Reflections on the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday

Editor’s note: From March 28 – March 30 this year, the Church celebrates the holiest three days of the liturgical calendar, the Easter Triduum, when we commemorate the birth of the Eucharist and the priesthood, the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus, and then celebrate the joy of his resurrection on Easter morning.

Christ carrying the cross by Titian

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Holy Thursday

The Eucharist: More Beautiful than All Creation
On the night before he died, the Eternal Son, the Word through whom the Father created all things, accomplished something far greater than in the original creation. The Eternal Son created something more splendid than the sun and moon and stars, mightier than the mightiest ocean, lovelier than the spring flowers that scatter color all over our land. He devised something more awesome than the seraphim and cherubim, who adore him, and the angel guardians who care for our every step, more graceful than human persons who are made supernaturally beautiful by sanctifying grace, and rendered by that grace capable of relating in love with God, and angels and men and women. Tonight, the Lord of creation did something far greater.

At the Last Supper with his apostles, the Eternal Son performed his greatest work of mercy. Feeding five thousand with a few fish and loaves, walking on water, calming the raging sea were all great manifestations of Christ’s divinity. Casting out demons, healing every form of illness, bringing the dead back to life, forgiving sins were all wonderful acts of grace. But tonight, the Savior did something far greater.

Taking the unleavened bread of the Passover into his hands, Christ blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying: This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying: this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

As he consecrated the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and set apart the Twelve as priests of the New Testament, Christ identified himself with his ministers in a marvelous way. From that Last Supper until the last moment of the world’s existence, Christ committed himself to be present to his people whenever one of his priests obeys his command: “Do this in memory of me.”

Through the sacred rite of the Eucharist, bread ceases to be bread, becoming Christ’s body—born of the Virgin, crucified for our sins, and raised from the dead. The Passover wine ceases to be wine, becoming Christ’s blood—poured out on the cross to ransom us from sin, Satan, and death.  Believers in every age and place meet the one Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, in the humble appearances of bread and wine. The Eucharist has given, and continues to give, millions of people, throughout the world, access to the One Christ, the Creator and Savior of the world.

The bread and wine offered up in the Eucharist is always the sign of the death of Christ on the cross. Bread and wine are the signs of his body broken, and his blood poured out. Whenever the priests of the Church do what Christ did at the Last Supper, they change bread and wine into his body and blood, also making his Calvary sacrifice sacramentally present in the midst of the Church. The Eucharist, wherever and whenever it is celebrated, gathers the human race to the crucified Christ on Mount Calvary. Adoring him, with Mary and the other holy men and women gathered there, the Christian faithful worship the Father “in spirit and in truth.” The Eucharist has given, and continues to give, people throughout the world access to the one sacrifice of Christ, the savior of the world. As St. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Corinthians, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”

Whenever Christians eat the Lord’s body, and drink his blood, they become one with him, and through him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Enfleshed in his flesh, each Christian becomes a living member of his body, the Church. We are one with all who see the face of God in the heavenly Jerusalem; one with our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, St. Therese of Lisieux, Blessed John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, and with all our loved ones and friends who ate the Lord’s flesh, and drank his blood, and died in communion with him.

We become one with the souls who are being purified in purgatory, and with all the men and women throughout the world who profess faith in the Lord Jesus. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we enter into this synchronic and diachronic unity that is the Mystery of Faith. Perhaps, these are unfamiliar words: synchronic means that the one Christ, in the one Living Bread, makes us one with every person on earth who participates in the Eucharist. Diachronic means that the Eucharist brings us into communion with all who ever believed in Christ, throughout the ages. In every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, Christians encounter spiritually all who now enjoy the banquet on earth, and in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The current of love that originates in the heart of the crucified Christ, and circulates throughout all times and places in the Eucharist, is so powerful that every person who is saved, is saved through this sacred Mystery. In the Eucharist, we touch the Creator of the universe, as well as the sublime goodness of all creation. We touch the Redeemer, as well as the awesome power of that love of his that transforms everyone he touches into Eternal Life. In the Eucharist, we have Holy Communion, not only with the Trinity, but with all who are united in love with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is the great Sacramentum Unitatis et Caritatis—The Sacrament of Unity and Charity.

