The Easter Mystery:
The Liturgy of the Neighbor
by Father Robert B. Fisher, SVD
A grandmother was taking her little grand daughter to church one Sunday. The
grandmother said to her precious little one: “Now, Melissa, please remember not to talk
or make any noise in church.” The grand daughter said in reply, “Why, Grandma? Is it
because people are sleeping?”
I hope that during my talk you will not fall asleep on me!
1. The Resurrection
When Jesus died on the afternoon of Friday, the next day was the Sabbath, the day
of rest, when Jews are forbidden to do any work. The disciples hurriedly took the body of
Jesus down from the cross and placed it in a tomb.St. Luke reports that Joseph, from the
town of Arimathea, wrapped the body in a linen cloth and laid it in a new rock-hewn
tomb (Luke 23: 53). Some women follow close behind and remembered the place where
the body was laid. They went home to prepare the spices for burial with the intention of
coming back after the Sabbath to finish the burial rites.
A surprise waited for the ladies. Early on Sunday morning, they went to the tomb
and found that the front stone covering the entrance had been rolled away from it. They
looked inside the tomb and noted that the body of Jesus was gone. These women were
confronted by a double absence. Not only had Jesus died; now even his tomb was empty
and his corpse had gone. Jesus had become “unfindable.” In a nutshell, Easter began as a
question, not with an answer. It began not with trumpet blasts and lilies and with shouts
of “alleluias”, but with terror. The women’s early morning rituals brought them not
answers but questions. However, two men in dazzling clothes appeared to them. The
ladies were scared out of their wits! These were angels sent to these women to announce
to them that Jesus, who had been crucified, had risen, and was no longer among the dead,
but among the living! (Luke 24:1-12). Still, why the answer: “He is not here”?
The angels told the women to deliver a message to the scattered disciples: “Do not
fear! Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee where they will see me” (Mt 28:10). Pope
Francis gives this interpretation:
“Galilee is the place where they were first called, where everything began! To
return there, to return to the place where they were originally called. Jesus had walked
along the shores of the lake as the fishermen were casting their nets. He had called them,
and they had left everything and followed him (Mk 4:18-22).
“To return to Galilee means to re-read everything on the basis of the cross and its
victory, fearlessly: ‘Do not be afraid.’ To re-read everything --- Jesus’ preaching, his
miracles, the new community, the excitement and the defections, even the betrayal. --- To
re-read everything starting from the end, which is a new beginning,from the supreme act
“For each of us, too, there is a ‘Galilee’ at the origin of our journey with Jesus. ‘To
go to ‘Galilee’ means something beautiful, it means recovering our baptism as a living
fountainhead, drawing new energy from the sources of our faith and our Christian
“Today, tonight, each of us can ask: What is my ‘Galilee’? I need to remind myself
to go back and remember. ...Do I remember it? Have I gotten off the main road and paths
that made me forget it? ... Do not be afraid, do not fear, return tonight to ‘Galilee’!”
Thus began a sea-change for the disciples of Jesus. They would see, even touch
him. Where there had been doubts all along when they followed him from the Sea of
Galilee to Jerusalem, now they saw with eyes of faith and of the reality: Jesus of
Nazareth is risen! He is truly the Son of God. This is what they would call “The Easter
The story is told about the first Easter Egg. Mary Magdalene was pretty rich. She
eventually made it to Rome. She became known to the court of the Emperor Tiberius and
was invited to attend a reception at the court. An invitee was required to bring a gift to the
Emperor. Mary brought along an egg dyed yellow. When the Emperor met Mary in the
reception line, he asked her what her gift was. She opened her bag and presented the egg
as she said, “Jesus of Nazareth is risen from the dead!” The royal majesty scowled and
said, “I might believe that if your egg would turn red!” To the surprise of the courtiers the
egg did turn red. But the emperor ignored the happening and moved on. It is said that
from that time, Easter eggs would be dyed different colors and people would acclaim
“He is risen!” The eggs were from then on symbols of the resurrection.
When Russia became communist the party tried to erase any idea of a God in
heaven or of any kind of religion on earth even though the Russian Orthodox Church has
flourished in Russia for many centuries. Once at a brain-washing class at a village hall in
central Russia, the party spokesperson presented to the village people the official doctrine
about there being no god, no commandments. She told these simple farmers there was
only the party and their only belief was the teaching of the party. In the front row of these
villagers sat an old man with a long white beard. He was an Orthodox priest. He stood up
and asked for permission to speak. Then he shouted out in Russian, “HE IS RISEN!” To
the consternation of the party person, the crowd shouted back, “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”
You can’t wipe out a deeply ingrained faith that is centuries old. And the center of that
belief is in the Easter or Paschal Mystery.
