Homily for Low Sunday, 8 April 2018, on John 20:19-31

When they saw the Lord, the disciples were glad (20:20).

St. John speaks of the joy of the disciples on Easter Day with masterful understatement. His words are few, plain, unadorned, because the joy of which he speaks is in principle beyond the power of words: too great, too deep either to describe, or to understand, or even to bear. Yet each of us is invited to encounter that joy, to experience it from the inside, to enter it ever more deeply, until finally it’s consummated for us in eternity.

At the Last Supper, according to St. John, Jesus speaks of this Easter joy, which is to be a participation in his own joy. These things I have spoken to you, he says, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (15:11). Jesus goes on to compare this joy with what a woman experiences after the anguish of labour, when her child is born into the world (16:20). So in the first place this is natural, human joy, readily accessible to us. Jesus the man on Easter day is, as it were, bursting with it. He is glad to have accomplished his mission; glad, according to the words of the Psalm, to be now forever in God’s presence, and filled with life (Ps 15/16:8; Acts 2:26-28); glad to invite us now to share in that life.

But more radically yet: the joy of Christ is the joy of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s own joy in Person. This is God’s joy in Himself; infinite and eternal; divine joy outpoured, communicated, shared. So immediately on Easter day, according to St. John, the risen Jesus confers on the disciples the Holy Spirit in power, in order that they may forgive sins; in order that they may share his own joy.

How do we enter into this joy? We know that it’s Christ’s gift to us, and our rightful inheritance, and our vocation (cf. Phil 4:4 etc.). We believe in it, and surely all of us have sometimes or in some measure tasted it. Yet also surely all of us at times feel it’s far beyond our reach, and outside what we are able to experience here and now.

To begin negatively: there are one or two preconditions for this joy which are rather obvious, but which it could be good to underline explicitly now.

First: there can be no Easter joy apart from faith in the identity of Jesus as Incarnate Son of God. Jesus is not some hero who has somehow happily survived death. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the King, the first-born, the new Adam. By right then he can represent us all; every human being who has ever existed, and who ever will exist; above all in his death and in his resurrection. Jesus, risen from the dead on the third day, is Lord. He is our Lord, and in him we rejoice.

Then, secondly: there can be no Easter joy if we somehow forget the Cross, as if Christ’s sacrificial death were now all in the past and no longer relevant. No: we enter the mystery of Easter only to the extent that we have entered also into the mystery of the Cross. Easter joy is not the Cross by-passed, or escaped, or even transcended, but precisely the Cross undergone and overcome. Easter joy is suffering endured and transformed; victory rising out of defeat; life springing up out of death. So St. Paul cries to the Philippians: My desire is to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and what it means to share in his sufferings, moulded into the pattern of his death, in hope of attaining resurrection from the dead (3:10).

When I see you again, said Jesus at the Last Supper, your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one can take from you (16:22). Authentic Easter joy cannot be destroyed. A mother’s joy can turn into sorrow if for whatever reason she is separated from her child. But when the Apostles were scourged for the sake of their witness to Christ, they only rejoiced all the more (Acts 5:41). Failure, defeat, pain, suffering, loss, death are the expected lot, to a greater or lesser extent, of all Christians. Yet all the Saints bear witness: as these things unite us with Christ in his passion, so they can open us up also to his invincible joy.

How do we express Easter joy? The liturgy gives us a single word which beyond any other evokes it: Alleluia! “Praise God!” it means; but also, for us, Christ is risen! St. Benedict tells his monks to sing Alleluia in Eastertide “without intermission”. Abbot Prosper Guéranger remarked that the monk should be Alleluia, as he said, from head to foot! Today we ask the Holy Spirit to teach us something of the meaning of this word, so that we can sing it with our heart, and enter into its depths; so that it may permeate our whole being, and take over our life. We ask the Apostles too, and the holy Angels: how to live the joy of Easter; how to possess the joy of Christ; perhaps above all amid the hard, difficult and painful things in our lives.

One privileged vehicle to help us understand and express the meaning of our Easter Alleluia is the Gregorian Chant. Another is contemplative prayer. Then, at least sometimes, as we enter the presence of the risen One, we find ourselves confronted immediately by his goodness and love and holiness and power, and we fall entirely silent, and are glad.

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, and you want me to talk at least a bit about that. According to the first letter of St. Peter (1 Pt 1:3), the whole work of our redemption, and our new birth in baptism, and our hope of heaven, brought into effect by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, is rooted in or springs from the great mercy of God.

At the Easter Vigil the merciful love of God is explicitly linked with the word Alleluia. After the reading of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, for the first time since before Ash Wednesday, Alleluia is three times solemnly intoned, or announced, on successive rising notes. And then the Chant seems to explode at last in exuberant joy, as it sings an Old Testament text. Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus - praise the Lord for he is good (Ps 117:1). For all the merciful love of God in creation and the history of redemption finds its apex, its summary, its climax, here, in Christ’s resurrection, and here it is forever unleashed. Alleluia! Quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius - for the merciful love of the Lord endures forever.