In the “Bread of Life” discourse, Jesus declared that the Father had given him power as man to give poor sinners the gift of eternal life. He said: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” The eternal life, that only he can give, comes to us in this “Bread of Life.”

We acknowledge in faith that the Eucharist is God’s greatest work. As the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the Eucharist creates the Church. The Eucharist creates a miracle of unity, and an unending explosion of charity. Through the offering of Holy Mass, Christ’s work of redemption is carried forward in every time and place. The Eucharist is the only food that brings poor mortal men and women the gift of eternal life. In the blessed Eucharist, the One God gathers One People to One Victim offered in sacrifice. The one Bread that we eat detonates into Eternal Life. Yes, I chose the word with deliberation: The Eucharist “detonates”—that is, “explodes” into charity, unity, and eternal life—if we allow Jesus to do his saving work in us.

O sacred banquet,
In which Christ is received,
The memory of his passion is renewed,
The mind is filled with grace,
And a pledge of future glory is given to us.
(St. Thomas Aquinas)

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Good Friday

Therese of Lisieux: Theologian of the Redemption
Blessed John Paul II named St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church in 1997 because, among other reasons, of her brilliant insights into Christ’s suffering and death. The Little Flower might rightly be called the “Doctor of the Theology of the Redemption.” In her inimitably simple way, Therese has, in my estimation, corrected two dangerous tendencies in the contemporary thought of some priests, religious, and lay faithful on this subject.

First, there is the current propensity to overlook or downplay the fact that Jesus Christ is a Divine Person who suffered and died to restore the gift of eternal life to the fallen human race. The impression is given, in some theological and popular spiritual writing, that Jesus suffered the pain of crucifixion, and the rejection of his own people, in the manner that any human person would suffer a comparably horrific death. It is generally conceded that Christ offered his sufferings for others, but there is often little or no advertence to the fact that the divine person of the Son made man, knew the Father in a unique way and, consequently, knew what is in every human heart in that personal knowledge of the Father.

St. Therese believed that Christ, as the new head of the human race, the New Adam, has a personal, intimate relationship with every human person. 1 During his passion, Christ saw, knew, and loved each person. He took every human sin to himself and suffered for each and every one of those sins. Therese, making the words of St. Paul her own: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”(Galatians 2:20), believed that she along with every other human being was in the heart of Christ during his passion. She held in faith that Jesus loved her, and offered himself to save her. He was indeed her Savior.

Therese’s favorite Scripture passages in the Old Testament was the “Fourth Suffering Servant Song” of Deutero-Isaiah (Is 52:13-53:12). This passage not only gave her insight into Jesus’ personal relationship with every human person but also helped her understand her own vicarious suffering for others, her “trial of faith,” during the last 18 months of her short life on earth:

Yet, it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the Lord laid upon him
the guilt of us all.

St. Therese was convinced that, as a result of her incorporation in Christ through her baptism and reception of the Eucharist, she too could offer her life for the salvation of others. The 15-year-old girl had entered Carmel, staying there during very difficult times, to pray and do penance for the salvation of souls, and especially for the sanctification of priests. She grasped that, with few exceptions, she would only know in heaven the people she helped through her sacrifices on earth. She believed, however, that Jesus knew, and loved, all those for whom he suffered on the cross. In other words, each of the redeemed was consciously, and intentionally, in the heart of the Redeemer on Calvary. Therese penetrated the mystery that Jesus experienced this staggering agony in his human consciousness, which never ceased being the human consciousness of a Divine Person. 2 The Little Flower had no difficulty believing that Jesus looked upon the face of his Father in heaven in his experience of the passion, seeing in that vision all for whom he suffered.

