Benedict XVI Homilies 10407
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Two years ago, at a slightly later hour than now, beloved Pope John Paul II departed this world for the house of the Father.
With this celebration, let us first of all renew our thanksgiving to God for having given him to us for well near 27 years as a father and reliable guide in the faith, a zealous Pastor and courageous prophet of hope, a tireless witness and passionate servant of God's love.
As we offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice in suffrage for his chosen soul we remember the unforgettable devotion with which he celebrated the Holy Mysteries and adored the Sacrament of the Altar, the centre of his life and of his untiring mission.
I want to express my gratitude to all of you who have wished to take part in this Holy Mass. I address a particular greeting to Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, imagining the sentiments that must be filling his heart at this moment.
I greet the other Cardinals, Bishops, priests and men and women Religious present; the pilgrims who have come here expressly from Poland; all the young people whom Pope John Paul II loved with a unique passion and the many members of the faithful from every part of Italy and the world who have gathered here in St Peter's Square for today's appointment.
The second anniversary of the departure of this beloved Pontiff is taking place in a particularly favourable context for recollection and prayer.
Yesterday, in fact, with Palm Sunday we entered Holy Week and the Liturgy makes us relive the last days of the Lord Jesus' earthly life.
Today, it takes us to Bethany, where, precisely "six days before the Passover", as the Evangelist John notes, Lazarus, Martha and Mary asked the Teacher to supper.
The Gospel account impresses an intense paschal atmosphere on our meditation: the supper at Bethany is a prelude to Jesus' death in the sign of his anointing by Mary, a homage she pays to the Teacher which he accepts as foretelling his burial (cf. Jn 12,7).
However, it is also an announcement of the Resurrection through the very presence of Lazarus restored to life, an eloquent witness of Christ's power over death.
Not only pregnant with Paschal significance, the narrative of the supper at Bethany is imbued with an anguishing resonance filled with love and devotion, a mist of joy and pain: festive joy at the visit of Jesus and his disciples, at the resurrection of Lazarus and at the Passover now at hand; deep sorrow because this Passover might be the last, as they were led to fear by the scheming of the Jews who desired the death of Jesus and by the threats to Lazarus whose death they were also planning.
One action in this Gospel passage is drawn to our attention, and which even now speaks to our hearts in a special way: Mary of Bethany, at a certain point, "took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair" (Jn 12,3). This is one of those details of Jesus' life which St John cherished among his dearest memories and which is charged with inexhaustible feeling.
He speaks of love for Christ, a superabundant, wondrous love like that "costly" ointment poured over his feet. This event symptomatically shocked Judas Iscariot: the logic of love clashed with the logic of profit.
For us, gathered in prayer in memory of my Venerable Predecessor, the gesture of the anointing of Mary of Bethany is full of spiritual echoes and suggestions. It evokes John Paul II's shining witness of love for Christ, unreserved and unstinting.
The "house", that is, the entire Church, "was filled with the "fragrance" of his love (cf. Jn 12,3).
Of course, we who were close to him benefited from it and are grateful to God, but even those who knew him from afar were able to enjoy it because Pope Wojty³a's love for Christ was so strong, so intense, we could say, that it overflowed in every region of the world.
Was not the esteem, respect and affection expressed to him at his death by believers and non-believers alike an eloquent witness of this?
St Augustine wrote, commenting on this passage of John's Gospel: ""The house was filled with the fragrance'. The world is filled with the fame of a good character: for a good character is like a sweet scent.... Through the good, the name of the Lord is honoured" (In Io. Evang. tr. 50, 7).
This is really true; the intense and fruitful pastoral ministry and, even more, the calvary of the agony and serene death of our beloved Pope showed the people of our time that Jesus Christ was truly his "all".
The fruitfulness of this witness, as we know, depended on the Cross. In Karol Wojty³a's life, the word "cross" was not merely a word. From his childhood, he was familiar with suffering and death. As priest and Bishop and especially as Supreme Pontiff, he took most seriously the Risen Christ's last call to Simon Peter on the shore of the Lake of Galilee: "Follow me... Follow me!" (Jn 21,19 Jn 21,22).
