Journey to Easter
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As I begin this “Easter Letter”, I know that all of us hold in prayer those members of our diocese who were affected by the recent tornado and severe weather, especially in Mapleton, Early and Varina. As Saint Paul reminds us, “when one part of the body suffers, all suffer.” We are one with our brothers and sisters who have experienced devastation and destruction. We know that after a “Good Friday” there always comes an “Easter Sunday.” In a real way this mystery of death and new life are being played out in our communities. We pray for strength and hope.
Our part of the earth now leans more and more toward the sun, just so in these last days of Lent should our hearts and minds lean toward the light and warmth of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Because we have already been baptized into His life, very soon we will be at His side on the Cross. Like St. Dismas, the repentant thief, we too must offer “a humble, contrite heart” as our sacrifice, and receive from our Lord the gift of forgiveness, salvation, and glory.
In a very special way, the liturgy Christ has given to His Church teaches us to do this. For example, from the beginning of Lent, we have already “buried” our Alleluias and our Glorias. Now, we also silence our bells and cover our sacred images of Christ and the saints. We call this last part of Lent “Passiontide,” and we are outwardly preparing more and more fully for the inward death and rising to new life of the three special days of the Easter Triduum.
Holy Week is our last chance to prepare. This Monday, all the priests of the diocese, and many others of our parishioners, will come to the Cathedral for our Chrism Mass. At this Mass, the three sacred oils are blessed for the coming year. We will use these oils to baptize new disciples, to anoint the sick, and to consecrate new priests for Christ in the sacraments of Confirmation (“common” priesthood) and Ordination (“ministerial” priesthood). The Chrism Mass therefore very fittingly begins with the verse from Revelations, “Jesus Christ made us a kingdom of priests to serve His God and Father: glory and kingship be His forever and ever, amen” (Rev 1:6). Indeed, not only is all of our liturgy and ministry most truly Christ’s, but also all of our power and victory! Christ is the one who triumphs; we are victorious in this life, only to the extent that we belong to Him, and sacrifice our hearts along with Him in the Holy Eucharist.
On Holy Thursday, therefore, as Lent ends and the Triduum begins, we remember with great joy that Christ gave His Church the infinite gift of the Holy Eucharist. In this sacrament, every day for twenty centuries, Christ gives Himself us, so that we can be truly His, and serve as He wants. In the commemoration of this Institution, then, we sing the Gloria and let the bells peal, to express our joyful thanks. We also recall that Jesus Christ washes His disciples’ feet, to show them His boundless love and to inspire them to accept every trial in order to follow Him.
Throughout the year, we participate in this great sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood to the extent that we give ourselves fully to Him. Sometimes this means celebration and joy and all that makes life good and beautiful, just as this Mass includes the Gloria and the bells being rung. Sometimes this means hard work, enduring stress or the lack of favor, and doing what we would rather not do, just as I or your pastor, imitating our Lord, are commanded to wash your feet ourselves, and not have someone else do it in our place.
Sometimes, also, giving ourselves entirely to Christ means a true dying to self, a Cross which is part of His one, true Cross of redemption. On Good Friday, we come back to the Church to venerate the Cross which His Blood consecrated as the means of our salvation. The altar is stripped bare, just as Christ’s body was stripped and cleaned for burial. The tabernacle is empty, because Christ lies dead in the tomb, His soul and His divinity breaking open the gates of hell. We sing, “This is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world. Come, let us worship!” Then, we prostrate ourselves beneath the burden of the Cross. I call the Cross a burden because of our sins, which yet permit us to accept the grace of Christ; it is a burden because of our weakness, which yet allows Christ’s strength to lift us up.
Then there is the silence. For a night and a day, we wait, still and quiet. We are fearful with the disciples, who have lost their Master. We are broken with the martyrs, who defend the Church with the pouring out of their blood. We are lost with every sinner, longing to be found by the Good Shepherd, to be carried to safety on His shoulders.
The whole world hangs in the balance. Over these days of Lent, and in the celebration of Christ’s Last Supper, agony and arrest in the garden, Crucifixion, death, and burial, the liturgy itself becomes the tomb where we sleep with Christ. We know we can only live if we die with Christ. Yet now, in this silence, our human weakness can make us doubt Christ’s power and victory. How can we accept His grace? How can we rise with Him? Can this one night really change everything?
At last, in the darkness of this tomb, in the shadows of our little faith, a new light breaks out – the Paschal fire: “Christ our light!” In the Easter Vigil, everything that has been pruned from the liturgy over the past weeks – Alleluias, and Gloria, and bells, our best music and most joyful vestments – all reappear with the greatest joy and celebration. Because we have given ourselves fully to Christ in the holy waters of Baptism, because we have watched and waited, and even died with Him in the Passion, because we have offered our “humble and contrite hearts,” and held nothing back from His healing grace, now let us rise with Him to new and eternal life!
This journey of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum ( the three sacred days) is our walk of faith. This pattern repeats itself every day of our life. Christ gives Himself to us, so that we can be entirely His, “the sheep of His flock.” Some days, perhaps, we are more like the stubborn thief, rejecting Christ’s great sacrifice of salvation, not believing in His power to save. Some days, we are more like the repentant thief, and this is where we are called to be. May the grace of celebrating the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord this year increase for each of us the gift of faith, so that we will be ever more generous in giving our whole lives to Him, and to each other. Please pray for me, and for each other, as I pray for all of you.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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