Sunday, May 6, 2012

Homily for 5th Sunday of Easter

Homily for the
5th Sunday of Easter
John 15: 1-8
May 6, 2012
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“Constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us…that [we] may…bear much fruit and come to joys of life eternal” (Collect).

The Collect for this 5th Sunday of Easter is newly placed by the Roman Missal published in 2000, and thus

for the 1st time in English this evening, on this Sunday. The former Opening Prayer for this Sunday was so generic that it was identical with the Prayer for the 23d Sunday of Ordinary Time. This Collect formerly was assigned to Saturday of the 4th week of Easter, which now has a new Collect. (They’re trying to keep us off balance, aren’t they?) Our prayer this evening, with its explicit references to “the Paschal Mystery” and to “Holy Baptism,” is closely linked to our ongoing celebration of Easter. Its reference to bearing fruit ties it intimately to the gospel reading in this Year B, and its reference to “the joys of life eternal” more loosely links it with the gospel in Year A. It appears that Year C is an orphan.

The Collect begins by addressing “Almighty ever-living God,” honoring 2 divine qualities that the prayer will invoke: viz., accomplishing his designs in us, which he can do, and shielding us with his protective care, which he can offer, because he’s almighty; and “life eternal,” which he already IS and which he can share with us thru the Christian mystery.

The 1st plea we make in the prayer is “constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us.” “Paschal Mystery” has a two-fold meaning. 1st, it refers to Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. 2d, it refers to the Christian sacraments of initiation, which incorporate us into the Body of Christ and into the mystery of his passion, death, and resurrection. “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Christians of Rome, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:3-5).
The Paschal Mystery is illustrated in one of the domes of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
This word mystery in the Scriptures and the liturgy—and we hear it a lot in the liturgy because our liturgical language is essentially scriptural language—doesn’t mean what we ordinarily mean in English by mystery: you know, something that puzzles us, the mystery of what happened to Etan Patz, the mysteries of the expanding universe, and such things. Rather, in classical Greek it referred to various religious rites,[1] from which St. Paul and other NT writers seem to have borrowed it to mean “God’s saving plan for human history,” which Christian theology in turn has further developed it to mean “the rites of the Easter Vigil…that incorporate the believing community into salvation history.”[2] In a broader sense, mystery can refer to any of the sacramental signs of our faith, thru which Christ touches our lives, changes who we are at the core of our self, and effects our salvation.

So our prayer today is that God “accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us”; that by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection he lead us thru our own sufferings and deaths to the life of the resurrection because—in Baptism, in the Eucharist, in the other sacraments—Christ has taken and is taking us to himself. In the analogy that Jesus uses in today’s gospel, his life passes from himself, the vine, into us, the branches.
Vines growing early in the season in Tuscany (photo by Rita Mendl)
The Collect next describes us as “those you were pleased to make new in Holy Baptism.” Baptism makes us into new creatures—a very Pauline thought. It puts us into a new relationship with God, from wayward sinners into grace-filled sons and daughters of the Father. And this is by God’s own doing in Christ. “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved),” Paul reminds the Ephesians (2:4-5). It’s pleased God to do this for us; it’s not our own doing. Our only part in it is to respond to the offer, to say “yes” to grace.

The next line in the prayer speaks of our being “under [the Father’s] protective care.” That’s different from “protective custody.” Again, we depend on his grace, his might, for our defense against the enemy of our soul and against our own too-powerful sinful inclinations.

But the prayer goes further: that we “may…bear much fruit.” That comes directly from John’s gospel that we read this evening (John 15:1-8), as you realize. Those who are alive with Christ’s life—in whom the Paschal Mystery is being accomplished—show it by their holy lives. They bear fruit by being witnesses to Christ, like Paul “speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). They’re Christians, and they don’t hide that from the world. They bear the fruit of charity in all its senses, of chastity, of detachment, of patience, of service, of joy, etc. It’s not these virtues, these works (in the classical Protestant terminology), the public proclamation of our faith, that make us holy; not these virtues, these works, any proclamation that fill us with God’s own life. Rather, God’s own life in us bursts forth in these works, these virtues, this evidence—like grapes coming forth from the branches attached to the vine.

Finally, the Collect asks that we may “come to the joys of life eternal.” The ultimate result of our participation in the Paschal Mystery, of our having the life of Christ seep into us like the sap of the grape vine into the branches, is eternal life, a joy-filled eternal life. That’s heaven. That’s God’s kingdom. That’s the “many dwelling places” that Christ has prepared for us, to take us to, to be with him (John 14:2-3). What began at our Baptism and what continues in every Eucharistic celebration, as well as in the other sacraments and in our absorption of the Word of God, is the life of Christ—our mysterious connection to him, so that we “remain in him and he remain in us” (cf. John 15:7; 1 John 3:24). And when our earthly passage is over, the “ever-living God” who already possesses our souls will complete the work of the Paschal Mystery by leading us into the life of resurrection with Christ his Son.

[1] Cf., e.g., John L. McKenzie, SJ, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1965), s.v. mystery, p. 595.
[2] Nancy Dalla Valle, “mystery,” in The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien (San Francisco, 1995), p. 900.

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