Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; 1 Cor 5:6b-8; Jn 20:1-9
There’s an experience that the liturgy so often links to Easter that we almost take the connection for granted. Our Psalm antiphon declares, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” The second reading from 1 Corinthians reads, “Our Paschal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast …” The Gospel Acclamation echoes the theme, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed; let us then feast with joy in the Lord.” The experience so often connected to Easter, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is nothing other than festivity, rejoicing together. The connection, of course, isn’t accidental. Christians have always understood the Resurrection not just as a feast, but as the feast, as the source all genuine festivity in this world. In the 4th Century, St. Athanasius observed that those without a share in the Resurrection “forever … remain without a feast” (Paschal Letters, VI).
Why is this? I think the claim is easier to understand if we distinguish genuine “festivity” and simply “partying.” Why is the atmosphere surrounding great festivals—Christmas, Thanksgiving, a wedding—distinct from the atmosphere surrounding night clubs, frat parties, or even greeting-card holidays like “Secretary’s Day”? One of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th Century ventured this answer: to keep a genuine festival is
to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole (Pieper, In Tune with the World 30).
In other words, each particular event–an anniversary, a birthday, a child’s first tooth, even a funeral–is really an “occasion” for affirming the goodness of all creation, for acknowledging it as a gift. Naturally, each “special occasion” is a cause for rejoicing only if we believe that life as a whole is meaningful and precious.
This is especially clear when we see the opposite extreme. I recently ran across a book entitled, “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” In it the author argues that life is, in general, so painful that it’s wrong to bring children into the world. Tellingly, when he goes to dedicate his book, he has to speak out of both sides of his mouth. He dedicates it to his parents “even though they brought me into existence,” and to his brothers, “each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us.” The authors clearly wants to celebrate his family on a “special occasion,” but despair stands in the way.
Put simply, to the extent that we doubt the goodness of our lives and world, we find it difficult to celebrate the birth of a child or say “Amen”—“So be it”—at a funeral. Rather than look to enter into “feasts,” we will look to escape into “parties” of our own devising. We will seek to flee the “dreariness” of the world through the self-induced adrenaline rushes of raves, drinking bouts, exotic vacations, and “extreme sports.”
For this same reason, religious festivals have always been the purest. What, after all, could be a greater affirmation of the goodness of the world than the praise of its Creator? What greater assent than thanksgiving? This is not just a Christian insight. The original Olympics, the high festival of ancient Greece, was so named because it honored the gods who dwell on Mt. Olympus. Plato used to say that only the gods could establish festivals (Laws 653 d1). Cicero defined festivals as “holy times” (De legibus II, 22, 55).
And if affirming divine goodness is the heart of feasting, it follows that no day can be more festive than Easter. For the Resurrection recalls that God has not only created the world, but has redeemed it as well. He has entered into its pain and its sinfulness. He came so close to us that we could lay our hands on him and kill him. He passed through the gate of death and hell. He rose again. As Peter and John discover in today’s Gospel, He left the tomb empty. Christ has broken Satan’s power forever. The one who judge is the same one who has died to save us. Love triumphs. What greater cause can there be for feasting and rejoicing?
But there is more. This same Resurrection continues to touch our present. It is not merely the resuscitation of a man who will die again. It is not an event merely past, like the Invasion of Normandy or the Independence of Prussia. No, the Risen Christ is alive in His Church. At the Eucharist we receive, undiminished, a share of His risen life. St. Peter himself spoke about experiencing the Resurrection through the Eucharist: “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible … to us … who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Because the power of the Resurrection becomes effective for us especially at Mass, to fail to keep every Lord’s day is to sink into unfestivity.
We do well to approach His altar today with this in mind. Were it not for his Resurrection, were it not for His sacraments, the goodness of our lives would remain in doubt. But Christ has risen. We have communion with Him. And so we keep this feast of feasts. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.”