What does this mean? The Mystery? In the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3, the
word “mystery” is explained in terms of God’s masterful plan for the History of
Salvation. It is, according to the author, God’s plan from all eternity, revealed to the
apostles and prophets “that the Gentiles are coheirs (with the Jews), members of the same
body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (Eph 3: 1-6).
“Mystery” means what was hidden is now apparent, at least in symbolic but real fashion.
The sacramental life of the Church contains in sign the Mystery of Christ.
In fact, the center of our Catholic faith is the Paschal or Easter Mystery. Not
Christmas, not Mary, not the real presence in the Eucharist. The center from which all
other beliefs rise is from the experience of the first disciples of the resurrection of Jesus
from the dead. Even the Gospels in the New Testament were composed by disciples,
readings backwards from the Easter experience. The sermons of St. Peter in the Book of
the Acts of the Apostles were given to the crowds on Pentecost Day from his own
conversion, you might call it, from this experience of the Risen Lord. St. Paul, too,
although he had never known Jesus before his death, nevertheless had experienced the
Risen Christ. (Romans 15) It was this experience that encouraged the Apostles to come
to the aid of the poor and the outcast of society. (See Galatians 2:9-10). In the Acts of the
Apostles, they began to realize that the Body of Christ risen from the dead was found in
the church itself, in the poor and lowly (See Acts 2:42 - 47). By preaching the Gospel, by
prayer and the breaking of bread (the Eucharist), the church members were charged with
compassion for others in the body of Christ. So, the resurrection stories at the end of the
gospels all emphasize that the body of Jesus had gone from the tomb. They heard the
angelic message, “He is not here, he goes before you back to Galilee” where you first met
him. Now go back again and understand what you did not know back then. The body of
Christ, the Risen Lord, is among us. The body of Christ is the church, the gathering of
those who receive the Spirit of Adoption. The poor are the body of Christ. Whatever we
do for the poor, we do for Christ. Jesus said so in his discourse on the last day of
judgment (Matthew 25: 31-46). Jesus said to the just ones on the judgment day: “Amen, I
say to you, whatever you did for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it for
me” (Mt 25:40). There is a saying that one of the best kept secrets of the Catholic Church
is its social teachings. “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation
of the world fully appear to the church as a constitutive dimension of preaching the
Gospel.” Jesus did this, St. Paul did it, and so did the early Church and on down to the
present age. In this country, it means helping the poor and the elderly, for returned
veterans, with social security, with Medicare, with medical insurance, and so on. It’s a
social obligation for the good of the citizens. The call the Risen Christ gives to us is one
of prophetic witness.
In Latin America and in other parts of the world, there is a movement of the Holy
Spirit called Liberation Theology. It is a way of thinking how a Christian must live --- in
active, engaged struggle for the flourishing of all life; liberation is the primary movement
of the Holy Spirit. It is the duty of all baptized into the life, death, and ministry of Jesus
Christ to live this out, immediately and urgently (Jon Sobrino). Ultimately, this kind of
manifestation is accomplished in the form of signs in the Liturgy, the Liturgy of the
English writer and retreat speaker, Margaret Stilf, recounts the following:
During World War II, it was reported, a battered contingent of defeated allied soldiers
was being paraded through a German village. The streets were lined with onlookers, some with
triumph on their faces, others with compassion. The prisoners were starving and utterly
exhausted, their eyes cast down with despair. A silence fell.Then a woman broke through, an
ordinary German housewife, and thrust a loaf of bread into one of the solder’s hands before
fleeing back to her kitchen. She took the riskof compassionate action. She stepped out of line.
But she also started a movement. Gradually others overcame their fears of the Nazi authorities
and brought food for the captives. One woman’s action caused thousands to be fed.
One woman’s prophetic action of courageous generosity resulted in the
transformation of enemy soldiers into sons and brothers. They embraced them with
Christian prophetic witness that overcame any antagonism resulting from politics or war.
The enemy were also the Body of the risen Christ.
The season of Lent is a preparation for Easter for the catechumens and for us the
baptized. Lent reminds us that we are all called to be prophets. Most of the opportunities
we have for prophetic proclamation are quiet, ordinary, and unseen---perhaps having no
discernible effect beyond our immediate families. But we can still bring a measure of
hope to others in the sincerity, kindness, and joy we bring to every dimension of life. The
question is: Do we accept the challenge to proclaim the God of compassion, justice, and
reconciliation for the sake of the Body of the Risen Christ, which is the Church? This is
much greater than the promises and demands of the political world that we hear of in our
state and national capitals.The challenge is to be prophetic and strong in our witness.