While recognizing the torturous physical pain Christ suffered in his passion, Therese understood that the mental agony of Christ was far more intense and crucifying than the nails in his hands and feet that held him to the cross. She believed that Christ saw every human person in his vision of the Father, as well as every human sin. Imagine waking up one day with the sins of ten other persons on your conscience, one of whom being a murderer. Jesus apparently had an experience like this in the Garden of Gethsemane, but involving the sins of every human person who ever had lived, or would live. One might also point out that if a human person were able to assume the guilt of other people, he or she would already have had some familiarity with sin and guilt. Jesus, the Holy One, had absolutely no personal experience or knowledge of sin. It was to him sheer horror. 3

In faith, and through her experience of her trial of faith during her terminal illness, Therese understood with a degree of infused connaturality St. Paul’s shocking assertion that Jesus, the sinless one, became sin out of love for us: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:22). 4

A second tendency in contemporary soteriology (theology of the redemption) results from an intrusion of Protestant theology, and to be precise, an invasion of Calvinist thought in homiletic or catechetical descriptions of the passion. This thinking runs something like this: God the Father was angry with the human race for the sin of Adam, and for all personal sins. He, in fact, was seething with wrath which he poured out on his Son in the passion. Jesus freely accepted the cross to save sinners from the ire of his Father.

This dark soteriology proposes that Christians are saved because Jesus endured the wrath of God for them. Many Protestants explain that the Christian is saved by professing that Jesus is his or her personal Lord and Savior. The believer stands, so to speak, behind Christ who takes the hit for him. In reality, the Christian hides behind Christ, who shields him or her from the wrath of the offended Father, and suffers the wrath of God, in his or her place. According to this pattern of thought, salvation is merely extrinsic. Christ only protects us from the Divine wrath. The agony of Christ does nothing to affect an interior transformation in holiness in those who accept him in faith.

One might suggest that the insipidness of the first theological tendency tempts believers to embrace the second position, which at least tries to explain the enormity of the work of redemption, and the personal relationship of each of the redeemed person with the Redeemer. Catholic priests, I suspect, sometimes preach, and Catholic catechists sometimes present, a Calvinist soteriology simply because they had not been taught the Catholic position on redemption in seminary.

St. Therese met this theological tendency in her own monastery which had been influenced by Jansenist spirituality. In the face of modern atheism, modernism, and hedonism, many of the Lisieux Carmelites heroically offered themselves as victims to God’s justice to save their contemporaries from hellfire. Their prayer took this, or a similar direction: “Lord, there are many people in the world who have no concern for you or your law. They live as your enemies, with no concern for any relationship with you. Lord, they deserve eternal damnation. Pour out your anger on me for the sake of their salvation. Punish me in their place, and through my suffering for them, draw them to you.” There was, indeed, a strong savor of Calvinism in the “Oblation to God’s Justice” that the nuns of the Lisieux Carmel made. The Sisters hoped that their suffering of the wrath of God would affect an interior transformation in those they deemed worthy of the fires of hell.

Reflecting on the “Oblation to Divine Justice,” St. Therese rejected the devotion. She was convinced that there was a misrepresentation of God’s merciful love in it. She responded by writing and making her “Oblation to the Merciful Love of God” which is the antithesis of Calvinist soteriology, and a brilliant presentation of Catholic truth.

It would be safe to say that St. Therese understood the passion and death of Christ by crucifixion as the permissive will of God. Jesus, who did the will of the Father in every situation, accepted the tragic end that the Father permitted. Our Lord accepted his death as a way to worship the Father, who had been offended by the sins of his children.  In his passion, Christ manifested the Father’s thirst for a love relationship with each of his sons and daughters.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes an assertion in the second reading, proclaimed every Good Friday, that has stunned Christians throughout the centuries. If interpreted properly, it is a text that helps Catholics understand the theology of redemption in Christ:  “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

What does the author of Hebrews mean by, “when he was made perfect; he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”? What is often translated as “made perfect” means literally, “when he had attained his end or his purpose.” In other words, although Jesus was perfect in every way from the moment of the Incarnation, he did not attain his end until he had embraced every human person in the passion. He suffered to give all the capacity to turn from sin to the worship of the Father. Jesus only attained his end when he breathed his last breath on the cross. This interpretation is perfectly consistent with St. Therese’s soteriology: Christ knows and loves each human person in his passion. He loves each person in his or her weakness. He empowers each person by his grace to turn against sin and surrender to the Father in loving obedience.

