Dearest brothers and sisters,
May the Living Christ give you peace!
This year, the celebration of Easter will have as a backdrop a world traumatised by the spread of the new Coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of people are infected; tens of thousands are dead; many more will be victims before an effective vaccine can be developed. We cannot even begin to talk about the impact of this virus on local, regional and global economic life. Unemployment is rising rapidly; families already have to make clear decisions about which meals they can afford to eat and which they have to give up. And as if that were not enough, the virus is now spreading to countries in Africa and Asia where much of the health infrastructure is not sufficiently equipped to receive those who will fall seriously ill.
On this journey, the Risen Christ comes close to each one of us, enlightening us with his Word and rekindling in our hearts the fire of first love: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32). This text on the Resurrection serves as a compelling call to love, mercy and the closeness of our God in all moments of life, especially when human life itself is threatened. It is precisely at these times that the Lord Jesus does for us what he did for the two followers who were walking towards Emmaus with broken hearts, confused minds and shattered hopes. What they had witnessed in Jerusalem was too overwhelming to accept.
Without being recognised, Jesus reaches out to them on their journey, asking them to talk about what was worrying them. “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” (Lk 24:17). This question is more than just a request for information on current events. Jesus opens up a way of listening, thus allowing the two followers to focus on what really worried them: the darkness and despair that the horrible events of the crucifixion had brought into their lives. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (v. 18). The question posed by these two men touches the most profound sense of human solidarity, in addition to what could be said from a biblical and exegetical point of view. Not knowing can sometimes be equated with not wanting to know. Pope Francis calls it a culture of indifference. When one knows the truth about something, one is obliged to act in a very different way, to commit oneself to do what is necessary and right to respond to emerging needs and live a consistent life. This is the nature of conversion: it calls us to wake up and put order in our lives. It requires that we connect our lives with God’s story, and an essential part of this story is his permanent initiative to draw us to him, to save us, and to lead us on the path to the fullness of life.
Perhaps encouraged by this particular fellow traveller, those two men continued to explain what had happened in Jerusalem. They recounted how Jesus of Nazareth was going to lead them out of their mediocrity, their lack of clarity about who God is and what He means to those who seek Him with an open and humble heart. He would free them from slave-like dependence in which they lived because of the (foreign) Roman occupation, and the collaboration of those who cared only for their own personal interests. “How our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him” (Lk 24:20).
Even in the darkest moments of human despair, when it seemed that there was no longer any reason for hope, the men who made their way to Emmaus recognised a glimmer of light. They had a motive not to give in, not to allow their despair to consume them and to destroy the dream offered to them by the “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Lk 24:19). But they could not stop there. They wanted to convey something else to their mysterious companion on the journey: “Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive” (Lk 24:22-23). “That he was alive!” It is difficult to extinguish human hope and love, even in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Even in despair, the two disciples still kept the possibility open that God could do something new, that God had not abandoned them.
In the celebration of the Easter Vigil, there is another text that is very closely linked to this sense of fidelity and hope that God brings to humanity in the person of His beloved Son Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew portrays the figure of Mary Magdalene and another woman called Mary, who go to the tomb to mourn the death of the one they believed to be the promised Messiah. The earth trembled, the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb was rolled away, and an angel appeared and spoke to the two women: “Do not be afraid… He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said” (cf. Mt28:5). It is clear from the text that the angel’s words cause joy but also confusion in their hearts. Yet they leave “in haste”, running towards Jerusalem to deliver the message they have received to a hidden and frightened community. Just as happened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus himself meets the two women, greets them, allowing them to come closer and embrace his feet. Jesus says to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (28:10).
Many situations regularly highlight our fears because they confront us with unknown or uncertain circumstances. Returning to my opening theme, the coronavirus epidemic has aroused worry, anxiety and a sense of absolute helplessness in all of us. The images of the sick dying alone, because they cannot have any contact with their families, have shocked us. This Easter the biblical texts of the resurrection invite us to confront the harsh reality of the threat to human life: the life of Jesus taken in a vicious act of violence; the life of humanity now facing a virus capable of killing and harming millions of people on this small planet. We know that the virus is not the only threat humanity is facing, but it is now the most urgent. All the more reason to listen once again to the message of the angel and Jesus, who come to give us comfort at this difficult time for the whole human community.
Do not be afraid! Yes, truly the Risen Christ “makes all things new” (Rev 21:5) and therefore wants to renew our lives and the way we face any kind of threat. He, as Saint Bonaventure affirms, “having defeated the author of death, teaches us the ways of life” (The Tree of Life 34). He urges us to leave the tomb of our fears, of our prejudices, of our mediocrity; to transcend those situations that prevent us from living our vocation to the full, that is, to be resurrected, to be new men and women. I am reminded of the words of Pope Francis who exhorted us at the last General Chapter to “restore mutual trust so the world may see and believe, recognising that Jesus’ love heals wounds and renders all as one”. An appeal to strengthen our trust in the strength that flows from Easter.
The encounter with the Risen Christ, who frees us from the fears that paralyse us, urges us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our security and comfort, the sense of “it has always been so”. We are challenged to take the path of the Gospel, which is always new because it is “the Word of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). The encounter with the Risen One becomes mission and proclamation of new life. “Those who have encountered him, those who live as his friends and identify with his message, must inevitably speak of him and bring others his offer of new life: Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (Querida Amazonia 62).
So what should we proclaim? We must never tire of proclaiming with our voices and witnessing with our lives that Jesus Christ is alive and that with his Resurrection, he has conquered death. We must declare that death, hatred and fear do not have the last word, but the life of the Risen One is the definitive word on the story of humanity and our personal stories. We must cry out that “darkness has not conquered the light” (Jn 1:5), but it is the light of Easter that flickers over every night and radiates the beginning of the day without a sunset. God will never abandon those he created and destined for life, love and hope! The world, the Church and our fraternities need to hear this message: we are the bearers of these glad tidings, so we generously offer to all the good news that springs from Easter!
A happy and holy Easter to all!
Rome, 5 April 2020