In the Roman liturgy, Easter begins with the solemn Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday and continues for the 50 days of Eastertide, which ends with Pentecost. It is the time when the Church rejoices with the risen Christ, as she awaits his return in glory. We will take our cue from the texts of the new Roman Missal.
Easter as a rite of passage
One of the meanings of “Easter” is that of “passage” (Passover). It was already so for the Hebrews, and it is now so for Christians, as we sing in the Easter Exsultet: “This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.”
The “passage” takes place through the water of baptism: “O God […], what you once bestowed on a single people, freeing them from Pharaoh’s persecution by the power of your right hand, now you bring about through the waters of rebirth.” In fact, the Red Sea “prefigures the sacred font, and “the nation delivered from slavery foreshadows the Christian people,” who obtain “the privilege of Israel by merit of faith,” and are “reborn by partaking of your Spirit.” Thus, “human nature, created in your image, and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism,” is found to be “worthy to rise to the life of newborn children through water and the Holy Spirit” and attain “perfect freedom.”
Indeed, we are called to “pass from former ways to newness of life.” Christ’s resurrection makes us “new creatures destined for eternal life.” The Lord has “chosen to renew” his people “with these sacraments of eternal life.” God the Father on this day has “unlocked for us the path to eternity,” allowing us to “attain unending happiness.” This passage implies that we too are “transformed into an everlasting offering” that is “acceptable” to God. All this is the work of the Trinity, for the Father, “by the glorification of his Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has opened for us the path to eternal life.”
In the Jewish liturgy, Passover was already celebrated as a rite of passage, as we read in the Passover Haggadah: “Therefore we must proclaim the victory of Him who performed for our fathers and for us so many and such wonders. He led us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption” (Pesachim X, 5). In one of the earliest Easter homilies, the same accents resound: “He is the one who has taken us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life, from tyranny to the eternal kingdom” (Melito of Sardis [2nd century], Homily on Easter 68).
In our time, this perspective is especially present in those who receive baptism on Easter night. As one ancient author wrote, “whoever is truly aware that the Easter sacrifice was offered for his salvation […] let him hasten to inaugurate a new life and never return to the old one. For, ‘we who have died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?’ (Rom 6:2)” (Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings for Monday of the Second Week of Easter). When a community has the grace to welcome newly baptized persons, the people are led to renew their own baptismal commitments, to relive the Easter “passage.”
Easter as rebirth and renewal
A second theme very present in the liturgical texts is that of the “new birth.” By the grace of the Paschal Mystery “we have been buried with Christ by Baptism into death,” in order to “rise again to life with him.” Indeed, “we have been born to new life in the waters of Baptism.” Through the Paschal Mystery, God accomplishes “the work of human salvation,” so that “the whole world may know and see that what was cast down is raised up, what had become old is made new, and all things are restored to integrity.” We are thus “renewed in body and soul.” We ask the Lord to “renew us inwardly,” he who in the baptismal washing “renews our sinful humanity.”
At Easter, which is actualized in every Eucharistic celebration, the Church is “wondrously reborn and nourished.” The people of God come forth “renewed by the Easter sacraments,” so that, “free from the ferment of ancient sin,” we are transformed “into new creatures,” “in the image of the risen Lord.” “Freed from the corruption of sin, we are fully renewed in the Spirit.” Indeed, we have been regenerated in the Spirit. This means not only being restored “to our lost dignity,” but being raised “above the dignity of our origins.” The Church prays that the Lord will enable us “to be born again to new life by the power of your Spirit of love.” Indeed, in “baptismal regeneration” God has “shared his own life,” which is “the new life promised by him, the Word of truth.”
This theme is radically biblical. John’s Gospel speaks of a new birth, “by water and by the Spirit,” as a condition for entering the kingdom of God (cf. Jn 3:5). Paul, in reference to baptism, speaks of “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). It must be recognized that in Catholic spirituality the concept of Christian life as a “new birth” is not very prominent, unlike, for example, in evangelical Protestantism. In the United States, for example, they speak of born-again Christians, that is, of those who have experienced the presence of Christ in their lives, passing from sin or lukewarmness to a path of holiness. This kind of conversion is also called “baptism in the Spirit.” Catholics prefer to speak of “second conversion” or “renewal in the Spirit.”
