3rd Sunday after Easter
My Dear Friends,
For some time now we have been enjoying the presence of the paschal candle, which, alongside the incessant chant of the alleluia, is probably the most striking liturgical feature of the celebration of Easter. It rejoices us by giving us light, symbol of the Resurrection of Our Lord who rises in the night to overcome death. The candle is lit during the night office of the Easter Vigil and its light pierces through the surrounding darkness. If you have ever been in a very dark place with only the very small light of a candle on a very cold and foggy night, you know that however dark and cold it may be, the candle pierces the darkness, striking it a death blow by its very existence. “The light shines in the darkness,” says St John in the prologue to his Gospel (John 1:5), and that light is the only-begotten Son who has come into the world. In the same Gospel, Jesus Himself tells us: “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me, walks not in the darkness, but he will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
It is therefore easy to understand why light is a dominant theme of this liturgical season, perhaps even more here in the southern hemisphere where, while the paschal candle gives light to our eyes and joy to our hearts, the days shorten as the sun continues its march toward its annual death.
Today’s collect reminds us that God “shows to those who are in error the light of His truth, so that they may return into the way of righteousness”. In other words, the light which is given to us by the paschal candle is the symbol of a greater light still, that is to say, the light of truth. To be in error is to be in the dark. To be in the truth is to be in the light. St Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were once darkness, but now they are light and must therefore walk as children of the light (Cf. Eph 5:8).
What is it to walk in the light? It is to know where you are going, to see the path. In Psalm 118, which we monks sing every week on Sundays and Mondays, we are told that the word of God is a “lantern for our feet and a light for our path” (Ps 118:105). The word of God which was given to us abundantly through the Old Testament, revealed itself to us with all clarity in the New. That wisdom which the prophet Baruch said was seen on the earth and conversed among men (Bar 3:38), actually did so in the flesh in Our Lord Jesus Christ. The light has come, but sadly, as St John again says in his Gospel: “men preferred darkness to light”. And why was that? He adds the reason: “for their works were evil” (John 3:19).
There are so many souls who fail to see the light, because their works are evil. There is a thick fog of insincerity and duplicity that prevents even the light of God from penetrating. There are windows, that is to say, reason and conscience, but these souls are careful to cover them with massive, thick blinds which prevent the light from entering. And they can go through their entire life trying to make themselves comfortable in the dark, and ignoring even the very existence of the light. This is why the works of evil are done in the dark. They cannot bear the light, for it would show forth the ugliness of their lives.
That is also why the apostles, as St Peter does today, remind us frequently not to go back to the works of evil. The danger is real, and the reminder is most fitting during paschal tide. During Lent, we felt motivated to self-denial, but when we reached Easter, we passed over into celebration mode, which also entails a bit of feasting after the fast. The flesh in that context can get the upper hand once again, and so it needs to be kept in check. This is why today’s Secret Prayer at the end of the offertory asks for the grace to “subdue our worldly desires and learn to love the things of heaven”. To help us in this, an expression from the Rule of St Benedict might give us some incentive. In the chapter on the Instruments or Tools of Good Works (Ch 4), he says that we must not “embrace delights”. What does this mean? To embrace something or someone is to give oneself over to unbridled enjoyment. But the truly Christian soul is careful to never hand herself over to unbridled enjoyment of any creature whatsoever. Only the delights of the Spirit, the enjoyment of God in the intimacy of the heart should be embraced unreservedly. To embrace any creature, any pleasure that is not God, is to weaken the soul and open it up to unguarded attacks from the enemy. This is the reason for St Peter’s reminder today.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord uses the image of a woman in labour to help us understand our present necessity to embrace the cross. Just as the expectant mother is filled with dread because of the pangs of childbirth that wrench from her cries of distress, but then she completely forgets it all when she holds her newborn babe in her arms, so we now must go through a bit of strife and sadness. The world rejoices – if indeed its ephemeral mirth can be said to be joy – when it sees us in trial, when our hopes seem to be disappointed, when we ourselves seem to be in the dark and our Church seems to be the prey of heretics and libertines. The world rejoices because it thinks it has won the victory. And in this hour we are sad. We are like the woman in labour. We would like not to be there. We would like to go back to the past, before the time we fell in love with our Saviour and were captivated by His beauty. But the hour comes and we must submit. We must accept the excruciating pain which, verily, can wrench from us cries of anguish. But we shall see the Lord again. He shall return and show Himself to us. In that day, no longer will we remember the distress of these days. It will be all over. Blessed are those who wait for the Lord.
On this day here in Australia we commemorate those brave soldiers who lost their lives at war, a war they did not choose and which was not even theirs. It was not their land that was at stake, but that of friends and allies. As we pray for the repose of their souls, we are mindful of the great lesson they give us, more necessary than ever in a world bent on preserving its earthly life and satisfaction at any cost. And that great lesson, that great truth is that there are causes that it is worth dying for. And this of itself shows us that human life is not the supreme value. The supreme values are truth and love. When truth is at stake, we must be ready to die, as the martyrs we commemorate, like the evangelist St Mark. When love for God or neighbour is at stake, we must be prepared to suffer and die. There are indeed values worthy dying for.
As we look up at the paschal candle, as our eyes take delight in its radiance, let us also be mindful of those five grains of incense in the form of a cross, which symbolise the five glorious wounds of the Saviour. And may we be thus encouraged in our labours for our friends, for our family, for our country. But with St Joan of Arc let us always add: “God is first to be served”. God, and His truth bequeathed to the Church once and for all. God and His mysteries made present through the sacraments. God in His angels and in his saints. Amen.