Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9
Mankind has always struggled with the finality of death. Somehow, in our makeup, we want to hope that it doesn’t have the last word. In ancient Greek folklore they had the legend of the Phoenix. Herodotus wrote of it in the 5th century BC. He attributed its origins to the Egyptians; however, their legend of the Bennu is slightly different in some respects. Being such an old story, it is understandable that it would come down to us in various versions. Here is one from the Oxford English Dictionary:
A mythical bird, of gorgeous plumage, fabled to be the only one of its kind, and to live five or six hundred years in the Arabian desert, after which it burnt itself to ashes on a funeral pile of aromatic twigs ignited by the sun and fanned by its own wings, but only to emerge from its ashes with renewed youth, to live through another cycle of years.
According to Wikipedia, the legend was used for Christian purposes by Pope Clement, the third pope after St. Peter, and St. Isidore of Seville. They, too, saw how it foreshadowed the death and resurrection of Christ. The symbol of the Phoenix can be found in many pieces of artwork and architecture in the Middle Ages. The Old English Exeter Book used the image of the Phoenix as an allegory for the resurrection of Christ. Dante referred to the Phoenix in Inferno, Canto XXIV. Shakespeare alluded to it in the play Henry VIII.
In the same article in Wikipedia it said that analogues of the Phoenix can be found in a variety of cultures, including Hindu, Russian, Persian, Georgian, Arabian, Turkish, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese. I think it just goes to show that a deep yearning for what we Christians celebrate today was wired into the DNA of homo sapiens from their earliest origins.
On the purely natural level, death seems so relentless, so merciless. Our human nature with its spirit and mind seem so far above the rest of creation. What a tragedy it would be to be snuffed out forever. Somehow, we want to believe that there is a way to rise from the ashes and live happily ever after. Without that hope, death throws its long shadow over our day-to-day lives and we find ourselves crippled by fear and dread.
It is fitting that our feast of Easter should fall each year in the season of spring. For the seasons themselves image the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and our own regeneration after death. We have just made it through another stark winter. Walking around in the woods, the trees and the bushes appear to be dead. One does not even hear the chirp of a bird. Nature itself seems to be “down for the count.” We are able to put up with the inconveniences of winter because we have faith and hope that it will be followed by spring. And now, the birds are returning, the daffodils are blooming, the sun is warming, and the buds on the trees are swelling. Winter and death do not have the last word — they are only a phase to be passed through.
Similarly, we have the cycle of daytime and nighttime. When the sun sets and darkness seems to have complete domain, we are not discouraged, we do not despair. We trust that there will be something beautiful on the other side. In our optimism we believe that light will conquer darkness and good will conquer evil.
What a heavy burden it is to have a view of existence without the belief in an afterlife. I’ve always marveled at the atmosphere of happiness and rejoicing in our abbey at the death of one of our monks. And it makes sense if we see this life as a preparation for the next. This brother has persevered to the end and reached the finish line. We have set our hearts and our sights on what is above. As Br. Gregory just read to us from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
With a life view like that, something like COVID-19 doesn’t pose such a threat. We can take it all in stride. If it’s in the cards for us to die, so be it. Like the caterpillar of the Monarch Butterfly, our death will yield to an even more glorious existence. Of course, we take all reasonable measures to avoid contracting the virus and spreading it to others, especially the more vulnerable. But God does not mean for us to live in a crippling, paralyzing fear. This too will pass. God is accomplishing something beyond our understanding and we have to trust in his majestic plan.
Today we celebrate the greatest feast of the Christian year. What happened that first Easter was a real game-changer, it was the water-shed point in history. We even mark our years by BC and AD. Christ, by his glorious resurrection, conquered death and restored us to the beautiful life of immortality that God had originally planned for us before sin entered the world. Even more, we now have the potential to attain an even more sublime existence since Christ has united his divine nature to our human nature and given us a share in his own divine nature. As we heard in the Exultet during Midnight Mass last night, “Oh happy fault! Oh necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.”
Let us truly rejoice in Our God who is so awesome and so loving, and in such a wonderful feast.