Ars Praedicandi: Easter Sunday

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

I am not a great basketball fan
and know so little about the game
that when I first heard someone mention the Final Four,
I thought they were discussing
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Since then I’ve figured out that terminology
and adopted some other basketball jargon
so, I know when I’ve been out of bounds;
when some of my sermons have been airballs
and even use the term “three-peat,”
though for me that translates into
having to preach 3 weeks in a row.

This meandering into basketball slang
not only signals a sigh of relief that March Madness is over,
but also because more than one blogger
has suggested that preaching at Easter is a slam dunk.

The slam dunk came to prominence in the late 60s.
Though at first banned in high school and college
– some say because of the college phenom
Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar –
it still draws a technical foul in some situations.

The term has worked its way into broader secular usage
to mean a sure thing, a no-brainer,
a metaphorical insurance policy.

It is in that sense that one blogger suggests that
the homily today is a slam dunk,
opining that this is the ultimate good news, happy feast.
His advice: announce the resurrection, sing Alleluia,
then immediately sit down,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is, however, some serious difficulty with this advice.
While our sanctuary gleams with lights,
war rages in Ukraine.
While children feast on jellybeans and chocolate rabbits,
humanitarian crises rampage
through Yemen and Afghanistan.
And while festive tunes enliven our worship,
laments fill the air
across a bruised and battered world.

How often I hope that Easter liturgy might be
a momentary respite from the devastating news
that too often haunts our newspapers and fills the airwaves.

March Madness was particularly troubling
with tornadoes flattening small towns in Mississippi,
refugees losing their lives in the Mediterranean,
and one more mass shooting at a school in Tennessee.

So do we sing Alleluia? Or phooey?
If Christ is risen
death vanquished,
and resurrection assured
why do the innocent still die
and so much suffering endure?

The question of suffering is as old as humanity and religion.
It was the central question that spurred a South Asian Prince
25 centuries ago
to renounce his wealth and seek enlightenment:
a path now known to the world as Buddhism.

In Christianity it is the paradoxical springboard to resurrection:
paradoxical because without Good Friday
there would be no Easter.
Paradoxical because Easter does not erase the crucifixion.
Paradoxical because the resurrection vanquished death
but did not eradicate it
instead, giving it meaning.

That might sound like a catch-22 kind of theology:
since none of us has any choice about whether to suffer or die
we construct some silver-lining version of faith
that produces the religious equivalent of
making lemonade out of lemons.

But there may be more here than religious rationalization.
Recently I heard a podcast by psychologist Paul Bloom
entitled: “Why we choose to Suffer”

The title of the podcast caught me off guard.
I could not imagine ever choosing to suffer
so I listened both with interest and resistance.

Bloom easily pulled the rug from under my presuppositions
by illustrating that suffering is often something we choose.

He asks, why do we watch scary movies,
listen to sad songs,
eat spicy foods,
or run marathons?

His first explanations were understandable:
that good things in life only make sense
relative to the bad things.
Winning a competition is satisfying
only if there is the possibility of loss.
If all our experiences are positive, he argues,
they increasingly cease to become positive;
you need a negative for that.

But it was his pushing deeper that intrigued me the most
suggesting there was a deep connection
between suffering and morality.

Take, for example, the celebrated ice bucket challenge
for promoting awareness of ALS disease and
raising more than $115 million to date for research.

Key to the challenge was nominating others to either
pour a bucket of ice over their heads
or make a donation:
so either suffer physically or suffer financially.

Notice it wasn’t a veg-out-on-the-couch-with-sweets challenge
nor a sip Veuve Clicquot by the pool challenge.
We don’t celebrate cookie or champagne martyrs.
Rather it is suffering for the sake of some good
that we instinctively value.

In that vein, Bloom opines that suffering is not only
linked to morality, but ultimately linked to meaning:
believing that our lives must include some suffering
in order for them to be meaningful.

Bloom illustrates by discussing something I know nothing about:
why people choose to have children,
especially in the current age when it is a clear choice.