His whole life, particularly with the slow but implacable advance of the disease which gradually stripped him of everything, became an offering to Christ, a living proclamation of his passion in hope brimming with faith in the resurrection.
He lived his Pontificate in the sign of "prodigality", generously spending himself without reserve. What motivated him other than mystical love for Christ, for the One who, on 16 October 1978, had him called with the ceremonial words: "Magister adest et vocat te - the Teacher is here and is calling you"?
On 2 April 2005, the Teacher called him again, this time without intermediaries, in order to take him home to the house of the Father. And once again he promptly responded with his brave heart in a whisper: "Let me go to the Lord" (cf. S. Dziwisz, Una vita con Karol, p. 223).
He had been preparing for a long time for this last encounter with Jesus, as the various drafts of his Testament reveal.
During the long periods he spent in his private chapel he spoke to Jesus, abandoning himself totally to his will, and entrusted himself to Mary, repeating the Totus tuus. Like his Divine Teacher, he lived his agony in prayer. On the last day of his life, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, he asked that the Gospel of John be read to him.
With the help of those who were nursing him, he wanted to take part in all the daily prayers and in the Liturgy of the Hours, he wanted to do adoration and meditation. He died while he was praying. He truly fell asleep in the Lord.
"And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (Jn 12,3).
Let us return to this most evocative annotation by the Evangelist John. The Pope's sweet scent of faith, hope and charity filled his house, filled St Peter's Square, filled the Church and spread throughout the world.
What happened after his death was for believers an effect of that "fragrance" which reached everyone near and far and attracted them to a man whom God had gradually conformed to his Christ.
For this reason, we can apply to him the words of the first Song of the Servant of the Lord which we heard in the First Reading: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations..." (Is 42,1).
"Servant of God": this is what he was and this is what we in the Church call him now, while the process of his Beatification continues.
This morning, the diocesan investigation into his life, virtues and fame of sanctity was concluded. "Servant of God", a particularly appropriate title for him. The Lord called him to his service on the path of the priesthood and little by little unfolded before him ever broader horizons: from his own Diocese to the universal Church.
This dimension of universality reached its apex at the moment of his death, an event the whole world lived with a participation unprecedented in history.
Dear brothers and sisters, the Responsorial Psalm has placed words full of trust on our lips. In the Communion of Saints, we seem to hear them spoken aloud by our beloved John Paul II, who, from the Father's House, we are sure of it, never ceases to accompany the Church on her way: "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord!" (Ps 27,13-14 : 13-14).
Yes, let your heart take courage, dear brothers and sisters, and burn with hope! With this invitation in our hearts let us continue the Eucharistic Celebration, already looking at the light of the Resurrection of Christ that will shine out in the Easter Vigil after the dramatic darkness of Good Friday.
May the Totus tuus of the beloved Pontiff encourage us to follow him on the path of the gift of ourselves to Christ through the intercession of Mary, and may she herself, the Virgin Mary, obtain it for us while we entrust to her motherly hands this father, brother and friend of ours, that he may rest in God and rejoice in peace. Amen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Leo Tolstoi, the Russian writer, tells in a short story of a harsh sovereign who asked his priests and sages to show him God so that he might see him. The wise men were unable to satisfy his desire.
Then a shepherd, who was just coming in from the fields, volunteered to take on the task of the priests and sages. From him the king learned that his eyes were not good enough to see God. Then, however, he wanted to know at least what God does. "To be able to answer your question", the shepherd said to the king, "we must exchange our clothes".
Somewhat hesitant but impelled by curiosity about the information he was expecting, the king consented; he gave the shepherd his royal robes and had himself dressed in the simple clothes of the poor man.
Then came the answer: "This is what God does". Indeed, the Son of God, true God from true God, shed his divine splendour: "he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men; and being found in human form he humbled himself..., even unto death on a cross" (cf. Ph 2,6ff.).
God, as the Fathers say, worked the sacrum commercium, the sacred exchange: he took on what was ours, so that we might receive what was his and become similar to God.
With regard to what happens in Baptism, St Paul explicitly uses the image of clothing: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Ga 3,27). This is what is fulfilled in Baptism: we put on Christ, he gives us his garments and these are not something external. It means that we enter into an existential communion with him, that his being and our being merge, penetrate one another.
