April 8, 2012
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle
“Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises” (Sequence 1).
The Easter Sequence in the lectionary doesn't have verse numbers. It is divided into unnumbered stanzas, and for ease of reference I cite the stanzas as if they were numbered.
I dare say that you’ve never heard a homily based on the Sequence. In 34 years I've preached on it just once, according to all the homilies stored in my binders and on my computer.
This poetical and musical masterpiece, the Victimae Paschali Laudes, opens with a theme of gratitude: Christians, offer your thankful praises to the Paschal Victim! Then it enumerates the reasons for our gratitude: Christ reconciles us sinners with his Father (v. 2); the Prince of life reigns immortal (v. 3); Christ our hope is arisen, our new life obtaining (vv. 7-8).
Resurrection of Christ & the women at the empty tomb, by Fra AngelicoHow Christ reconciles us isn’t spelled out but is implied. He is the Paschal Victim (v. 1), the Passover Lamb who has redeemed us (v. 2), like the lambs whose blood protected and saved the Hebrews on the nite of the 1st Passover, as we read in the liturgy of Holy Thursday. St. Paul makes this link when he writes, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), which is echoed in the 1st Preface of Easter.
In biblical terms, redemption can mean buying back someone or something; for example, the 1st-born son must be redeemed by a sacrifice (Ex 13:2,12). It can also mean championing or defending the person or the rights of a member of one’s clan or of the underprivileged; for example, Boaz is Ruth’s redeemer; God is the redeemer of the widow, the orphan, and the alien in the land; and Abraham is the redeemer of his kinfolk after the 4 Canaanite kings make a raid and carry them off with their livestock (Gen 14).
In this latter sense, Christ has been our champion and defender, fighting back for us against Satan, against sin and sin’s mark on the human race, viz. death. “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous” (v. 3). Christ alone is sinless (v. 2) and in a position to go up against Satan, and he is the stronger. He conquers, returning victorious from death: “The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal” (v. 3). He did so for us: “Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining” (v. 8). We die, paying the price of our sins—“the wages of sin is death,” in Paul’s famous phrase (Rom 6:23). But death cannot keep down the sinless One, cannot bind him in the tomb (cf. Acts 2:24). Christ bursts those bonds, like Samson shedding the sturdy ropes Delilah had tied him with (Jgs 16:10-12). Christ’s burial shroud is left, useless, at the tomb (Seq 6; John 20:7).
Like all 4 gospels, the Sequence credits Mary Magdalene as the 1st witness that the tomb is empty and Jesus has risen (vv. 4-7). If we were to discount the preludes to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, the infancy narratives, this Mary would be the most prominent woman in the gospels. Not because Jesus cast 7 demons out of her and she was among the women who ministered to the needs of Jesus and the 12 out of their wealth (Luke 8:1-3)—the only biographical detail about her given to us in the gospels; and not because she stayed with Jesus on Calvary, as all 4 gospels inform us; but because she found the tomb empty, she saw the Risen Lord, she was commissioned to inform the apostles of the Good News, she was “the apostle to the apostles,” in the immortal wording of some medieval Christian writers. “Mary, declare what you saw wayfaring” (v. 4).
The Sequence doesn’t say that she saw Christ, but it makes plain that she believed the “bright angels attesting” that “Christ my hope is arisen” and will meet the apostles in Galilee (vv. 6-7). By contrast, as various gospel stories report, the apostles are slow to believe. John’s gospel, emphatically, describes Jesus’ appearance to Mary and her “announcing” that “to the disciples” (20:11-18). Mark’s gospel more matter-of-factly says that too (16:9-11). It’s interesting that the Sequence, however, doesn’t mention the apostles at all—maybe because they were such skeptics. Here Mary is the sole witness to us that “Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining.”
Finally the Sequence links a plea to its profession of faith: “Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!” (v. 8). In faith we acknowledge Christ’s victory over death, over sin, over the Lord of Darkness, and Christ’s eternal reign as Prince of life. That faith avails us, tho, only if he extends to us his mercy, his forgiveness, and deigns to raise us up with him. Christ is our hope, for our individual redemption isn’t complete quite yet. We need his mercy to touch us personally, as it did Mary Magdalene.
Full of hope, we thank God this morning and cry out in praise with the Sequence, “Amen. Alleluia” (v. 8). May this Easter hope stay with us every day. May our lives give thankful praise to the Paschal Victim every day. May we join Mary Magdalene in declaring what he has done for us, what we have seen with the eyes of our faith, and in passing on the Good News that Christ is risen, Christ has reconciled us to the Father, Christ leads us to immortal life.