The final cry of Jesus from the cross, “I thirst,” reveals his desire for the reciprocation of his love. Jesus dies thirsting for our love, thirsting to quench the Father’s thirst for the love of each member of the human family. Therese knew, with the certainty of faith, that the source of the redemption is the merciful love in the heart of the Father that was manifested in Jesus thirst on the cross.

In her “Oblation to Merciful Love,” Therese asks the Father to allow her to share intimately in Jesus’ holocaust of love. She prayed, in other words:

Father, I understand that many people will not allow you to love them as you wish. There is an infinite ocean of merciful love pent up in your heart. Pour that love out on me. Love me for those who refuse to allow you to love them. Consume me with this love as you consumed your Son in his passion. May this love overflow in me to draw many, into your embrace of love. Father, through my love, spare your son the pain of the loss of even one man or woman for whom he suffered.

Therese believed in Jesus’ infinite desire to save all through his love. Whether all would be saved, Therese dared not speculate. God had not revealed this. On the contrary, he warned us to take the “narrow path” that leads to eternal life. However, cleaving in wisdom to her understanding of “God as love,” she trusted in the power of merciful love.

St. Therese believed that the crucified Christ died of love—love for the Father, whom he sought to glorify in his obedience, and love for every sinner. She asked that for his sake, she too might die of love. Using the logic of faith, St. Therese deduced that the most awful pain of the crucified would be to know that even one person had rejected his love. Therese’s zeal for souls was certainly directed to save sinners from eternal damnation, but also to save Jesus from the ultimate pain of the loss of even one soul. There was nothing of wrath in Therese’s soteriology. Rather, for her, the redemption was all about the Son’s love of the Father, and the love of the Father in the heart of his crucified Son for poor sinners. She was determined to participate in the redemption by loving Jesus, and all those whom he loved. Her focus was on the Lord, and his ultimate victory.

In his Holy Thursday homily for 2012, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the zeal that all Catholics should have for the salvation of souls. As we acknowledge each Good Friday how much Our Lord suffered in his human flesh, in his innocent human consciousness, and in his heart on fire with charity, we ask the Holy Spirit to give all a share in the crucified Christ’s zeal for the salvation of souls.

St. Therese reminds us, especially on Good Friday, of the terrible physical pain of crucifixion suffered by Jesus. She helps us understand that Jesus saw each of us in the passion, took our sins to himself as his own, and died out of love for us. In fact, the Holy Spirit so powerfully descended into the heart of the crucified Christ, that he was transformed into a holocaust of zeal for the Father’s glory, and the salvation of souls—a holocaust of charity. This charity, not the physical agony of crucifixion, nor the mental torment of bearing the sins of the world, was ultimately the cause of Christ’s death. It was this charity that gave significance to the physical pain and the mental anguish.

Therese’s soteriology is very simple:  She affirmed, without hesitation, that Christ died of love. His death manifests, not the wrath of God, but rather his merciful love for all humankind. She believed that the Father’s desire for the salvation of all was manifested in the radical nature of the Son’s passion. Her response was to do everything, and anything, to save souls from the fires of hell. Her primary motive was: to spare Christ the pain of the rejection of his love. In order to quench Christ’s thirst for the reciprocation of love, she asked to replicate his death of love in her death. She asked to be given the favor of helping men and women to love Christ until the end of time. She knew that her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, would help sinners trust in the merciful love of the Father, revealed in the pierced heart of Christ. In large measure, her theology of the redemption won her the title of Doctor of the Church. It is the capstone of her spiritual doctrine; the foundation of her “little way of spiritual childhood”.

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Holy Saturday

Spit and Shout; Bathe and Eat!
Easter is the great feast of faith and baptism, the sacrament of faith. As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the Church invites us—especially at the Easter Vigil when catechumens around the world are incorporated into Christ and the Church—to revisit our own baptism in Christ.

