Saturday, April 19, 2014

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Easter Vigil 2014

You probably do not recognise the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin nor should you. But many of you may have had read or heard a version of this story in one of its incarnations. Nikolai Bukharin rose in the ranks of the Russian Communist Party and became one of the most powerful man as there was on earth. He personally took part in the Bolshevik Revolution 1917 that overthrew the Tsarist government which made him a legend of sorts. He was a prolific writer and apologist of communist propaganda, thus earning him the office of editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which by the way means ‘Truth’ – that’s irony!), and was a full member of the Politburo.

According to urban legend, the following story took place during a journey he took to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insults, argument, and proof against it. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men's faith. "Are there any questions?" Bukharin demanded, thinking it to be merely rhetorical and not expecting any answer from the uneducated working class peasants gathered there. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the greeting that had been ingrained in the hearts and minds of Russian Christians for centuries: "CHRIST IS RISEN!" En masse the crowd arose as one man and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: "HE IS RISEN INDEED!"

Christ is Risen! Just three words in a split second awakening the love and hearts of hundreds, capable of dusting off the soot of decades of iconoclastic and anti-religious cultural indoctrination, and it still happens today. The faith of the supposed Christian simpleton as he faced the formidable attacks of one of most articulate among the Communist intelligentsia was not just the thoughtless act of bravery nor was it a stubbornly silly display of superstitious belief. It was simply an act of faith in the Easter mystery we celebrate tonight. History would vindicate the actions of the daring Christian David and prove his opponent, the unbelieving Goliath, wrong. Today, communism, as a failed ideology and system, is in tatters. Christianity, on the other hand, once persecuted to the point of extinction, now flourishes in Russia and many parts of the former Communist bloc. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

But this simple declaration doesn’t mean our troubles are over. As Pope Francis recently reminded us, “proclaiming the gospel comes with persecution.” Like a dying hydra, the enemies of our faith continue to emerge and multiply in various forms. One doesn’t have to follow the daily news for long to realise that Christianity is coming under attack like never before. In fact, every day, mainstream media, box office movies and quality television shows display total ignorance about the first 1,500 years of Western civilisation and Christianity gets blamed for the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and thus every act of racism, genocide, or war is pinned on the Church. We encounter ridicule whenever we choose to go against the current of the world as we firmly hold onto the values of the gospel. Christians continue to face the darkness of violence and persecution in many parts of the world – their rights and freedom to practice their faith not only severely curtailed but lives are being lost in the killing fields watered by martyrs’ blood. The looming darkness constantly threatens to extinguish the light of faith.

Like every year for the last two millenia, Christians gather once more in Churches to celebrate the Mother of all Christian Festivals – it is as if we are sending a message to the world that we are not about to give up a fight or our light. In fact, our message is not one of a defeated people who are desperately preparing to make a last suicidal stand in the face of the overwhelming odds. On the contrary, the message that we wish to convey is that of victory – it always has been of victory – not of any individual Christian or the whole lot of us, but that of the one who won the victory for us – Christ who is Risen. The Christian story does not end with Good Friday. On Easter Day we celebrate the coming of the light – a light which the powers of darkness, apparently victorious on Good Friday, cannot, and will not, extinguish.

Yes, the Easter Vigil always begins with darkness but does not remain so for long. The darkness represents so much of our lives and so much of what’s happening in the world. It is the seeming absence of God. It is a symbol of the forces that have grown so antagonistic to our faith, the darkness of suspicion, hatred, disbelief, prejudice, and anger heaped against what we stand for. The experience of sitting in the darkness is uncomfortable and confusing, humbling and nervous, and we fidget and impatiently wait for something to happen. Then a light is struck. It breaks into the darkness like nothing else can. Then priest utters these words of power over the flames of new born fire – “Sanctify this new fire, we pray, and grant that, by these paschal celebrations, we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires.” Then the candle is lit from the new Pascal fire with these soaring words, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” That same candle is then brought into the community in procession, and we receive its light, and the power of that light grows – the Church is ablaze. Our hearts thrilled as we stood with lighted candles, attentive to the words of the Easter Proclamation and marvelling at the sublime poetry; words that defiantly throw a fresh challenge that penetrates the shield of blackness that fills the night.  

In a way, our liturgy seems to imitate life. The looming darkness which enshrouds this night always threatens to overwhelm the dimming light emanating from our candles but with the first notes of the magnificent Easter Proclamation being sung, the darkness is dramatically dispelled by the lights which are turned on in the Church. The forces of chaos that threatens to destroy our universe are subdued by the power and authority of God, and subverted into becoming the very raw material of both the old creation as well as the new one. God re-creates and redeems all life from dead, dry and destroyed bones. We are released from the bonds of self-obsession, addiction and whatever would steal away the radical freedom God has given us. From the waters of destruction, emerges new life. Death itself is trampled upon this night. Throughout our human history, death threatens to rob us of victory, but at the end of tonight’s marathon of readings, we discover that death is defeated by life itself. 

Our celebration is no anachronistic ritual that merely recall the past – rather it speaks to us of a present reality. Christ rose in glory on Easter Day, but today his light continues to rise to scatter all our darkness. Despite many appearances to the contrary, this bright flame of love continues to shine in the darkness. We know only too well those situations where darkness covers our lives. Our present struggles and the weight of world events, all obscure our hope. But the hope of the risen Christ can transform our darkness to light. Christ is the lens through which the whole world becomes brighter and sharper, more richly-coloured and more detailed.

The wonder of the resurrection is upon us once more. Soon this night, in the baptismal liturgy, we will witness the birth of new members and we too will renew our own baptismal entry into the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus, emphatically rejecting sin and proclaiming our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And finally tonight, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, filled with immense gratitude we will go to meet the Lord in his Body and his Blood, the angelic bread that sustains us on our present journey.

May we embrace God's ever-new life with every cell of our being, every yearning of our soul, and every muscle of our will. Christ is risen, death is vanquished, humanity is restored to rightful place with God. Praise God who brings light out of darkness, life out of death, and newness out of the stale and moribund. And no matter what the world throws at us, we know in our hearts that Good News that Christ is Risen! With love and joy, I greet and invite you to enter our massive chorus as we shout to a world darkened by its refusal to love and to believe, “CHRIST IS RISEN!” “HE IS RISEN. ALLELUIA!”

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