“I Shall Not Die; I Shall Live” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Easter Sunday (March 31, 2024)

“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord”. So run the words of our responsorial psalm today, and they have an especially sweet resonance for me this year. A bare year ago I was preparing for the most serious surgery I had ever had in my life: open heart surgery to replace a leaking aortic heart valve. I came through that, thanks to the power of God, the skills of the surgeons and, especially, all your prayers. Every time I open my shirt, I see the long scar running down the centre of my chest and I thank God once again and declare that “I shall not die, but I shall live” at least for that moment anyway. Then of course right at the beginning of Advent, I came down with a bad bout of pneumonia, as I know quite a few did as well at the time. But again, God’s mighty right hand, prompt work by doctors and nurses, and, again, your prayers, were at hand for me, and I recovered in time to do some of the Christmas Masses. And, as I did so, I once again declared to myself: “I shall not die, I shall live” again, at least for that time. I am sure that each of you have had occasion to make that declaration yourself, in the face of sickness, bad news, relationship problems, job issues, etc. And, to cap it all, on the evening of Ash Wednesday, fire broke out in the steeple of St Philip’s. But again, no-one was injured, the fire crew did an outstanding job containing the fire to the steeple, so the main body of the church was pretty well unscathed, and we were able to return to holding our services there, and we know the steeple and cross will be rebuilt.  And so, once again, we are able to declare “We shall not die, we shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord”.

To live a “resurrection” life, as we are called to do by our readings this weekend is to know that every single moment of every single day, we are held in the arms of a loving, saving God. It is to be able to say, in the words of Psalm 4: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety”.  I don’t know how those who have no faith do it, honestly I don’t. To have only oneself to hold one up, to have to depend on finite, limited, fickle humanity to save oneself, that weight of responsibility would oppress me with a continued anxiety and dread. How much better, how much more comforting, to be able to repeat in faith these words of St Peter in his first letter: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares about you (holds you up, sustains you)” (1 Peter 5: 6-7). 

And what about those who, in fact, have died, in fact, have died this week of weeks, Holy Week? 

That happened this year, with the passing of Doris Calagoure , and it has happened to someone, somewhere in all previous years. I mentioned my good friend, Fr Brian Hennessey who passed away during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, on Holy Thursday evening, five years. Don’t these kinds of sad moments, even of tragedy, show up our proud declarations as meaningless? People do die, all the time, no one gets to live forever. Isn’t it best to just accept that sad reality and try to get on with one’s life as best one can for the brief time we, have it?

Well, no, not for people of faith, of resurrection faith. One of the members of the community of Madonna House, in Combermere , received a diagnosis of cancer and, in distress, went to the founder of that community, Catherine Doherty. Catherine told her with a smile: “Be happy! You are still alive today. And maybe God will heal you.” The person with the cancer was somewhat taken aback, this wasn’t the response she was expecting. And she stammered out: “But supposing God doesn’t heal me. And I die.” And Catherine Doherty responded right back at her: “Then you can be even more happy. For you are going to be with God and live with him forever.” I don’t know what happened to that community member after that, whether she lived or she died. But I can tell you, that, in either event, she could declare “I shall not die, I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord”.

 Because that is what it means to have a resurrection life and a resurrection faith. To know and to believe that Jesus Christ has conquered death, has risen into new life, and imparted to us the grace of eternal life through our baptism and confirmation, that is what separates believers from non-believers. And that distinction between faith and no faith is, I submit to you, brothers and sisters, the most important distinction of all, of far more importance than that between male and female, young and old, rich and poor, first world and second or third world. It is why I can have something to say to those attending a funeral in the midst of their tears and desolation and grief, something of hope to hold onto in faith. “Your brother will rise again” said Jesus to Martha in John’s gospel, on the occasion of Lazarus death, to which she replied “I know he will rise again, at the resurrection on the last day”. And Jesus then spoke to her these marvelous, thrilling words “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me, even though they die will live forever , and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” And then crucially, he says to her: “Do you believe this” to which Martha replies: “Yes, Lord , I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world” (John 11: 17-27). 

I usually choose that gospel reading at funerals, because it gives me the impetus to point at the coffin or urn, and say, “That is going to be me one day, this I know” and then I point to each person in the church “And that is going to be each one of you also. And do you know what happens to you then> Have you resolved the great issues of life and death, of heaven and hell. If not, I urge you, for God’s sake, for the sake of your beloved deceased, and for your sake, to get them resolved now.” Oh, I have them squirming, I know, because they cannot avoid the question with the evidence of mortality all too real before them. Just as you and I cannot avoid the question forever, either, brothers and sisters, when faced with serious surgery, or a tragic diagnosis, with the loss of a loved one, with any bad news. Do I believe, do you believe, that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, and that those who die believing in him, will live forever with him? Do you believe, in the words of our second reading today, that your real life, your resurrection life, is “hidden with Christ in God, and that “when Christ who is your life is revealed “at the resurrection on the last day, “then you also will be revealed with him in glory”? Just imagine that brothers and sisters, we will be revealed, in the sight of all those who mocked and rejected our resurrection faith in Jesus, we will be revealed in all our glory. Won’t that be a sight to behold? “I shall not die; I shall live and declare the deeds of the Lord.”