Employing characteristic lucidity and simplicity of speech, Pope Benedict XVI’s homilies over Easter offered the faithful plenty of thought-provoking and inspiring reflections.
Perhaps his most eloquent came during the highpoint of the solemnities, the Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, when the Holy Father gave a homily on the meaning of divine light and illumination.
“The darkness of the previous days is driven away the moment Jesus rises from the grave and himself becomes God’s pure light,” the Pope said. “With the resurrection of Jesus, light itself is created anew. He draws all of us after him into the new light of the Resurrection, and he conquers all darkness. He is God’s new day, new for all of us.”
“Christ,” he added, “takes you by the hand. From now on, you are held by him and walk with him into the light, into real life. For this reason, the early Church called baptism photismos — illumination.”
In contrast, the Holy Father explained that darkness “poses a real threat to mankind,” because, although man can see and investigate material things, his values are obscured. “If God and moral values, the difference between good and evil, remain in darkness, then all other ‘lights’ that put such incredible technical feats within our reach are not only progress, but also dangers that put us and the world at risk,” the Pope said.
By way of analogy, he noted that today’s cities are illuminated so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible.
“Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?” Benedict asked. “With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.”
The answer to this danger, the Holy Father added, is faith, “which reveals God’s light to us” and is “the true enlightenment, enabling God’s light to break into our world, opening our eyes to the true light.”
The Pope’s Easter homilies began on Palm Sunday — a time, he said, when Christians should offer praise, similar to those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, and thanksgiving, because this is when Jesus will renew “the greatest gift we could possibly imagine”: his life, his body and his blood, his love.
During the chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in St. Peter’s, the Pope issued a clear reminder of what it means to be a priest on a day that traditionally celebrates Christ’s institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. The priest, the Holy Father stressed, must have zeal for the salvation of souls, true obedience and a life given wholly to Christ.
To show how obedience rather than disobedience is the path to a true renewal of the Church, the Holy Father surprisingly drew attention to a group of around 300 dissenting Austrian priests who are directly challenging Church teachings on issues such as homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, clerical celibacy and the ordination of women.
It is highly unusual for the Pope to explicitly refer to such a group in a homily, yet he criticized them gently, quizzing them as to whether disobedience is a path of renewal for the Church. He answered by stressing that Jesus’ concern was for “true obedience, as opposed to human caprice.”
Authentic renewal of the Church and a “new fruitfulness,” he added, “requires the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.”
Benedict closed by saying that a priest “never belongs to himself” and that people “must sense our zeal, through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
During the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in St. John Lateran Basilica that evening, when he customarily washed the feet of 12 priests of Rome, the Pope explained in further detail the meaning of Holy Thursday, but this time with an emphasis on every person.
Holy Thursday is not only about the institution of the Eucharist, the Pope explained, but also “the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples.” After explaining Jesus’ own inner struggle to do God’s will and take on humanity’s sins, he contrasted the Passion with man’s usual concept of freedom.
Man’s belief that if he is free of God he is free to do his own will, “is the fundamental rebellion present throughout history and the fundamental lie which perverts life,” the Holy Father said.
“When human beings set themselves against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and, consequently, do not become free, but alienated from themselves,” he continued. “We are free only if we stand in the truth of our being, if we are united to God. Then we become truly ‘like God’ — not by resisting God, eliminating him or denying him.”
At the end of the Via Crucis at the Colosseum on Good Friday, the Pope appropriately expounded on the meaning of suffering, saying it is to the love of Christ that we must turn “when human turmoil and difficulties threaten the unity of our lives and our families.”
“The mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection inspires us to go on in hope,” the Pope said. “In that crucified Man who is the Son of God, even death itself takes on new meaning and purpose: It is redeemed and overcome; it becomes a passage to new life.”
Reflecting on the joy of Christ’s redemption during his address urbi et orbi (to Rome and to the world) on Easter Sunday, the Pope recalled the jubilation of Mary Magdalene and all the faithful who have journeyed through the desert of Lent and the sorrow of the Passion and then “raise the cry of victory: ‘He is risen! He is truly risen!’”
As is usual, the Holy Father used the address to highlight areas of conflict and suffering in the world. He called on the risen Christ to grant hope to the Middle East, particularly the people of Syria, where he implored an end to the bloodshed and “immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation.” He also asked Jesus to comfort the suffering in Africa, in particular the Horn of Africa, Nigeria, the Great Lakes Region and Sudan and South Sudan.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.