It is perhaps one of the greatest countercultural acts of Christianity to proclaim, by words and deeds, the commandment given to us by Christ in today’s Gospel. “Love one another,” the Lord instructs us. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples.” This is a countercultural message, because the society in which we live claims on the one hand to care for others, and on the other limits the expression of the dignity of the human person in ways that not only oppose the care of the individual but also, in turn, reduces our the standing of each of us; our own worth in the eyes of our fellow man. In this we might think of some obvious examples: the objectification of the human person, and especially women, in the murky world of pornography and prostitution; the reduction of the human person to a biological entity or an object lacking any “quality of life” in the arena of abortion and euthanasia; the manipulation of the human person in the attempt to eradicate the natural complementarity of man and woman, in the realm of so-called ‘gender theory’ and in the name of sexual equality. Each of these represents a veiled attempt on the part of contemporary society to offer a rebuttal to some perceived injustice whilst failing, fundamentally and absolutely, to recognize the monumental damage that is done by these actions, not simply to the individual objects of the actions themselves, but to the dignity of the human race: the means by which we view ourselves and each other.
“Clad in his bright coat of mail, mounted on his war-steed, and spearing the dragon with his lance,—George, the intrepid champion of our Risen Jesus, comes gladdening us today with his Feast.” Thus, the great Dom Prosper Guéranger opens his commentary on this feast of our saint, known in the east as ‘The Great Martyr’, patron of many places and institutions, not least the homeland of not a few of us gathered here for this solemn celebration in his honour. In the Roman liturgy we find relatively little concerning this martyr-saint; the greater part of his cult is found in the east. Yet there are two aspects to the life of Saint George upon which we might helpfully meditate this morning.
Last Saturday evening, in churches across the world, Christians watched and waited in solemn vigil as, once more, the story of salvation was laid before us in the words of sacred scripture. For many of us, it was the culmination of a pilgrimage through the season of Lent: a time in which we are called to repentance for our sins, to return to the Lord who, by his passion, death, and resurrection, has opened to us new life. For others, it was the culmination of a much greater pilgrimage. At the Paschal Vigil, the Church, having retold the narrative by which she came to be, becomes new again in Christ. The new fire is blessed, the new light of the Paschal Candle is honoured with the great love song of the Exsultet, the presence of Christ is restored to the tabernacle after the days of the Sacred Triduum: all of this points to the utter difference that is made for us in our life in Christ, as a result of that first Easter. Thus it is fitting that this is also the time when the Church creates new Christians. With the blessing of the font, the Paschal Candle is plunged three times into the waters to symbolize the fecundity of this womb of the Church, and those who have been preparing for Holy Baptism are initiated into the life of Christ through the solemn and irreversible gift of baptism, that opens for the individual the gift of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
The days of the Easter Octave retain a special character throughout the Roman Rite. This is true of both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form, and also of Divine Worship: The Missal, which preserves this sacred time in accordance with ancient practice, whilst also making use of certain Anglican translations and practices.
Overview of the Easter Octave
If the Paschal Vigil is “the mother of all vigils,” then the Easter Octave is to be considered the mother of all octaves. Its origins predate even those of the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord, of the Epiphany, and of Pentecost, and of course those of later feasts such as Corpus Christi. Blessed Ildefonso Schuster goes so far as to say that the octave “was characteristic of the Easter festivities.” Dom Prosper Guéranger says, with equal eloquence, “So ample and so profound is the mystery of the glorious Pasch, that an entire week may well be spent in its meditation.” With an overview of its associated practices, we can see how right they are.
Over the course of the past week we have travelled with our blessed Lord to the gates of the city of Jerusalem; we have supped with him in the cenacle as he kept the Passover with his apostles; we have stood with his Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross as he was brutally put to death. Now we come with raw emotion and profound joy to this celebration of new life—of perfected life—in which, through the resurrection of Christ, we are invited to share. Christ has harrowed hell! He has conquered sin! He has put death to death! As we have sung in that great victory hymn, the Easter Sequence: “Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own champion, slain, now lives to reign.”
Throughout these weeks of Easter we begin our celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with an act of penitence, recalling the baptism which has united those of us who are called “Christian” with the very person of Christ. By our sprinkling with holy water and the words of the chant of the Vidi aquam, we are reminded of the cleansing from sin which is the fruit of baptism, by which the guilt of original sin is taken from us and the life of Christ implanted. In baptism we have become one in Christ’s mystical body, the Church, and are literally incorporated into his life; caught up in the selfless relationship of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity recalled in the very formula used to administer the sacrament: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter we hear in the Introit words of Psalm 33: “The loving-kindness of the Lord filleth the whole world, alleluya: by the word of God the heavens were stablished, alleluya, alleluya.” By this opening text of the Mass the Church bids us rejoice today that the Lord has, by the merits of his passion and by his victory over death, rescued us, his people, from the certain death which is the result of our sin. In the light of the paschal season we are reminded today that, as the Easter Sequence proclaims, “Death with life [has] contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.”
The saving action of Christ, by which he leads us from the clutches of death and returns us to fullness of life in him, is the ultimate sign of the loving-kindness or mercy about which we hear in today’s Introit. Our restoration to life in God—the undoing of the serpent’s guile and the sin of the Garden of Eden—is a fruit of the Father’s love for us; a love seen most perfectly in the passion of his only-begotten Son, by whose death we have life. That mercy is at the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the cause of our joy and our hope, and it is the catalyst for our evangelizing mission, to bring all peoples to know and to love Christ in the communion of his holy Church. With Pope Benedict XVI we can say, “mercy is the central nucleus of the gospel message” (Regina cœli, 30 March, 2008).
In the various calendars in use across the Latin Church this day is known variously as Low Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, the Second Sunday of Easter, Quasimodo Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, the Octave Day of Easter, and Dominica in albis or, to give its full name, Dominica in albis depositis. This latter title recalls the custom that today, at the conclusion of the Easter octave, those who were baptized at the Paschal Vigil would lay aside for the first time the white robes with which they had been clothed during the sacred ceremonies last Sunday. As is the case now, the practice of the ancient Church was to clothe the newly baptized in a white garment, both as an outward sign of the Christian dignity, and as an admonition to carry the life of Christ always without stain. The gift of this physical robe furthermore acts as a token of the gift of everlasting life which, through the cleansing waters of the font, has been given.
Given at the church of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.
The description of the events on the road to Emmaus is, for us who continue in these fifty festal days of Easter, one that holds particular significance. For the past three Sundays, the gospel has begun on “the first day of the week” – that is the first Easter Sunday – and it is in the events described in these passages that the reality of the Lord’s resurrection is made manifest to us in the scriptures. First, Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Peter find the tomb empty (Jn 20: 1-9), then the Lord appears in the midst of the disciples (Jn 20: 19-31), and today Cleopas and the other disciple recognize Christ through the familiar action of the breaking of the bread (Lk. 24: 13-15).
Given at the Solemn Mass at Saint John the Evangelist, Silver Spring, during which there was the first administration of Holy Communion for children.
Last weekend I had the great privilege of attending the ordination of a new priest for the diocese of Covington, Kentucky. In the very pleasing surroundings of the exquisite French gothic cathedral, the bishop prayed that the new priest would be good, faithful, and obedient to the life to which – in that sacred ceremony – he was being conformed. On Sunday we gathered again in the cathedral as the new priest celebrated his first Mass at the high altar, and for the first time made present the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, as he will do with and for the Christian faithful each day from now until the day he dies.