A priest, a rabbi and an expert on the liturgy were together on a plane. There was an explosion, and it was clear that the plane was going down and they would all be killed.
The priest began to pray the Rosary. The rabbi began devoutly to recite the Torah. And the liturgist began to organize a committee to write new prayers for air crashes.
I tell the joke—a bit fresher than the old one about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist (you can negotiate with a terrorist) only because I was really shocked when I turned to an expert's book so I could read up on the Exsultet, the glorious Easter Proclamation which we heard so beautifully sung at the beginning of tonight's liturgy.
Believe it or not, the liturgy expert—writing in the 1970s—suggests we scrap the Exsultet and replace it with something easier for modern people to grasp; he even says that we may become somewhat bored while listening to it!
Brothers and sisters, if the Exsultet bored you tonight, even somewhat, I'd be much surprised. For to be bored with this proclamation is, in a certain sense, to be bored with redemption: for the entire hymn is one great prayer of thanksgiving, summing up the history of our salvation.
After the splendid introduction that calls us to rejoice–not alone, but together with the angels, the saints, and all creation—the Exsultet begins at the beginning: with the sin of Adam. We admit that human beings went so wrong that they became captives to sin, needing not merely to be forgiven but to be ransomed. And not merely ransomed by some kind of payment, but with the blood of Christ.
The Vancouver Sun, in a sincere effort to grapple with the doctrine of the atonement while offending no-one, has an editorial this weekend that says "whether we're Christian or not, or religious or not, we can gain inspiration from the meaning of Easter." In other words, we can get a lot from Christ's passion, death and resurrection without believing it to be necessary.
But of course that isn't really true. If we don't believe in humanity's need for redemption—in our need for redemption—Christ's saving act is pure tragedy. We gather tonight to proclaim that we do need deliverance from the slavery of sin, the deliverance wondrously prefigured in the Old Testament by the Passover Lamb, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the pillar of fire. The redemption of Israel from slavery is completed once and for all by the Lord's own Passover that takes us from darkness to light.
If this makes no sense, then we'll be more than bored by the Exsultet—we'll be confused. Worse, we may be angry. For what kind of a Father gives away his Son to ransom a slave? Why was this necessary? Why did God allow this?
It's a question I'm asked from time to time by good people who have trouble with their faith. And yet, Scott Hahn says, "The heart of the New Testament is the new redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ. … In his own words, Jesus came to offer his life 'as a ransom for many' (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45)."
"It is primarily the Exodus that shapes the Christian understanding of Christ's redeeming work. Jesus himself plays the role of the Passover Lamb whose sacrifice brings salvation…" [Catholic Bible Dictionary, 759]
It's not easy for modern people to understand this, living as we do in a society so unused to the idea of atonement that murderers are given day parole before the grass is grown over their victims' graves. Perhaps the history of our salvation really is over the heads of people who think that one tearful press conference makes up for any amount of infidelity, dishonesty, or injustice.
Clearly, it's not easy to understand that why the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was needed to save us; but the answer is not to dumb down the Exsultet, but to strive to understand just how much the Father must have loved us to accept such a perfect offering for our sins. The price of Adam's sin is paid; the Angel of Death has passed over us; the armies lined up against our souls have been drowned.
With even a minimum of understanding of the doctrine of the atonement, we can lift up our voices in the words of the Easter Proclamation on this "most blessed of all nights," this night that shines like day, this night that has the power to dispel all evil, wash guilt away, and restore lost innocence.
These are not abstractions! All the sacraments—baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, and penance included—draw their power from the risen Christ. The Exsultet proclaims that the power of this night "brings mourners joy." These words are anything but abstract to me and to many others who are grieving, since "this is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death."
Heaven forbid that the Church should take the advice of a liturgist from the seventies and replace the Exsultet with something easier to digest. It is solid food, meant to nourish the heart and soul with faith, hope and love from one year to the next.
While there may indeed be some people here tonight who were bored by the Exsultet—or by my homily on it!—I know who wasn't. I doubt the Easter Proclamation bored our catechumen, Maureen, on the night she will become a Christian, receiving the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. I don't think Jill and her son Kyle, who will enter into full communion with the Catholic Faith by their profession of faith, found nothing to hold on to as the lyrical words rang through the darkened church. And Melissa , who will be confirmed and make her first Holy Communion this holy night, showed no sign of nodding off so early in our celebration.
Were any of you bored, dear catechumen and candidates? I didn't think so. For you have longed for this night, lived for this night, as you reflected and meditated on the gift of salvation that is yours in Christ. I'm sure you find no trouble seeing this night as the "most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead."
You have already let the words of the Easter Proclamation echo in your hearts: "What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love!"
Maureen, Jill, Kyle and Melissa—tonight I will have the priestly privilege of celebrating saving sacraments with each of you. It's a joy I can hardly describe. But as I thought and prayed about tonight, I kept hearing the words of St. Paul: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." The Apostle is telling us that God is the real source of conversion; but at the same time he is acknowledging that tending the seeds of the Gospel requires more than one gardener.
Father Xavier, our catechists, Kyle, Margherita, Rhonda and Dan, our other RCIA team members, Tim and Rolson, your sponsors Marilyn, Annette, Robert, and Monique have all given generously of their time and gifts to share the faith with you. And the entire parish community has prayed for you and with you, and will continue to do so in the days ahead.
My dear friends, may the Morning Star that rises in your hearts never set; and may the flame of faith burn there forever.