"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me", is how Paul himself describes the event of his Baptism in his Letter to the Galatians (Ga 2,20). Christ has put on our clothes: the pain and joy of being a man, hunger, thirst, weariness, our hopes and disappointments, our fear of death, all our apprehensions until death. And he has given to us his "garments".
What in the Letter to the Galatians Paul describes as a simple "fact" of Baptism - the gift of new being - he presents to us in the Letter to the Ephesians as an ongoing task: "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life... and [you must] put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin..." (Ep 4,22-26).
This theology of Baptism returns in a new way and with a new insistence in priestly Ordination.
Just as in Baptism an "exchange of clothing" is given, an exchanged destination, a new existential communion with Christ, so also in priesthood there is an exchange: in the administration of the sacraments, the priest now acts and speaks "in persona Christi". In the sacred mysteries, he does not represent himself and does not speak expressing himself, but speaks for the Other, for Christ.
Thus, in the Sacraments, he dramatically renders visible what being a priest means in general; what we have expressed with our "Adsum - I am ready", during our consecration to the priesthood: I am here so that you may make use of me. We put ourselves at the disposal of the One who "died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves..." (2Co 5,15). Putting ourselves at Christ's disposal means that we allow ourselves to be attracted within his "for all": in being with him we can truly be "for all".
In persona Christi: at the moment of priestly Ordination, the Church has also made this reality of "new clothes" visible and comprehensible to us externally through being clothed in liturgical vestments.
In this external gesture she wants to make the interior event visible to us, as well as our task which stems from it: putting on Christ; giving ourselves to him as he gave himself to us.
This event, the "putting on of Christ", is demonstrated again and again at every Holy Mass by the putting on of liturgical vestments. Vesting ourselves in them must be more than an external event: it means entering ever anew into the "yes" of our office - into that "no longer I" of Baptism which Ordination to the priesthood gives to us in a new way and at the same time asks of us.
The fact that we are standing at the altar clad in liturgical vestments must make it clearly visible to those present that we are there "in the person of an Other". Just as in the course of time priestly vestments developed, they are a profound symbolic expression of what the priesthood means.
I would therefore like to explain to you, dear Confreres, on this Holy Thursday, the essence of the priestly ministry, interpreting the liturgical vestments themselves, which are precisely intended to illustrate what "putting on Christ", what speaking and acting in persona Christi, mean.
Putting on priestly vestments was once accompanied by prayers that helped us understand better each single element of the priestly ministry.
Let us start with the amice. In the past - and in monastic orders still today - it was first placed on the head as a sort of hood, thus becoming a symbol of the discipline of the senses and of thought necessary for a proper celebration of Holy Mass. My thoughts must not wander here and there due to the anxieties and expectations of my daily life; my senses must not be attracted by what there, inside the church, might accidentally captivate the eyes and ears. My heart must open itself docilely to the Word of God and be recollected in the prayer of the Church, so that my thoughts may receive their orientation from the words of the proclamation and of prayer. And the gaze of my heart must be turned toward the Lord who is in our midst: this is what the ars celebrandi means: the proper way of celebrating.
If I am with the Lord, then, with my listening, speaking and acting, I will also draw people into communion with him.
The texts of the prayer expressed by the alb and the stole both move in the same direction. They call to mind the festive robes which the father gave to the prodigal son who had come home dirty, in rags.
When we approach the liturgy to act in the person of Christ, we all realize how distant we are from him; how much dirt there is in our lives. He alone can give us festive robes, can make us worthy to preside at his table, to be at his service.
Thus, the prayers also recall the words of Revelation, which say that it was not due to their own merit that the robes of the 144,000 elect were worthy of God. The Book of Revelation says that they had washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb and thus made them white and shining like light (cf. Ap 7,14).
When I was little, I used to ask myself about this: when one washes something in blood, it certainly does not become white! The answer is: the "Blood of the Lamb" is the love of the Crucified Christ. It is this love that makes our dirty clothes white, that makes our clouded spirit true and bright; that transforms us, despite all our shadows, into "light in the Lord".
