Exult, let them exult!

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

With these words, which open the Exsultet, the Proclamation of Easter, according to the text in the Roman Catholic Church, I want to proclaim the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ! For a sung version, see here:

In Christ, we find forgiveness, life, happiness, joy! And, as St. Paul reminds us, in 2 Timothy 1:8-10, we should not be ashamed of this:

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

That is the Paschal Gospel, as formulated by St. Paul. But what does he mean when he says that Christ has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”?

For us the word ‘Gospel’ has become a Christian one, something only understood by those on the inside. But for the recipients of the letters of St. Paul, this was very real and very common. The word, which basically means ‘good news,’ was used by kings, princes, and emperors to mark important occasions and particularly their accession to the throne.[1] After the ‘chaos’ that followed the death of his predecessor, the new ruler would come and promise to introduce peace and stability. That, at least, was the rhetoric used. Life, however, remained the same for most people. And by the same, I mean equally bad. We have probably all heard the saying of Tacitus, describing the conquest of the Roman empire and the so-called pax Romana, ‘the Roman peace’: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” But with Christ we see something different, something new. Like others before and after Him, He claimed to be Christ, the Messiah, the representative of Israel, but unlike those before and after Him, He did not claim to be a political figure, just another man to free us from physical captivity; from Romans, corrupt Jewish rulers, etc. To use a descriptor someone used of Neo from the Matrix series, he was not a Messiah with a machine gun. In the Passion narrative this Good Friday (John 18:1-19:42), Christ, being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” He claimed to be the Lord of lords, the King of kings, even God Himself. But His claim was very different from those of other pretenders before and after Him. But this claim did not make Him less of a threat, probably more. For the kingship of Christ relativises the rule of all earthy kings, princes, and emperors. So threatening was this that Herod the Great ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem up to the age of two just so he might get rid of Christ.[2] And later his grandson, Herod Agrippa, had James killed and Peter imprisoned.[3] He attacked Christians because they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because they dared to say “Jesus is Lord.” By using this word, ‘Gospel,’ St. Paul, and all Christians, are saying that Jesus Christ is the true Lord and King, not Herod, Caesar, Augustus, Napoleon, Elizabeth, nor Harold. And He is not only the king of Israel, of Rome, France, the United Kingdom, or Norway. No, He is the Lord and King over the entire creation, over the entire universe (or multiverse if that exists). He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The Paschal Gospel is this; that this King of kings and the Lord of lords accepted death on our behalf to save us and that he rose again for our justification. The crucified and risen saviour is Lord and King.

But what does this mean for us here and now? To understand how fantastic the resurrection is, not only for Christ but for us, we also need to understand the seriousness of our own sin. Sin is more than just bad behaviour. Sin is to choose sides, against God. As humans we have a central purpose: to give thanks and praise to God for who He is and for what he has done for us and to love and serve our neighbour. But we have not lived up to this. I know I haven’t. What we need to hear now is that there is a deep connection between the Eucharistic celebration of Maundy Thursday, the darkness and despair of Good Friday, and the light of Easter Sunday, represented in many churches by the easter candle. What the disciples thought was the end was lifted up as a sacrifice to God.

In 2003, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, pope (em.) Benedict wrote masterfully about how Christ, through the institution of the Eucharist, offered Himself to God and thereby transformed what was about to happen. He does not say that the offering was to appease an angry God out for his pound of flesh but that Christ offered what we could not and would not. Through a life of obedience and love He gave Himself fully to God, in thanksgiving, in praise, in adoration. He gave the perfect sacrifice: a life of love, service, and praise.

Through the prayers and actions of the Last Supper, particularly through the institution of the Eucharist, Christ ‘interpreted’ His death and gave it meaning. “This is my body” not meaninglessly thrown away but “given for you”! To quote Ratzinger, “in these words [Christ] undergoes a spiritual death, or, to put it more accurately, in these words Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God, then from God is made available to men.”[4] What was the biggest sin of history, the murder of God Himself, became “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We need both the Upper Room and the Cross, as Ratzinger reminds us:[5]

Both are essentially interdependent: the words at the Last Supper without the death would be, so to speak, an issue of unsecured currency; and again, the death without these words would be a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet the two together constitute this new event, in which the senselessness of death is given meaning; in which what is irrational is transformed and made rational and articulate; in which the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes in fact the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy.

Christ gave Himself for us. A mortal sin became a loving act of adoration. And this act was perfect and complete. This act was strong enough to atone for all of our sins. The sacrifice of Christ is not about an angry God that needs appeasement but about how Christ lives the perfect life of love, on our behalf. And this way he abolished the sin of Adam. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ was obedient. He “became obedient to the point of death,” writes St. Paul, “even death on a cross.” And God answered Him by raising Him from death to life: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”[6]

We can also have a share in this if we are joined to Christ. We need, as St. Paul says, to be ‘in Christ.’ For, he says, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[7] Through Christ we may be renewed and restored. Through Him we are enabled to stand before God in thanks and praise. We have died with Christ in Baptism, we have had our sins washed away and we have been risen from baptism to new life.[8]

This is the night that Christ offered humanity back to God and gave us new life. In the words of the Exsultet:

This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our thanksgiving and praise will never be enough to express the magnitude of this act but we will still continue, hoping that death is not the end and that if we remain ‘in Christ’ we will one day rise up to a new heaven and a new earth.

Christ is risen! He is Risen Indeed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Read this interview with N.T. Wright and watch this video where Wright elaborates on the word ‘Gospel.’

[2] Matthew 2:1-18.

[3] Cf. Acts 12.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (Collected Works, vol. XI. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2014), 251-252.

[5] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, 252.

[6] Philippians 2:8-9 (cf. Romans 5).

[7] Romans 8:1, cf. 3:24; 6:11; 6:23; 8:1; 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:17-20; 3:26-28; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6-7, etc.

[8] Cf. Romans 6:1-11.

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