During the first several centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians gathered at sundown for the Vigil, remaining together throughout the night. Likely, many of the readings proclaimed at the Easter Vigil today were proclaimed then. It appears that there was a homily, or perhaps, several homilies, that followed each of the readings, as well as the chanting of psalms. Everything was in preparation for the great anamnesis of the Lord’s Resurrection in the celebration of the sacraments of initiation.

Near dawn, the bishop, surrounded by his priests and deacons, gathered the catechumens: those men and women, young and old, who had been preparing for several years to become members of Christ and his Church. They sometimes went to a nearby river. As the Church grew, they often went to a building, an octagonal shaped building, called the baptistery. This was near, or even adjacent to, the Church where the Eucharist was celebrated. This baptistery was frequently decorated with paintings or mosaics of scenes from the Old Testament, various types of Christian “baptism”—the creation of the world, Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Abraham, the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the preaching and baptism of John the Baptist.

At the center of the building was a pool of water. In some places the pool looked like a watery grave. Here the catechumens encountered sacramentally the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Some have claimed that St. Cyril of Jerusalem baptized his catechumens in the actual tomb of Christ.  In other places, the pool was round to symbolize the womb of Mother Church, a womb teeming with new life. The symbols of tomb and womb are complementary: In baptism, the Christian dies with Christ to the old way of life, and is given a “second birth” from the womb of Mother Church. St. Hippolytus of Rome told Christians in the second century that the water should preferably be “living water,” that is, water from a flowing river or stream.

Permit me to explain how theologians and liturgists imagine baptism was celebrated in the Church during its earliest years, the age of the Fathers of the Church. There are ancient texts that describe Christian initiation. These texts from East and West manifest that there were many variations of practice. The sacramental basics noted here are built on a solid foundation of texts. There may be a bit of romantic imagination involved, as there usually is in efforts to reconstruct the praxis of the ancient Church. Hopefully, the journey into the world of ancient Christianity will help us understand and live our baptism in a more effective and radical way.

I will summarize at the beginning the four necessary elements of Christian initiation. These are the essentials of the process of initiation that emerged from the Gospel:

1.)    Spit! (Repent – metanoia);

2.)    Shout! (believe);

3.)    Take a bath that will make you cleaner than you’ve ever been before!
(obviously, baptism);

4.)    Eat like there is no tomorrow! (the Eucharist: food of eternal life).

Spit! Right before dawn, the bishop led the catechumens to the door of the baptistery facing the west. As the door was thrown open, the catechumens with their ministers looked into the profound darkness that symbolized their old way of life. The bishop then asked them questions: “Do you renounce Satan?” “Do you renounce his service?” “Do you renounce his works?” In some of the rites, there is the instruction that each of the catechumens should “expectorate,” that is, spit into the darkness to concretize their total rejection of Satan, and all those things related to him and his dark kingdom.

During the first three centuries of the Church’s life and growth in the Roman Empire (and in every place and time ever since then) baptism necessitated the rejection of a godless way of life.  Before an adult was permitted to join the catechumenate, he had to be examined. Certain employees of the Roman State, for example, gladiators, charioteers, and soldiers, had to relinquish their work if they wished to enroll as catechumens. This was necessary since their work involved the worship of the Roman gods, the emperor, and other forms of immoral behavior. For the same reason, actors had to give up acting if they wished to join the Church.

Government officials soon realized that Christians, albeit good citizens, would not budge on certain issues such as idolatry and immorality. The Empire responded to the resistance that was perceived as treason with hostile persecutions.  During these early centuries, the catechumenate was not only the school of faith and moral conversion for baptism, but also the boot camp for martyrs. The original spirituality of the Church was that of the martyr, and this spirituality obtains in every age. This teaching, recently articulated at the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, 42, may prove apposite in the days that lie in the immediate future in our country, and throughout the world. 5 Baptism always creates a city within a city, a culture within a culture. Often these cities and cultures are not at peace with each other.  The clash was symbolized by spitting into the dark.

