Bishop Malone: The great 50 days of Eastertide

Mon, Apr 4th 2016 10:00 am
Bishop of Buffalo

Let me tell you about Melanie. I mentioned her briefly in my installation homily back in August 2012. One day back in the early '90s when I was serving as Catholic chaplain at Harvard, a second year student at Harvard Law School came to my office. She had been doing a lot of thinking, she said, and wanted to explore the possibility of becoming Catholic. Melanie's parents practiced no faith, and Melanie was never baptized or brought up with any faith experience in her family environment.

At Harvard, though, she fell in love, and became engaged to another grad student who was a faithful and enthusiastically committed Catholic. His faith was contagious, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit flowing through their love for each other, the desire for baptism was ignited in Melanie's heart.

Melanie plunged into the RCIA process. She never missed a session despite the demands of her law school studies. She could not learn enough about Jesus, the Gospels and the Church, about the creed, the sacraments, Catholic moral teaching and prayer - the whole splendid smorgasbord of Catholic faith and life. It was my joyous privilege to baptize and confirm Melanie at the Easter Vigil that year, and welcome her for the first time to the table of the Lord.

But I want to tell you about the evening of the Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday. Our team gathered all the newly initiated Catholics for a mystagogy session, a prayerful reflection on the new Christ-life they had just received. I had the 10 neophytes come together in the same darkened sanctuary where they had been baptized, sitting now in a circle around the baptismal font and Easter candle. When it came time for Melanie to share her experience of her baptism, she said in a soft, awe-filled voice, "When I saw my face reflected in the baptismal water by the glow of the candle, I thought, 'Now, finally, I know who I really am.'"
It was perhaps the most profound response I had ever heard. In finding Christ, Melanie knew she had found herself. Melanie practiced law for a few years, and then earned a master's degree in theology. Now she is a lay ecclesial minister in her Midwestern diocese.

If you would know the radical meaning of Easter, think of Melanie. Think of the thousands of new Catholics who were baptized around the world at the recent Easter Vigil, along with the many others, already Christian, who were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. In the power of the Risen Christ, all of us who have been baptized have been plunged into the saving mystery of the Lord's death and resurrection, and changed forever at the very core of our being. We know who we are in Christ.

While all the symbols of the Easter liturgy speak of the inner transformation that Christian initiation signifies and causes, there is one ritual element that makes a profound point: the rite of renouncing the devil, before affirming faith in God in the making or renewing of baptismal promises.

The renunciation of the devil is an ancient rite during initiation. In the fourth-century East, it was done in a very personal and dramatic way. Satan was addressed as if he were visibly present. He was defied to his face as each of the elect answered the question: "Do you renounce Satan and all his work?" "I do!" Then the priest would command the candidate: "Then breathe, and spit upon him!"

I mention this not as an historical tidbit, nor for dramatic effect, but because it points to a powerful consequence of baptismal transformation. Greek Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann explains it in these words:

To renounce Satan is to reject a mythological being in whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire worldview made up of pride and self-affirmation, that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell. And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection, this challenge. "Breathe and spit upon him." A war is declared! A fight begins whose real issues is either eternal life or eternal damnation. For this is what Christianity is about. This is what our choice ultimately means.

We are celebrating now the Great 50 Days, this blessed time from Easter Sunday to Pentecost when we bask in the glow of the Resurrection. It happens in spring, but it is not about spring. It is about the power of divine life breaking into our conflicted, war-torn world, our weary, struggling Church, our burdened, anxious lives ... divine life that offers us the reason for wonder and hope. Easter reminds us that our world is good because it is God's world, that our Church is holy, despite our sin, because it is the Spirit's dwelling place ... and that each of us is God's beloved daughter or son.

The Easter Scriptures evoke the reality of a personal passage from death to life in Christ. Sin and foolishness, timidity and doubt, distraction and apathy creep too often into our lives, but they need not have the final word. The final word is resurrection! It is life! It is healing! It is hope!

There is so much for us of the Latin Church to learn from the Eastern churches. On this feast, the greeting Christians of the East extend to each other is not "Happy Easter." The word "Easter," after all, comes from the name of the ancient pagan Teutonic goddess of spring! Our Eastern brothers and sisters will instead declare: "Christ is risen!" And the response: "He is risen indeed!  or "He is truly risen!" "Truly" is the key word. It means "I believe that He is risen and with us still." It marks a claiming of Christ's victory as our own, a renewed commitment to live as authentic and faithful followers of this Risen One. In that following of Christ, we, like Melanie, learn again, ever more deeply, who - and Whose - we are, and how we are to live as His disciples.

Christ is risen! He is truly risen!  

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