2. The Passion and Death of Jesus
The Paschal Mystery includes the Passion and Death of Jesus. As the early Church
did, so now we meditate on the Passion and Death of Jesus in the light of the experience
of the Resurrection. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we hear the following passage:
[Jesus was] human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:7-8)
The great hymn given to us in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians recapitulates the
great Christian narrative that we repeat in different ways in the Eucharistic Prayer at
Mass. We are told how, in the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus emptied himself, how
through obedience to the Father’s will he offered himself in the supreme sacrifice of the
cross, how the Father accepted that sacrifice and exalted and raised Jesus up as our Lord
and Savior. Paul knew well that here, in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s Death and
Resurrection, is the essence of our faith that we celebrate every year in Lent and during
the Three Days of Holy Thursday of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday of the Passion and
Death of Jesus on the cross, and the Easter Vigil, the night celebration of the Resurrection
and the Sacraments of Initiation.
Let’s start a bit further back with Palm Sunday. St. Mark describes what took place
with these words:
[Jesus] sent two of his disciples and said to them:
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.” (Mark 11:2)
The spiritual writer, Jay Cormier, describes the sense of this passage this way:
“In his account of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, the evangelist Mark almost
makes the colt --- a young donkey --- the center of the story. Mark recounts with
surprising detail how the disciples found the colt as Jesus told them. Clearly, Jesus’ riding
the donkey into Jerusalem is not an accident --- Jesus intends the colt to play an important
part in the Palm Sunday Gospel.
“It was the custom for pilgrims to enter Jerusalem on foot. Only great kings and
rulers [and generals of armies] would “ride” into the city, and usually on great steeds
accompanied by a retinue of soldiers and servants. Jesus, the King of the New Israel,
chooses to ride into the city not on a majestic stallion but on the back of a young beast of
burden, a donkey, an ass! By being led through the city on the back of a lowly ass, Jesus
comes as king whose rule is not about BEING SERVED, but of SERVING GOD AND
OTHERS. His kingdom is not built on power and might,but on compassion.
The donkey mirrors how the prophet Zechariah foretold this scene five centuries
Exalt greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold your king is coming to you,
a just Savior is he,
Humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foul of a donkey! (Zechariah 9:9)”
So, let the little colt guide you through what is left of the Season of Lent and of
Holy Week. Let the donkey be the symbol of Christ’s humility --- a humility that is not
self-loathing and self-diminishing, but one that honors all women and men as children of
the one true God, a humility that loves all humankind as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let
the donkey be the guide.
I remember in Louisiana how a parish priest rented a donkey for him to ride on
during the Palm Sunday blessing of palms and the procession. He made a video of the
event. When I saw it, I asked him a bit sarcastically, “Which one is the ass? The one
riding or the one carrying?” He just shrugged it off. But, really, the little donkey of Palm
Sunday teaches us all how we make an ass out of ourselves by pretending to be someone
or something when we are not.
The real question is, how might each of us follow Christ’s example by emptying
one’s self for the sake of someone else, no matter their color, language, faith, sex, or
orientation? This is how Jesus began his journey to the cross.
We move on toward the Easter Triduum, the three days of the Lord’s Supper, the
Cross, and the quiet day of the burial.
Did you ever notice that there is no Mass permitted on the morning of Holy
Thursday, unless it is the bishop’s Mass for the blessing of the holy oils? That is an
ancient custom going back to the early church. The reason is, we solemnly
commemorate the Lord’s Passion and death with great sadness by doing nothing. But in
the evening we have the Mass of the Lord’s Supper a sung Gloria and joyful ringing of
bells. The Mass is set in the Lord’s Supper, but looks ahead to the Cross as a sign of
exaltation and joy. It is a celebration after sunset. The Church is following the Jewish
way of keeping time. A new day begins after sunset. Technically then, this Mass is the
Mass of Good Friday and it begins with joy, with bells and the “Glory to God.” It is a
Eucharist that makes memory of the Passion and Death of Jesus, while at the same time
commemorating the Lord’s mandate to celebrate that Mystery in memory of him. We take
as our model the Jewish Passover command in Exodus 12 in the first reading, which was
celebrated thereafter in remembrance of the departure from Egypt as a saving event by
God himself. Our Mass recalls the Passion and Death and not the Last Supper, which is
only the model of how to make memory of Jesus.
The example Jesus gave his disciples was the foot-washing, an act of humility and
love --- a model for all his disciples to follow. At his first Holy Thursday celebration in
Rome, just a few days into his pontificate, Pope Francis bent down to wash the feet of
men and women prisoners, even a Muslim! at Casal del Marino. a youth prison in Rome.
The new pope spoke only briefly to these youth. He told them that Jesus’ example of
washing feet was a symbol that says, “I am at your service.” As he turned to wash their
feet, Pope Francis asked, “Am I really willing to serve others, to help others?”