Bathe! The bishop then led the catechumens to the eastern door of the baptistery. Opening the door, all rejoiced in the light of the rising sun. The bishop then asked the catechumens three more questions: “Do you believe in God, the Father, the creator of heaven and earth?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who became man, suffered and died for you, rose from the dead, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead?” “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit who makes us holy in the Holy Catholic Church?” Having professed faith in the One God in Three Persons, the catechumen went to the baptismal pool, laying down in the watery grave, while the bishop pronounced the words given by Christ: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This holy bath has ever been, at one and the same time, a death to sin, and a new birth into the life of the Holy Trinity. The pool is both tomb and womb, death and birth. Recall the words of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that are proclaimed at the Easter Vigil: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Though baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised form the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life” (Romans 6:3-5).

Submerged in the water of baptism, the catechumen encountered Christ in the mystery of his death, burial, and resurrection. The merits of the Paschal Mystery passed from Christ to the catechumen, giving him the new life of the Kingdom. In the “Second Mystagogic Catechesis,” St. Cyril of Jerusalem describes this sacramental exchange in a breathtaking manner:  “O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things he has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing his sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving kindness! Christ received nails in his undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me, without pain or toil by the fellowship of his suffering, he freely bestows salvation. 6

Through the passion and death of Christ, the catechumen is given the power to die to selfishness and sin in every situation of his life. Through his participation in the resurrection, he is given the muscle to live the new life of supernatural charity. Both the ascetical and mystical life flow from the encounter with Christ in baptism—asceticism is the lived experience of the death of Christ; mysticism, the lived experience of his resurrection through agape-charity. We might say that baptism renders the Christian cruciform. The character and grace of baptism dispose the Christian to die to sin and live in charity, to offer the suffering involved in the Eucharistic sacrifice in the spirit of filial love.

This profound cleansing is effected by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who come to dwell deep in the being of the Christian, causing a second birth—a birth to eternal life. This bath cleanses away the stain of Adam’s sin, all personal sin, and the temporal punishment due to sin.  The baptized man or woman is no longer a catechumen but a neophyte—a new born child. The neophyte is immediately clothed in a perfectly white garment, and given a light to carry. The white garment symbolizes the purification that has just occurred; the candle, symbolizes the light of faith in the Trinity’s dwelling within.

The bishop then pours sacred Chrism, perfumed oil, over neophyte’s head that imparts the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal Spirit gives him or her the power of witnessing to Christ’s resurrection, even unto martyrdom. In an instant, the neophyte, the newborn child, comes to full maturity in Christ. Cleansed of all stain, cleaner than he has ever been before, exuding the sweet scent of the Holy Spirit, the bishop leads the newly initiated Christians to the Church for the celebration of the Easter Eucharist.

Shout! The newly-baptized, clothed in white garments and exuding the fragrance of the chrism of the Holy Spirit, enter the assembly carrying lighted candles. They are greeted by the joyful shout, “Alleluia! Praise the Lord!” The shout rises because Christ has risen from the grave. He has conquered Satan, sin, and death. He is risen! They sing “Alleluia!also because the risen Christ is truly present in all believers—in the new believers—through the supernatural gift of faith. Faith is, in reality, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit of God to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The risen Christ is in the neophyte, manifesting himself through faith. The baptismal rite teaches us that it is impossible to separate the resurrection of Christ from baptism. The Christ, who rose physically from the tomb on Easter morning, rises in the hearts of men and women when they believe that he died and rose for them.

Eat like there is no tomorrow!  For the first time, the neophyte is present at the Holy Oblation, receiving the Lord’s sacred Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Everything that had happened in the baptistery earlier was simply a prelude to this central, most important event. I mentioned above that the baptisteries of the ancient Church were often octagonal in design. Sunday was known among ancient Christians as the “Eighth Day.” By rising from the dead, the God-man entered into the eternal sphere, bringing all the members of his body with him. He is the beginning of the “new creation of Grace.” Through the Eucharist, the Christian passes over into the “Eighth Day.”

The first contact of the Christian with Christ’s risen flesh in the Eucharist draws him into eternal life. He may truly eat this bread, and drink this cup, like there is no tomorrow, because he has been given the gift of eternal life in the Eucharist. These Easter words of St. Paul capture this mystery: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:1-3).