By putting on the alb we must remind ourselves: he suffered for me, too. And it is only because his love is greater than all my sins that I can represent him and witness to his light.
But with the garment of light which the Lord gave us in Baptism and in a new way in priestly Ordination, we can also think of the wedding apparel which he tells us about in the parable of God's banquet.
In the homilies of Gregory the Great, I found in this regard a noteworthy reflection. Gregory distinguishes between Luke's version of the parable and Matthew's. He is convinced that the Lucan parable speaks of the eschatological marriage feast, whereas - in his opinion - the version handed down by Matthew anticipates this nuptial banquet in the liturgy and life of the Church. In Matthew, in fact, and only in Matthew, the king comes into the crowded room to see his guests. And here in this multitude he also finds a guest who was not wearing wedding clothes, who is then thrown outside into the darkness.
Then Gregory asks himself: "But what kind of clothes ought he to have been wearing? All those who are gathered in the Church have received the new garment of baptism and the faith; otherwise, they would not be in the Church. So what was it that was still lacking? What wedding clothes must there be in addition?"
The Pope responds: "the clothes of love". And unfortunately, among his guests to whom he had given new clothes, the white clothes of rebirth, the king found some who were not wearing the purple clothes of twofold love, for God and for neighbour.
"In what condition do we want to come to the feast in Heaven, if we are not wearing wedding clothes - that is, love, which alone can make us beautiful?", the Pope asks. A person without love is dark within. External shadows, of which the Gospel speaks, are only the reflection of the internal blindness of the heart (cf. Hom. 38, 8-13).
Now that we are preparing for the celebration of Holy Mass, we must ask ourselves whether we are wearing these clothes of love. Let us ask the Lord to keep all hostility away from our hearts, to remove from us every feeling of self-sufficiency and truly to clothe ourselves with the vestment of love, so that we may be luminous persons and not belong to darkness.
Lastly, one additional brief word on the chasuble. The traditional prayer when one puts on the chasuble sees it as representing the yoke of the Lord which is imposed upon us as priests. And it recalls the words of Jesus, who invites us to take his yoke upon us and to learn from him who is "gentle and lowly in heart" (Mt 11,29).
Taking the Lord's yoke upon us means first of all: learning from him. It means always being ready to go to his school. From him we must learn gentleness and meekness: the humility of God who shows himself in his being a man.
St Gregory of Nazianzus once asked himself why God wanted to become a man. The most important and for me the most moving part of his answer is: "God wanted to realize what obedience means to us and he wanted to measure everything on the basis of his own suffering, on the invention of his love for us. In this way, he himself can directly know what it is that we feel - what is asked of us, what indulgence we deserve - calculating our weakness on the basis of his suffering" (Orationes 30; Theological Talk IV, 6).
At times we would like to say to Jesus: Lord, your yoke is far from light. Indeed, it is tremendously heavy in this world. But then looking at the One who bore everything - who tried out on himself obedience, weakness, suffering, all the darkness -, then these complaints of ours fade. His yoke is that of loving with him. And the more we love him and with him become loving people, the lighter becomes his seemingly burdensome yoke.
Let us pray to him to help us become with him people who are loving, thereby to increasingly experience how beautiful it is to take up his yoke. Amen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the Reading from the Book of Exodus which we have just heard, the celebration of the Passover of Israel is described, just as in Mosaic Law it found its definitive form.
At the outset, it might have been a spring feast for nomads. For Israel, however, it was transformed into a commemorative feast of thanksgiving and, at the same time, hope.
The centre of the Passover meal, regulated by specific liturgical provisions, was the lamb as the symbol of Israel's redemption from slavery in Egypt.
For this reason the paschal haggada was an integral part of the Passover meal based on lamb: the narrative commemoration of the fact that it had been God himself who set Israel free by "stretching out his hand".
He, the mysterious and hidden God, had shown himself to be stronger than Pharaoh, in spite of all the power that Pharaoh could muster.
Israel was never to forget that God had personally taken the history of his People in hand and that this history was based permanently on communion with God. Israel must not forget God.
