Father Giovanni started his homily on Holy Thursday by saying “On Sundays, I am nervous preaching.” He got a good laugh when he added “But tonight, I am one hundred per cent scared!”
Tonight it's my turn to be scared—though perhaps not a hundred per cent—because Father Giovanni is a world-class expert on the Easter Vigil. Preaching in front of him on this subject is a real challenge.
There's a good reason a young priest knows more than I do about this subject: Father Giovanni belongs to a movement in the Church that is centered on the Easter Vigil. It’s called the Neocatechumenal Way. The movement began in the slums of Spain in 1964, spread to Rome by 1968, and is now found all over the world.
Neocatechumenal Way is a difficult name, but it describes a simple idea: namely, that every Christian, even the majority of us who were baptized as babies, needs to make the same journey of faith that our two catechumens, John and Jeannie, have made.
The movement is dedicated to “the rediscovery of Christian initiation by baptized adults.” (Statutes, art. 5, 1)
And so, not surprisingly, the Easter Vigil and its baptismal spirituality is the focal point of the Neocatechumenal Way, which proclaims that “the brilliance of the Sacred Triduum fills the whole liturgical year with light.” (Statutes, art. 12, 1)
Every Sunday celebration of the Neocatechumenal crowd mirrors the Easter Vigil—their Masses are held on Saturday night, and they are not short. But their Easter Vigil itself is celebrated in its ancient splendour. There are no shortcuts: all the readings are read, and their liturgy tonight will begin well after ours has ended and continue until well after midnight.
In some places, it begins at midnight and ends at dawn, as it did in the early Church.
So if you want a taste of that, there's still time to join Father Giovanni—he's heading over town as soon as this Mass finishes.
If you are not hardy enough (personally, I'm not too likely to join a movement that starts Mass after my bedtime), I can offer you another opportunity to rediscover Christian initiation with the wide-eyed wonder of catechumens preparing for baptism.
I can offer you that opportunity tonight.
In the first place, you can join me in reflecting with fresh eyes and ears on the readings we've just heard . Let's take the time to step back and think about them like catechumens just waiting to be baptized. Because the readings were chosen for them—and we need to think like them to get the whole message.
Why did we start with a reading from Genesis, a long account of the creation of the world? Talk about starting at the beginning. The reason is clear enough: we're pondering the goodness of creation on the night when we celebrate the even greater marvel of re-creation in Christ.
We all know the part of the Genesis story that we didn't hear tonight: the fall of our first parents, the loss of Paradise, the sin that “brought death into our world, and all our woe,” as the poet Milton wrote.
The next reading, the story of Abraham and Isaac, draws us into the drama of the paschal mystery, which begins with the suffering and death of God's only Son. Abraham provides the catechumens with a model of obedient faith, calling them to sacrifice their will to God's will.
More powerfully still, the story of Abraham and Isaac reminds us that God did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for us all, as St. Paul later writes in his Letter to the Romans. Baptism is just a ritual if we do not know “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death,” as Paul says in tonight's Epistle.
I preached on this connection between our baptism and Christ's death yesterday, Good Friday, but tonight our catechumens rejoice in the rest of the story: “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Easter, for those preparing for baptism, is very, very personal; but so it should be for each one of us.
Most of us aren't quite as energetic as Fr. Giovanni—who, by the way, started attending the five-hour Easter Vigil with his family at the age of seven—so the Church allows us to omit some of the seven Old Testament readings tonight. But the instructions says that the third reading is never omitted. And it's obvious why that is: God saves the chosen people from death and slavery by leading them through the waters of the Red Sea; he does the same thing through the waters of baptism so that, as the Epistle says, “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
Again I cheated a little in my Good Friday homily by quoting tonight's reading from St. Paul. But there was something I didn't say then that I will say now: the destruction of sin that Christ brought about through his suffering, death and rising is not a promise that we will be sinless people.
I am sure that more than one newly-baptized person was deeply disappointed the first time he or she fell into an old sin.
What Christ destroyed was the power of sin. The freedom we receive through baptism is a freedom from the bondage and the deathly effects of sin. We remain sinners, but the enemy that is pursuing us no longer has the power to take us captive.
That's what our soon-to-be baptized brother and sister are singing in their hearts together with the prophet Miriam: we belong to the Lord and no longer to the Pharaohs of this world. We no longer rely on ourselves but on the Lord, who is our strength and our salvation.
Those of us who were baptized long ago need to reclaim the victory that is ours through the waters of rebirth. The passage of time should not dim the memory of what God has done for us, lest we go backwards and return to the slavery from which we have been set free.
That Exodus reading is my favourite, since freedom from the slavery of sin is so important to me and to many people with whom I pray. But the reading tonight from Isaiah would probably be my favourite if I was sitting in the pew, waiting for baptism, praying that the homily would end!
In the first place, Isaiah makes the catechumens salivate spiritually, if that's not an indelicate thing to say. He awakens their appetite with images of food and wine, telling them the Paschal fast is over and the hour of baptism has arrived. But once the prophet has our attention, he creates a sense of great urgency—“seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”
That's no problem for John and Jeannie, or for Erin as she prepares for Confirmation and her First Holy Communion. But do the rest of us share their longing for the Lord's gifts—for the bread of his Word and the Bread of Life? Do we recognize that there is only one time that matters with the Lord, and that time is now?
Do we recognize that God's way is not our human way, or do we expect him to conform to our way of thinking? The catechumens have chosen a different way; in the words of the poet Robert Frost, they have chosen to take the road less traveled. Are some of us too comfortable on the well-travelled road of the world?
About 1200 words ago, I said, “in the first place.” Well, I don't intend to continue our vigil until dawn, even if it would make Fr. Giovanni very happy. So I will give you the second place in very few words.
In the second place, we can all live the joy of the newly-baptized by one simple thing—by keeping in mind the fact that Christ has died, risen and will come again. We need to move the events of these three days from history to our hearts—daily, weekly and of course at this sacred time.
A final story illustrates this. We priests heard a fine talk on Wednesday from a young Dominican priest. He told the story of a conversation he had with a Moslem friend.
The Moslem asked him why he didn't join Islam. Apparently that's a common question Moslems will pose even to Christian friends.
The Dominican didn't answer with elaborate words from St. Thomas Aquinas. He said simply “because I'm a sinner.”
“I'm a sinner, so I need a saviour. And Jesus Christ is the only one who died to save me.”
That’s the kind of thinking that has brought our two catechumens to the baptismal font. And with such clarity of faith each and every one of us can rediscover the reality, the power, and the purpose of Easter.