In some ancient rites, the neophytes were given milk and honey to drink after the reception of the Eucharist. This symbol emphasized the fact that the Christian had participated in the Passover of Christ through the Eucharist, having arrived in the true Promised Land.

Through the Eucharist, the risen Christ builds a city within a city—the City of God within the city of man—a culture of charity tending to eternal life within a culture that is passing away. The indestructability and immortality of the risen body of Christ passes over into his Church.

These words are inscribed on the wall of the baptistery of St. John Lateran in Rome. They beautifully describe the mystery of the Easter Vigil:

Here is born a people of noble race, destined for Heaven,
whom the Spirit brings forth in the waters he has made fruitful.
Mother Church conceives her offspring by the breath of God,
and bears them virginally in this water.
Hope for the Kingdom of Heaven, you who are reborn in this font.
Eternal life does not await those who are only born once.
This is the spring of life that waters the whole world,
taking its origin from the Wounds of Christ.
Sinner, go down into the holy water to be purified.
It receives the unregenerate and brings him forth a new man.
If you wish to be made innocent, be cleansed in this pool,
whether you are weighed down by original sin, or your own.
There is no barrier between those who are reborn and made one
by the one font, the one Spirit, and the one faith.
Let neither the number, nor the kind of their sins, terrify anyone;
Once reborn in this water, they will be holy.

  1. Without stripping the doctrine of its mystery and ultimate incomprehensibility, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council affirmed in Gaudium et Spes, 22, the same faith that St. Therese of Lisieux articulated in communion with the whole Church:  “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion (quodammodo) with every man.”
  2. Pope John Paul II in Salvifici Doloris, 17, addressed the Divine-human suffering of Christ: “The Song of the Suffering Servant contains a description in which it is possible, in a certain sense, to identify the stages of Christ’s Passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the Cross, the crucifixion and the agony.” “Even more than this description of the Passion, what strikes us in the words of the Prophet is the depth of Christ’s sacrifice. Behold, He, though innocent, takes upon himself the sufferings of all people, because he takes upon himself the sins of all. ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’: all human sin in its breadth and depth becomes the true cause of the Redeemer’s suffering. If the suffering ‘is measured’ by the evil suffered, then the words of the Prophet enable us to understand the extent of this evil and suffering with which Christ burdened himself. It can be said that this is ‘substitutive’ suffering; but above all it is ‘redemptive.’ The Man of Sorrows of that prophecy is truly that ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (42). In his suffering, sins are cancelled out precisely because he alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon himself, accept them with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin; in a certain sense he annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and humanity, and fills this space with good.” “Here we touch upon the duality of nature of a single personal subject of redemptive suffering. He who by his Passion and death on the Cross brings about the Redemption is the only-begotten Son whom God ‘gave.’ And at the same time this Son who is consubstantial with the Father suffers as a man. His suffering has human dimensions; it also has unique in the history of humanity—a depth and intensity which, while being human, can also be an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only-begotten Son himself: ‘God from God.’ Therefore, only he—the only-begotten Son—is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in the sin of man: in every sin and in “total” sin, according to the dimensions of the historical existence of humanity on earth.”
  3. See Bl. John Henry Newman’s Catholic Sermon, The Mental Suffering of Our Lord in His Passion, for a powerful description of Christ’s interior agony in the Garden of Gethsemane until his death on the Cross. One might speculate that both Newman and Therese shared the same insight into the mental agony of Christ. http://www.newmanreader.org/works/discourses/discourse16.html 
  4. See my book, The Trial of Faith of St. Therese of Lisieux. New York, Alba House, 1997.
  5. Since Jesus, the Son of God, manifested his charity by laying down his life for us, so, too, no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and his brothers. From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon—and some will always be called upon—to give the supreme testimony of this love to all men, but especially to persecutors. The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift, and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom, a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world—as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross (LG, 42).
  6. http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@texts/0387_cyril-jer/02_cyr-jr_txt1.htm
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avatar About Fr. Frederick L. Miller, S.T.D

Fr. Frederick L. Miller, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, currently teaches systematic theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. His most recent book, "The Grace of Ars," was published by Ignatius Press.

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