The words of the commemoration were surrounded by words of praise and thanksgiving taken from the Psalms. Thanking and blessing God reached its culmination in the berakah, which in Greek is eulogia or eucaristia: praising God becomes a blessing for those who bless him. The offering given to God comes back blessed to man.
All this built a bridge from the past to the present and toward the future: Israel had not yet been liberated. The nation was still suffering, like a small people, in the sphere of tension between the great powers.
Thus, remembering with gratitude God's past action became at the same time supplication and hope: Bring to completion what you have begun! Grant us freedom once and for all!
It was on the eve of his Passion that Jesus together with his disciples celebrated this meal with its multiple meanings. This is the context in which we must understand the new Passover which he has given to us in the Blessed Eucharist.
There is an apparent discrepancy in the Evangelists' accounts, between John's Gospel on the one hand, and what on the other Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us.
According to John, Jesus died on the Cross at the very moment when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. The death of Jesus and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.
However, this means that he must have died the day before Easter and could not, therefore, have celebrated the Passover meal in person - this, at any rate, is how it appears.
According to the three Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus was instead a Passover meal into whose traditional form he integrated the innovation of the gift of his Body and Blood.
This contradiction seemed unsolvable until a few years ago. The majority of exegetes were of the opinion that John was reluctant to tell us the true historical date of Jesus' death, but rather chose a symbolic date to highlight the deeper truth: Jesus is the new, true Lamb who poured out his Blood for us all.
In the meantime, the discovery of the [Dead Sea] Scrolls at Qumran has led us to a possible and convincing solution which, although it is not yet accepted by everyone, is a highly plausible hypothesis. We can now say that John's account is historically precise.
Jesus truly shed his blood on the eve of Easter at the time of the immolation of the lambs.
In all likelihood, however, he celebrated the Passover with his disciples in accordance with the Qumran calendar, hence, at least one day earlier; he celebrated it without a lamb, like the Qumran community which did not recognize Herod's temple and was waiting for the new temple.
Consequently, Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb - no, not without a lamb: instead of the lamb he gave himself, his Body and his Blood. Thus, he anticipated his death in a manner consistent with his words: "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (Jn 10,18).
At the time when he offered his Body and his Blood to the disciples, he was truly fulfilling this affirmation. He himself offered his own life. Only in this way did the ancient Passover acquire its true meaning.
In his Eucharistic catecheses, St John Chrysostom once wrote: Moses, what are you saying? Does the blood of a lamb purify men and women? Does it save them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify people, save people or have power over death? In fact, Chrysostom continues, the immolation of the lamb could be a merely symbolic act, hence, the expression of expectation and hope in One who could accomplish what the sacrifice of an animal was incapable of accomplishing.
The Lamb and Temple
Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb and without a temple; yet, not without a lamb and not without a temple. He himself was the awaited Lamb, the true Lamb, just as John the Baptist had foretold at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1,29).
And he himself was the true Temple, the living Temple where God dwells and where we can encounter God and worship him. His Blood, the love of the One who is both Son of God and true man, one of us, is the Blood that can save. His love, that love in which he gave himself freely for us, is what saves us. The nostalgic, in a certain sense, ineffectual gesture which was the sacrifice of an innocent and perfect lamb, found a response in the One who for our sake became at the same time Lamb and Temple.
Thus, the Cross was at the centre of the new Passover of Jesus. From it came the new gift brought by him, and so it lives on for ever in the Blessed Eucharist in which, down the ages, we can celebrate the new Passover with the Apostles.
From Christ's Cross comes the gift. "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord". He now offers it to us.
The paschal haggada, the commemoration of God's saving action, has become a memorial of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ - a memorial that does not simply recall the past but attracts us within the presence of Christ's love.
Thus, the berakah, Israel's prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, has become our Eucharistic celebration in which the Lord blesses our gifts - the bread and wine - to give himself in them.
Let us pray to the Lord that he will help us to understand this marvellous mystery ever more profoundly, to love it more and more, and in it, to love the Lord himself ever more.
