he takes us unto himself, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but through him, with him and in him; so that we live with him and thus for others. In Baptism we surrender ourselves, we place our lives in his hands, and so we can say with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
If we offer ourselves in this way, if we accept, as it were, the death of our very selves, this means that the frontier between death and life is no longer absolute. On either side of death we are with Christ and so, from that moment forward, death is no longer a real boundary.
Paul tells us this very clearly in his letter to the Philippians: “For me to live is Christ. To be with him (by dying) is gain. Yet if I remain in this life, I can still labour fruitfully. And so I am hard pressed between these two things. To depart – by being executed – and to be with Christ; that is far better. But to remain in this life is more necessary on your account” (cf. 1:21ff.). On both sides of the frontier of death, Paul is with Christ – there is no longer a real difference. Yes, it is true: “Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me” (Ps 138 : 5). To the Romans Paul wrote: “No one […] lives to himself and no one dies to himself. […] Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7ff.).
Dear candidates for Baptism, this is what is new about Baptism: our life now belongs to Christ, and no longer to ourselves. As a result we are never alone, even in death, but are always with the One who lives for ever. In Baptism, in the company of Christ, we have already made that cosmic journey to the very abyss of death. At his side and, indeed, drawn up in his love, we are freed from fear. He enfolds us and carries us wherever we may go – he who is Life itself.
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery.
The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death.
The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead.
He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 13812).
Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death.
He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jn 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings – with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.
But we may ask: what is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal – what exactly did Christ bring that was new? The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God’s memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. “Out of the depths I cry to you…” Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.
This is the joy of the Easter Vigil: we are free. In the resurrection of Jesus, love has been shown to be stronger than death, stronger than evil. Love made Christ descend, and love is also the power by which he ascends. The power by which he brings us with him.
In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world’s darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him.
On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light! In my own dark nights, be with me to bring me forth! Help me, help all of us, to descend with you into the darkness of all those people who are still waiting for you, who out of the depths cry unto you! Help us to bring them your light! Help us to say the “yes” of love, the love that makes us descend with you and, in so doing, also to rise with you. Amen!
5. After the Mass on Easter Sunday
Dear brothers and sisters throughout the world, men and women of good will, Christ is risen! Peace to you! Today we celebrate the great mystery, the foundation of Christian faith and hope: Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, has risen from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures. We listen today with renewed emotion to the announcement proclaimed by the angels on the dawn of the first day after the Sabbath, to Mary of Magdala and to the women at the sepulchre: “Why do you search among the dead for one who is alive? He is not here, he is risen!” (Lk 24:5-6).
It is not difficult to imagine the feelings of these women at that moment: feelings of sadness and dismay at the death of their Lord, feelings of disbelief and amazement before a fact too astonishing to be true.
But the tomb was open and empty: the body was no longer there. Peter and John, having been informed of this by the women, ran to the sepulchre and found that they were right. The faith of the Apostles in Jesus, the expected Messiah, had been submitted to a severe trial by the scandal of the cross. At his arrest, his condemnation and death, they were dispersed. Now they are together again, perplexed and bewildered. But the Risen One himself comes in response to their thirst for greater certainty. This encounter was not a dream or an illusion or a subjective imagination; it was a real experience, even if unexpected, and all the more striking for that reason. “Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘peace be with you!’” (Jn 20:19).
At these words their faith, which was almost spent within them, was re-kindled. The Apostles told Thomas who had been absent from that first extraordinary encounter: Yes, the Lord has fulfilled all that he foretold; he is truly risen and we have seen and touched him! Thomas however remained doubtful and perplexed. When Jesus came for a second time, eight days later in the Upper Room, he said to him: “put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing!” The Apostle’s response is a moving profession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:27-28).
“My Lord and my God!” We too renew that profession of faith of Thomas. I have chosen these words for my Easter greetings this year, because humanity today expects from Christians a renewed witness to the resurrection of Christ; it needs to encounter him and to know him as true God and true man.