He says that the negatives of having children are obvious
(even to celibates):
the money, the anxiety, the sleep deprivation.
He then notes that when you tell parents
“Kids don’t make you overall happier”
the common response is
“That’s not why I love my kids.”

Rather their children give their lives
a particular degree of meaning, of deep joy,
not despite the cost
but maybe because of it.

Theologian Gene Walsh once said, “Jesus makes you two promises:
your life will have meaning
and that you will live forever.”
He concludes: “if you get a better offer, take it.”

We certainly have easier offers
for, as G.K. Chesterton noted:
it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting
rather it has been found difficult
and left untried.

The enlightenment we celebrate in Christ is decidedly difficult
as evidenced in his own passion and death
which this glorious feast neither ignores nor erases.

Rather the magnificence of Easter
is precisely rooted in the suffering of the Only-Begotten,
transformed into a path of eternal significance
and sacred mission for us all:
mission to a world marked
by so much meaningless violence
so much prejudice and dehumanization.

The baptized are today re-commissioned in the Christ
to be the yeast that Paul demands in the 2nd reading
assisting others to cope, endure, even rise,
and to discover some gracious meaning
in this tumultuous and challenging existence.

This past week I revisited Gregory Boyle’s
sometimes hilarious and always poignant Tattoos on the Heart [1]

In one chapter Boyle recalls the baptism of George at a probation camp after successfully passing his GED exam. Boyle knew 17-year-old George and his 19-year-old brother Cisco, both gang members from the barrio. In his 9-month stint in this camp, removed from the environment that keeps him unsettled and crazed, George began to thrive becoming nearly unrecognizable. The hardened teen with the gangster pose morphed into a thoughtful measured young man aware of gifts and talents.

The Friday night before George’s baptism, his brother Cisco was walking home when the quiet was shattered by gunshot. Cisco fell in the street killed instantly. His girlfriend, 8 months pregnant with their first child, ran outside cradling Cisco in her arms and lap … until the paramedics pried him away from her arms. Boyle considered cancelling his visit to the detention camp to stay with Cisco’s grieving family, but then remembered George and his baptism.

He writes, “When I arrive before Mass, there is George, standing by himself, holding his newly acquired GED certificate. He heads toward me, beaming. We hug. He is in a borrowed crisp white shirt and thin black tie and the regular issue camouflage pants. At the beginning of Mass, I ask him “what is your name?” “George Martinez,” he says with an overflow of confidence. “And George, what do you ask of God’s Church.” “Baptism,” he says with a steady, barely contained smile.” It is the most difficult baptism of my life, for as I pour water over George’s head … I know I will walk George outside … put my arm around him, and whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, Cisco was killed last night.” I feel all the air leave his body. As he heaves a sigh that finds itself a sob in an instant, we land on a bench where he sobs quietly. What’s most notable is the absence of the usual flaying and rage and promises of revenge in his rocking and gentle wailing. There is none of this. It is as if the commitment he has just made in water, oil and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God. In truth, George’s baptism was the beginning of resurrection for him, living a graceful future in the midst of all of his present distress and grief.

The poet reminds us
that the road to Easter always runs through a cemetery.

Last night Christians around the world embraced this belief
as they and we initiated the elect in water, oil, and flame
all achieved in the shadow of the Cross.

On this resurrectional morn
despite whatever Good Friday yet lingers within us
we profess that Christ has risen from the grave
and recall that in water, oil and flame
we too have not only been elected to resurrection,
but that in our journey to that looming gift
whether our time be brief or extended
we embrace the Easter covenant
to enact the resurrectional gift here and now
lifting up all those
still yearning to rise
so that theirs and every life might have meaning,
be treasured,
even shine with light
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 201), pp. 84-5.







One response to “Ars Praedicandi: Easter Sunday

  1. DENNIS J. NEWMAN Avatar

    Ed’s message is paralleled by the Easter Vigil, starting as it does with lighting the New Fire, to be carried into not only the assembly’s darkened church, but as well, a darkened world.

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