Let us pray that he will increasingly draw us to himself with Holy Communion. Let us pray that he will help us not to keep our life for ourselves but to give it to him and thus to work with him so that people may find life: the true life which can only come from the One who himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
From ancient times the liturgy of Easter day has begun with the words: Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum – I arose, and am still with you; you have set your hand upon me. The liturgy sees these as the first words spoken by the Son to the Father after his resurrection, after his return from the night of death into the world of the living. The hand of the Father upheld him even on that night, and thus he could rise again.
These words are taken from Psalm 138, where originally they had a different meaning. That Psalm is a song of wonder at God’s omnipotence and omnipresence, a hymn of trust in the God who never allows us to fall from his hands. And his hands are good hands. The Psalmist imagines himself journeying to the farthest reaches of the cosmos – and what happens to him? “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Let only darkness cover me’…, even the darkness is not dark to you…; for darkness is as light with you” (Ps 138,8-12 :8-12).
On Easter day the Church tells us that Jesus Christ made that journey to the ends of the universe for our sake. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read that he descended to the depths of the earth, and that the one who descended is also the one who has risen far above the heavens, that he might fill all things (cf. Ep 4,9ff.). The vision of the Psalm thus became reality. In the impenetrable gloom of death Christ came like light – the night became as bright as day and the darkness became as light. And so the Church can rightly consider these words of thanksgiving and trust as words spoken by the Risen Lord to his Father: “Yes, I have journeyed to the uttermost depths of the earth, to the abyss of death, and brought them light; now I have risen and I am upheld for ever by your hands.” But these words of the Risen Christ to the Father have also become words which the Lord speaks to us: “I arose and now I am still with you,” he says to each of us. My hand upholds you. Wherever you may fall, you will always fall into my hands. I am present even at the door of death. Where no one can accompany you further, and where you can bring nothing, even there I am waiting for you, and for you I will change darkness into light.
These words of the Psalm, read as a dialogue between the Risen Christ and ourselves, also explain what takes place at Baptism. Baptism is more than a bath, a purification. It is more than becoming part of a community. It is a new birth. A new beginning in life. The passage of the Letter to the Romans which we have just read says, in words filled with mystery, that in Baptism we have been “grafted” onto Christ by likeness to his death. In Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ – he takes us unto himself, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but through him, with him and in him; so that we live with him and thus for others. In Baptism we surrender ourselves, we place our lives in his hands, and so we can say with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” If we offer ourselves in this way, if we accept, as it were, the death of our very selves, this means that the frontier between death and life is no longer absolute. On either side of death we are with Christ and so, from that moment forward, death is no longer a real boundary. Paul tells us this very clearly in his Letter to the Philippians: “For me to live is Christ. To be with him (by dying) is gain. Yet if I remain in this life, I can still labour fruitfully. And so I am hard pressed between these two things. To depart – by being executed – and to be with Christ; that is far better. But to remain in this life is more necessary on your account” (cf. Ph 1,21ff.). On both sides of the frontier of death, Paul is with Christ – there is no longer a real difference. Yes, it is true: “Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me” (Ps 138,5 ). To the Romans Paul wrote: “No one … lives to himself and no one dies to himself… Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rm 14,7ff.).
Dear candidates for Baptism, this is what is new about Baptism: our life now belongs to Christ, and no longer to ourselves. As a result we are never alone, even in death, but are always with the One who lives for ever. In Baptism, in the company of Christ, we have already made that cosmic journey to the very abyss of death. At his side and, indeed, drawn up in his love, we are freed from fear. He enfolds us and carries us wherever we may go – he who is Life itself.
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm Ps 23 : “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 138,12 12). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jn 2,2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings – with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.
But we may ask: what is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal – what exactly did Christ bring that was new? The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God’s memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. “Out of the depths I cry to you…” Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.
This is the joy of the Easter Vigil: we are free. In the resurrection of Jesus, love has been shown to be stronger than death, stronger than evil. Love made Christ descend, and love is also the power by which he ascends. The power by which he brings us with him. In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world’s darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him. On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light! In my own dark nights, be with me to bring me forth! Help me, help all of us, to descend with you into the darkness of all those people who are still waiting for you, who out of the depths cry unto you! Help us to bring them your light! Help us to say the “yes” of love, the love that makes us descend with you and, in so doing, also to rise with you. Amen!
Benedict XVI Homilies 10407