If we can recognize in this Apostle the doubts and uncertainties of so many Christians today, the fears and disappointments of many of our contemporaries, with him we can also rediscover with renewed conviction, faith in Christ dead and risen for us. This faith, handed down through the centuries by the successors of the Apostles, continues on because the Risen Lord dies no more. He lives in the Church and guides it firmly towards the fulfilment of his eternal design of salvation.
We may all be tempted by the disbelief of Thomas. Suffering, evil, injustice, death, especially when it strikes the innocent such as children who are victims of war and terrorism, of sickness and hunger, does not all of this put our faith to the test? Paradoxically the disbelief of Thomas is most valuable to us in these cases because it helps to purify all false concepts of God and leads us to discover his true face: the face of a God who, in Christ, has taken upon himself the wounds of injured humanity.
Thomas has received from the Lord, and has in turn transmitted to the Church, the gift of a faith put to the test by the passion and death of Jesus and confirmed by meeting him risen. His faith was almost dead but was born again thanks to his touching the wounds of Christ, those wounds that the Risen One did not hide but showed, and continues to point out to us in the trials and sufferings of every human being.
“By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pt 2:24). This is the message Peter addressed to the early converts.
Those wounds that, in the beginning were an obstacle for Thomas’s faith, being a sign of Jesus’ apparent failure, those same wounds have become in his encounter with the Risen One, signs of a victorious love.
These wounds that Christ has received for love of us help us to understand who God is and to repeat: “My Lord and my God!” Only a God who loves us to the extent of taking upon himself our wounds and our pain, especially innocent suffering, is worthy of faith.
How many wounds, how much suffering there is in the world! Natural calamities and human tragedies that cause innumerable victims and enormous material destruction are not lacking. My thoughts go to recent events in Madagascar, in the Solomon Islands, in Latin America and in other regions of the world. I am thinking of the scourge of hunger, of incurable diseases, of terrorism and kidnapping of people, of the thousand faces of violence which some people attempt to justify in the name of religion, of contempt for life, of the violation of human rights and the exploitation of persons.
I look with apprehension at the conditions prevailing in several regions of Africa. In Darfur and in the neighbouring countries there is a catastrophic, and sadly to say underestimated, humanitarian situation. In Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo the violence and looting of the past weeks raises fears for the future of the Congolese democratic process and the reconstruction of the country. In Somalia the renewed fighting has driven away the prospect of peace and worsened a regional crisis, especially with regard to the displacement of populations and the traffic of arms. Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis and for this reason the Bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward.
Likewise the population of East Timor stands in need of reconciliation and peace as it prepares to hold important elections. Elsewhere too, peace is sorely needed: in Sri Lanka only a negotiated solution can put an end to the conflict that causes so much bloodshed; Afghanistan is marked by growing unrest and instability; In the Middle East, besides some signs of hope in the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian authority, nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees. In Lebanon the paralysis of the country’s political institutions threatens the role that the country is called to play in the Middle East and puts its future seriously in jeopardy. Finally, I cannot forget the difficulties faced daily by the Christian communities and the exodus of Christians from that blessed Land which is the cradle of our faith. I affectionately renew to these populations the expression of my spiritual closeness.
Dear Brothers and sisters, through the wounds of the Risen Christ we can see the evils which afflict humanity with the eyes of hope.
In fact, by his rising the Lord has not taken away suffering and evil from the world but has vanquished them at their roots by the superabundance of his grace. He has countered the arrogance of evil with the supremacy of his love. He has left us the love that does not fear death, as the way to peace and joy. “Even as I have loved you – he said to his disciples before his death – so you must also love one another” (cf. Jn 13:34).
Brothers and sisters in faith, who are listening to me from every part of the world! Christ is risen and he is alive among us. It is he who is the hope of a better future.
As we say with Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”, may we hear again in our hearts the beautiful yet demanding words of the Lord: “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honour him” (Jn 12:26).
United to him and ready to offer our lives for our brothers (cf. 1 Jn 3:16), let us become apostles of peace, messengers of a joy that does not fear pain – the joy of the Resurrection. May Mary, Mother of the Risen Christ, obtain for us this Easter gift. Happy Easter to you all!