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Sunday, April 12th, 2020

Terra Tremuit et Quievit: a Homily for Easter Sunday

The earth trembled and was still while God arose in judgement (Psalm 75, 9-10).

This morning, despite the circumstances—indeed, because of the circumstances—preachers everywhere will be taking up the same theme. They will use different words; they will emphasize one point or another; but their common thesis, I imagine, will sound something like this: Easter proves that all will be well. Easter proves that out of disastrous, sorrowful events, hope and renewal are possible. That it is faith in Christ that makes it so. That we Christians are being called by the Father to make acts of faith, as the Apostles and the holy women did on the first Easter. That therein lay the solution. And it is right that we who preach should say these things, because they are true.

However, it is also the case that certain reservations make themselves felt. We have a duty to take heed of them. But let us be clear at the beginning: if we speak of reservations, it is by no means with the intention of weakening the Easter mystery. Quite the contrary. Rather, we take pause in order to avoid treating the mystery lightly; to avoid being superficial or platitudinous; to see today’s mystery, such as we can, with all the force and lightening that it entails.

Today, Catholics commemorate the day on which a man who was dead became alive again. That man could do this because he was, at the same time, God. In a way that is difficult to understand but nevertheless true, God united himself to all the frailties of our human nature; even to the point of being able to die like us. But he is alive now. The God-Man who was dead is alive. And that is why today is the most solemn and festive of days of the year. It is why the whole edifice of the Catholic faith stands; why it is valid and real.

But even as we celebrate, there are not a few who at this hour are mourning their dead. That is our first reservation. We may not leave behind the mystery of suffering and death, as if it were unreal. We may not even allow ourselves to temporarily forget it. No, we must put the mystery of suffering and death squarely in front of us.

But there is more. There is a temptation among us to give in to false comfort.—Thus our second reservation. Especially in times of collective hardship, an attitude of wishful thinking can appear. We hear it more often that might be expected: a certain optimism which says that things are just bound to get better; that every cloud has a silver lining; that we will get through this; that the human spirit will overcome and emerge to find sunnier days. Or, if you prefer, this same general attitude has characterized philosophical, political, and scientific thought since at least the eighteenth century: namely, that human progress is the thing to be expected; that so long as man’s radical freedom for self-expression is respected, his flourishing cannot be avoided.

But whether it is sentimentalism or a philosophical over-confidence in the powers of man, our Easter mystery has nothing to do with any of this. It is not what our Alleluia means.

But is there any justification for speaking as we have been? Is all this simply one preacher’s pessimism? Recall the words we quoted at the beginning: Terra tremuit et quievit dum resurgeret in iudicio Deus. It is the offertory of Easter Sunday.[1] ‘The earth trembled and was still while God arose in judgement.’ As the chalice is unveiled, as the host is prepared and the wine and water mingled, this is the text that Mother Church puts before us.—Today we go to the altar trembling more, not less, than usual. (And this not because of Covid-19.) On the first Easter, the earth quaked and then was still. Interesting to note that at the birth of the Savior there were jubilation and choirs of angels singing the first Gloria;[2] at his resurrection, we have one angel; and instead of singing, trembling and silence.[3]

But there is another preacher we do well to hear today. After commenting on today’s Gospel passage verse-by-verse, Pope Saint Gregory’s mind goes back to the mystery of Good Friday:

There comes now to mind what the Jews said derisively of the crucified Son of God: ‘If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him.’[4] If he had then come down from the cross, yielding to their derision, he would not have showed to us the virtue of patience. Instead, he waited for a while, he put up with their taunts, he bore with their mockery, he preserved his patience, he deferred their esteem, and he who was unwilling to come down from the cross rose from the sepulcher.[5]

Little wonder, then, why the earth trembled on that first Easter; for it was an aftershock of Good Friday.

It has been a long Lent; I suspect we can all agree. And therefore if today, Easter, finds us a little haggard and a little bewildered, we are not to worry about this. If we are apprehensive or uncertain about how to celebrate under our present circumstances, I say again, do not worry about this. Even if you are fearful, I say not to worry.—Be like the earth: tremble, but then grow still. Because Saint Gregory was only too correct:

It was a greater thing to rise from the sepulcher than to come down from the cross, a greater thing to destroy death by rising than to preserve life by coming down.[6]

What is true for Christ is true of us; only, for the time being, we are still on the cross. Or have we forgotten that?

Dear friends, take courage today. You have permission. Be glad and rejoice—not in a way that is oblivious to human suffering; not in a way that is purely natural or sentimental; but truly. Today, we celebrate Easter; but we never leave the Cross. Take the advice of Cardinal Burke when he writes: ‘I urge you, therefore, not to give way to the lie of Satan who would convince you that, this year, you have nothing to celebrate during Holy Week.’[7] We do. The one to whom we belong died and is alive again. If we are faithful, the same gift is stored up for ourselves and for all those whom we love. Our life, though it comes with suffering, is nevertheless suffused with a promise—full and bright like the Paschal moon; shining like lightening and snow, like the angel’s garment upon the empty sepulcher.

Ultimately, there isn’t any cause for fear when the earth trembles and falls silent: it is simply what happens when Catholics worship their risen Savior.

 


[1] Not by accident that Terra tremuit is in the fourth mode, a mode that appears with some frequency in the Divine Office during Advent and Passiontide. The fourth mode has a sober, haunting character that renders it particularly expressive. In the present context, it might be contrasted with the bright and jubilant eighth mode Vidi Aquam. It is also worth noting that, with the exception of the Kyrie, the chants of the ordinary for Easter all in the fourth mode.

[2] Lk 2, 13-14.

[3] Mt 28, 2.

[4] Mt 27, 42.

[5] Sermon 21, in Forty Gospel Homilies: Gregory the Great, translated by Dom David Hurst, OSB (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1990), p 161-162; emphasis added. Cf Migne, PL 1169.

[6] Ibid, 162.

[7] Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, 5 April 2020, ‘Message for the Holiest Week of the Year,’ https://www.cardinalburke.com/presentations/holiest-week accessed 11 April 2020.

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