The paschal mystery embraces all peoples
The Easter experience begins with the experience of one’s own salvation, but the fact of feeling personally loved and saved by Christ does not close one up in a form of religious narcissism, but opens one up to the Church and the world. At Easter, the Church sees fulfilled “the universal plan of salvation,” thus realizing the promise made to Abraham “to make him the father of all nations.” Baptism, in fact, is “for the salvation of all peoples,” and through baptism the Church is always growing, “calling new children from all nations.” Indeed, God in the Paschal Mystery has “offered to humanity the covenant of reconciliation,” and the Church prays that “the gift of faith may be extended to all peoples.” On the solemnity of Easter, God acts “for the salvation of the world.” The Church prays that “by the acceptance of the Gospel, the salvation obtained by Christ’s sacrifice may be fulfilled in every place.” As they celebrate “the memorial of the immense love” of Christ, the faithful pray “that the fruit of his redemptive work, through the ministry of the Church, may serve the salvation of the whole world,” so that “all may taste the fruit of redemption” and that “the freedom and peace given on the Cross” may be extended to all. For God has willed that in the name of the Lord Jesus “every knee should bow and everyone find salvation,” and that “from east to west his name be glorified among the nations.” Since Christ died for all and the Church is, in Christ, the “universal sacrament of salvation” (Lumen Gentium, No. 1), the heart of the Christian cannot fail to have the dimensions of the world. However, this does not mean falling into a globalism where everything is planned and standardized, depriving us of our most precious gift, which is freedom.
The True Lamb
The heart of the Passover was not the crossing of the Red Sea, but the immolation of the lamb. In chapter 12 of Exodus, an extremely meticulous ritual is set out on how to carry out the Passover rite: when to take the lamb, what kind of lamb it should be, when to sacrifice it, at what time, how it should be cooked, where it should be eaten and in what manner, what should be done with the leftovers, what restraint should be exercised in eating it. The Fathers of the Church engaged in giving a Christological interpretation to all these details, following the suggestion of Paul, who wrote: “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), and above all following the Gospel of John, who sees fulfilled in Christ on the cross what had been said of the paschal lamb: “No bone. . . shall be broken” (Jn 19:36).
The liturgy follows the Fathers when it sings in the Easter preface: “For he is the true Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world; by dying he has destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life.” In the sacrifice of the Mass, we offer to the Father “the Lamb without blemish,” waiting to “foretaste the joy of the eternal Passover.”
The fruits of Easter
The celebration of the Paschal Mystery cannot leave the Christian people without bearing fruit. As Jesus said, “he who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (Jn 15:5). Therefore, nourished by the paschal sacraments, we ask the Lord to enable us to grow “in the communion of his Spirit and in the love of our brothers and sisters, until we reach in charity the fullness of the Body of Christ.” The faithful should ask for “the gift of unity and peace,” to be “persevering in his love,” “an authentic and pure love,” and to be “in the midst of all workers of that peace which Christ has left us as a gift.” Those who have “fed on Christ, the living bread,” must strive “so that, with the light of faith and the power of charity, they may build up his Church, filling her with joy.” “Nourished by the banquet of heaven,” we pray that we may be for the world “a leaven of life and an instrument of salvation,” so that it may “come to know your truth, and make it ours by a worthy way of life.” The fruit of Easter is also “growing in freedom and persevering in the integrity of the Christian life,” that is, growing “in perfect freedom and preserving the integrity of the faith,” to ensure that “the word grows in us and makes our hearts fruitful with spiritual fruit.” Other fruits are “the grace of holiness” and “the unity of faith,” the grace to serve the Lord “more and more in holiness of life,” so as to “respond faithfully to the love of him who generated the Church,” that is, to Christ. Witness to the resurrection must be borne “in joy,” “in every place” and “with holiness of life.” For this reason the faithful must be “unanimous in charity,” “forming together, in Christ, one body and one spirit,” so that “they may be courageous witnesses to the truth of the Gospel” and make the Church “ever present and active.”
The Church therefore expects abundant fruits from participation in the Paschal Mystery, such as, for example, “achieving communion among peoples”; “growing in fraternal love”; “cooperating, in freedom and concord, in his kingdom of justice and peace”; being “confirmed in his love and in mutual charity”; being “filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” whose riches are “unending,” so as to “receive an ever more abundant outpouring of the gifts of his Spirit”; to be impelled “to serve the Church and people with ardent charity”; “to build up the Church by the witness of their lives,” “by word and deed”; “to cooperate with all their strength in building up the kingdom of God” and “to persevere in unity and peace.”
In the face of such spiritually rich texts, we wonder what impact they might have on the faithful. Faced with the evils that afflict the world, even believers are tempted to become discouraged and afraid, no longer knowing who they are, where they come from and where they are going, and so are led to read the events of history with regard to human criteria alone. It is like the servant of the prophet Elisha, who, when he saw the city surrounded by horses and chariots, exclaimed in dismay: “Alas, my Lord! What shall we do?” Elisha answered, telling him not to fear, “for those who are with us are more numerous than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “Lord, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he saw “the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:15-17). Perhaps we, too, need someone to pray for our eyes to be opened to see beyond the earthly horizon.
La Civiltà Cattolica
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.4 art. 13, 0422: 10.32009/22072446.0422.13