My dear People of God,
We are approaching Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ after going through the sorrowful passion leading to his death on the cross. During the Holy Week, we have been following Christ with our Mother Mary and reflecting on his suffering and death and the implications for our lives a followers of Jesus Christ. On Maundy Thursday, we go through the Chrism Mass and the Renewal of Priestly Promises. In the evening, we begin the Sacred Triduum, the three days of holy celebrations. We join the Lord in the Last Supper with the washing of the feet of the faithful as Jesus Christ washed the feet of the apostles inspiring his followers to do likewise. The Last Supper was the occasion of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Then on Good Friday, we follow Christ in the path of his suffering and death. We do the Stations of the Cross and then celebrate the Passion of the Lord which brings us to the Adoration of the Cross. Holy Saturday is a day of waiting “at the Lord’s tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his Passion and Death and on his descent into Hell [that is, underworld], and awaiting his Resurrection” (Roman Missal). In all, we follow Jesus Christ in his suffering death in order to benefit from his Resurrection.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God went through suffering. He knew that he would do so. He told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed but that he would be raised on the third day (see Matthew 16:21). His death and resurrection were always in his mind. After Jesus had driven out those who were selling things in the temple, the Jews intervened and asked him the sign that he would show them that he should act like he did. Jesus answered, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course he was referring to his body, and when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said about raising the Temple in three days (see John 2:19-22). St. Peter shows us how the suffering of Christ touches us: “Christ suffered for you and left an example for you to follow the way he took … He was bearing our faults in his own body on the cross, so that we might die to our faults and live for holiness; through his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24).
The Good News is that Jesus Christ who suffered and died rose again from death! The Resurrection of Jesus Christ was indeed a victory over sin and death. Sin and death came in as punishment coming from the sin of Adam and Eve: “Well then, it was through one man that sin came into the world, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned” (Romans 5:12). Adam and Eve sinned and God declared, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), as what every human being would get. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was without sin (see Hebrews 4:15) but he had to die in order to overcome death. St. Paul presented a detailed teaching about resurrection of the dead. According to him, “The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself received, was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures;” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). His death and resurrection are salutary.
Christ’s resurrection from the dead is our source of hope and faith. His resurrection has made the resurrection and therefore victory over death for human beings a possibility. St. Paul brought this out clearly: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you be saying that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ cannot have been raised either, and if Christ had not been raised, then our preaching is without substance, and so is your faith. What is more, we have proved to be false witnesses to God, for testifying against God that he raised Christ to life when he did not raise him – if it is true that the dead are not raised. For, if the dead are not raised, neither is Christ; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins. In addition, those who have fallen asleep in Christ are utterly lost. If t he hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
The fact is that Christ died and Christ rose again from the dead. Thus, he conquered death and gave humanity the ability to overcome death. St. Paul declared the resurrection of Christ as a fact: “In fact, however, Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep. As it was by one man that death came, so through one man has come the resurrection of the dead. Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a reality and a salvific reality. That is why Easter is the greatest solemnity in the Church. According to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, the Church celebrates the resurrection of Christ each week: “Once a week, on the day which she calls the Lord’s Day [Dies Dominica – Sunday, she keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection. She also celebrates it every year, together with his blessed passion, at Easter, that most solemn of all feats” (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 102). Easter celebration begins with the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil introduces a celebration that is filled with exultation, gladness and rejoicing: “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness. Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” This song called “Exultet” blows the trumpet of jubilation leading to the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The announcement goes with special intoning of Alleluia which the celebrant does thrice with the people repeating as the celebrant raises his voice by a step each time.
Easter celebration opens the joy of Christians at the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the greatest victory of Christ over sin and death. The celebration is filled with the joy and marked with Alleluia. The celebration which begins with Easter Vigil lasts eight good days called Octave of Easter. The Easter time continues to the Solemnity of Ascension of our Lord and ends with the Solemnity of Pentecost when the joyous season marked by Paschal candle comes to an end with the conclusion of the Mass: “Go forth, the Mass is ended, alleluia, alleluia” and the people reply: “Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia.” The Collect of the Easter Mass shows us the faith of the Church: “O God, who on this day, through your Only Begotten Son, have conquered death and unlocked for us the path to eternity, grant, we pray, that we who keep the solemnity of the Lord’s resurrection may, through the renewal brought by your Spirit, rise up in the light of life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” We celebrate at Easter the triumph over death and our hope for life everlasting.
Death is a reality facing every human being. The resurrection of the dead is there but only for those who believe in God through Jesus Christ. Everybody will die but only those who follow Christ and live with Christ will rise again. Concluding his teaching on the resurrection, St. Paul wrote, “And after this perishable nature has put on imperishability and this mortal nature has put on immortality, then will the words of scripture come true: Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin comes from the Law. Thank God, then, for giving us victory through Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Of course, not everybody has that victory over death. The victory over death applies to only those who “keep firm and immovable, always abounding in energy for the Lord’s work, being sure that in the Lord none of your labours is wasted” (1 Corinthians 15:58). People who believe in Christ and live and work as followers of Christ avoid sin and benefit from the victory won by Christ. That is life everlasting. That is why Christ came: He came so that those who believe in him might have life and have it in full (see John 10:10).
But what of others who do not believe in Jesus Christ and especially those who wallow in sin? The Law is there to deal with them. The Book of Revelation gives the indication: death will touch everybody and then everybody will face the judgement, “and the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved” (Revelation 20:12). The second and eternal death would be the lot of all who lived and died in sin: “The sea gave up all the dead who were in it; Death and Hades were emptied of the dead that were in them; and every one was judged as his deeds deserved.
Then Death and Hades were hurled into the burning lake. The burning lake is the second death; and anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake” (Revelation 20:13-15). The burning lake is the hell and hell is the second and eternal death. While the people who prove victorious will inherit life everlasting, the “legacy for cowards, for those who break their word, or worship obscenities, for murderers and the sexually immoral, and for sorcerers, worshippers of false gods or any other sort of liars, is the second death in the burning lake of sulphur” (Revelation 21:8). Indeed, :Blessed are those who will have washed their robes clean, so that they will have the right to feed on the tree of life and can come through the gates into the city [of Heaven]. Others must stay outside: dogs, fortune tellers, and the sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters, and everyone of false speech and false life” (Revelation 22: 14-15).
My sisters and brothers, I wish you all “Happy Easter”, not for you to have heavy and luxurious meals and entertainment but for you to enjoy the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death and confirm your decision to follow Christ, the Way, the Truth and Life in order to join him in Heaven! Easter is the occasion for Baptism. Through Baptism, we die to sin as St. Paul puts it: “We have died to sin; how could we go on living in it? You cannot have forgotten that all of us, when we were baptised into Christ Jesus, were baptised into his death. So by our baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glorious power, we too should begin living a new life. If we have been joined to him by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his; realising that our former self was crucified with him, so that the self which belonged to sin should be destroyed and we should be freed from the slavery of sin” (Romans 6:2-6). Happy Easter, my dear People of God!
Most Rev. Hilary Paul Odili Okeke
Bishop of Nnewi