Jesus washed Peter’s feet and told him, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher have
washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an
example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” This is what making memory
means: to serve as Jesus served, to bring the poor and outcast back within the fold of the
Good Shepherd. The Eucharist is a response to the command of Jesus, “Do this in
remembrance of me.” The Mass expresses this aspect of memorial immediately after the
Institution Narrative in what is called anamnesis, or making memory. Receiving the
Communion at Mass most explicitly unites us to the Suffering Christ in such a manner
that we become living signs of Christ’s death. as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26:
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord
until he comes.” Each Christian in receiving the bread and the cup proclaims, that is,
manifests, the Lord’s Passion and Death, and even more so on Holy Thursday evening.
The Mass becomes a pledge to do as Christ did, to serve the poor and the outcast, a
liturgy of serving others, of proclaiming salvation. It is called “the Liturgy of the
Pope Francis’ emphasis on making the Church become a church of the poor, the
powerless, an agenda that reaches out to the margins of society, is an extension of his
eucharistic and evangelical vision.Solidarity is for Pope Francis a eucharistic disposition
that “presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the
priority of life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few” (Evangelii Gaudium 188).
For Pope Francis, the liturgy of the Eucharist is a celebration of the task of evangelization
precisely because the memory of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the total paschal
mystery, is passed on in each culture that makes up the human family. To make memory
means to serve, to get out and evangelize. What is termed “the new evangelization” is
nothing less than the art of self-giving now. And that is the meaning of the Eucharist.
On this day, then, there is no Mass. We celebrated it last evening. But we continue
to make memory of the Lord’s Passion. We do so, not in sadness and mourning, as if for
someone who has died with the finality of a normal human death. We joyfully celebrate
the cross as a sign of victory over sin and death. John’s Gospel that we read is one of joy,
harking back to what Jesus said in this Gospel about being lifted up and drawing all
people to himself (John 3:14-15; 8:28-29). At the adoration of the cross we sing:
We adore your Cross, O Lord,
we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection,
for behold, because of the wood of a tree
joy has come to the whole world!
Note we already look ahead to the celebration of the Resurrection, because we are
not pretending here, but regard Christ the risen One who died on the Cross, thus, bringing
joy into the world. Our popular piety does not seem to go that far, since we like to pity
the suffering Lord, the dead Lord, and the buried Lord, the weak Lord. But the Scriptures
and the Liturgy both urge us to rejoice already on Good Friday because the cross is
If we learned from Holy Thursday that Jesus showed us what to serve God and
neighbor means, that it is in memory of his cross and resurrection, then on Good Friday
we see Jesus on the cross, the Suffering Servant of God. If we follow him, who with loud
cries learned obedience to his Father, then the Father will bend down to us can call us his
sons and daughters. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Son though he was, he
learned obedience from what he suffered; when perfected, he became the source of
eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9). We celebrate this work of Jesus
today and should resolve to be true imitators of Jesus when we go to Mass.
Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil
Holy Saturday begins with silence. No Mass,the church looking a little messy. Any
devotion to Mary on this Saturday pushed into the background. We feel a little different.
But in the evening, we start slowly with a fire, then light, then singing a canticle about the
Resurrection, then Old Testament readings, and finally alleluia! This Vigil is considered
by St. Augustine as the “mother of all vigils.” The sacraments of initiation, Baptism,
Confirmation, and Eucharist, are celebrated for the first time for the Catechumens. Now
they are fully invested Catholic Christians. We are thus back to where we started. We can
say, “He is risen, indeed.” You see, we are an Easter People and Easter is our feast.
Brothers and sisters, I invite you to spend the rest of Lent in this joyful
expectation. Let us stand up for our faith and rejoice in the Lord. You are called to
remember, to recall in your hearts and as a community of faith, to remember your first
calling, like the disciples along the lake shore in Galilee. Often we are like the disciples
in the Gospel, we would prefer to be let alone, to hold on to our security, to be like Linus
with his security blanket,to stand in front of an empty tomb, to think about someone who
had died, as someone who lives on only in our memories....But as Pope Francis reminds
us, we are afraid actually of God’s surprises! God always surprises us. God is like that.
For each of us, there is a Galilee at the origin of our faith in Jesus. Try to find it and come
back forward to the Paschal Mystery.
In another place the Pope continues on the same vein: It is the Holy Spirit who
helps us in our memory to actualize the work of redemption in our Eucharist. It is the
Spirit who helps us in our living memory to take the path back to our own “Galilee.” The
Holy Spirit now asks us for our response, the more Jesus’ words becoming life within us,
becoming new attitudes, choices, actions, testimony to the world around us. Pope Francis
is simply asking you and me to be missionaries at the edge. Do we get that?
As we celebrate Lent and Easter, let us become willing apostles of that precious
message and proclamation: HE IS RISEN, INDEED!
Father Robert B. Fisher, SVD, SThD
Given at Corpus Christi Parish, Corona, California,
March 23, 2015