I must confess, I am often not very reflective about my process of homily preparation. That is not to say that I don’t have things that I typically do, such as reading the scriptures prayerfully and reading some commentaries, both modern historical-critical ones as well as ancient and medieval ones. But ideas typically seem to come together I-know-not-how. This year for the Easter Vigil, however, I felt more consciously aware of my own homily preparation process and I offer the following as a spur to others to share their own thoughts on homily preparation.
I was very conscious of the fact that we were for the first time in my memory including Genesis 22—the binding of Isaac—in our readings for the Vigil and that people often find this story shocking and disturbing. So my initial thought was to somehow preach on Isaac as a type of Christ, focusing on the line, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” This has solid patristic precedent. But as I mulled it over I found 1) I was going to run the risk of turning the Easter Vigil into a seminar on patristic exegesis and 2) the passage in the scriptures that I really felt drawn to was not from the Genesis reading, but from the Gospel: ““The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.”
As I reflected further on what it was that drew me to this verse, I thought of how we attempt to set guards on God, to somehow contain God, as if we want to protect ourselves from God. And why wouldn’t we want to protect ourselves from the God who appears in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis? I reflected further on how the Easter Vigil, by virtue of its disturbing scriptures (not only the binding of Isaac, but also the slaughter of the Egyptian armies in Exodus, God’s repudiation of Israel in Ezekiel, Paul’s language of dying with Christ), its length, and its embarrassment of symbolic riches (fire, water, oil, bread and wine), seems almost by design to break down the guards of reasonableness and practicality and even morality that we set up, and open us up to a God who is much wilder and untamed than we feel comfortable with. And these guards must be broken down, must become like dead men if we are to experience the risen Christ.
So with that in mind, I set to drafting. Key to the process was a willingness to excise some of the pearls of wisdom I felt inclined to include. The Vigil is a long liturgy with many beautiful and ancient words; my words would only add so much before than began to take away. As Faulkner said (in an ironic echo of God’s command to Abraham), in writing you must be willing to kill your darlings. After a number of revisions the following is what resulted:
“The guards were shaken with fear…
and became like dead men.”
We humans spend a lot of time
trying to domesticate God,
trying to put God on a leash,
trying to bring God to heel
and train him not to make messes in the house.
We labor to contain God within the role
of a therapeutic remedy for our anxieties,
or a metaphysical principle for our pondering,
or a divine sanction for our political agenda,
whether of the right or of the left.
We entomb God in a manageable hour on Sunday
and place guards on him
to make sure that he doesn’t get out.
These guards bear many names:
we call them
“what is reasonable,”
“what is practical,”
“what is realistic,”
“what is traditional,”
“what is up-to-date and enlightened.”
But on this most holy of nights
these guards are shaken with fear
and become like dead men.
This night confronts us
with the God who cannot be contained
in our Sunday morning hour,
the God who refuses to be domesticated,
the God who is wild and free
and will not be harnessed to any of our agendas,
or brought to heel by what we consider
reasonable or practical.
This wild God takes my agenda and tears it to shreds:
commands Abraham to sacrifice his son,
destroys the army of the Egyptians in the sea,
pours out his fury on his chosen people,
scattering them among the nations.
This wild God freely acts in ways
beyond my capacity to imagine or hope:
takes chaos and makes a world,
takes slaves and makes them free,
takes death and makes it life.
The God of this night draws us into his wildness:
taking our flesh to enliven it
and embracing our death to defeat it,
becoming himself the sacrificed son
whose offering reconciles us to God,
drowning us in the waters of baptism
to raise us up to life again.
On this night of nights,
God has broken out of
the one-hour, Sunday-morning tomb
in which we have sought to enclose him,
and, frankly, he has made a mess of our house.
We may think that we want a God
who respects our agendas,
who acts in predicable and reasonable ways,
who obeys the guards whom we have posted,
but such a God could never be the God of Easter,
the God of life and freedom.
Such a God could only remain
trapped within the tomb of our expectations—
expectations that are so narrow,
so tailored to our idea of who we are
and how the world must be
and how a proper God should behave.
But the wild God of Easter rocks the earth
and breaks open the tomb.
The guards we have posted,
shaken with fear,
become like dead men,
and it becomes possible to imagine the world anew,
to hope for things that our agenda had excluded,
to ask questions that we had not dared ask before.
It is this wild, free, untamed God
who has broken into the lives
of our catechumen and our candidates,
perhaps unasked and unexpected,
making a mess of things in ways
that they may just now be beginning to suspect.
During our RCIA retreat at the beginning of Lent,
several of them commented on how much
Jesus’ words to his apostles in John’s Gospel—
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”—
resonated with their experience,
their sense of surprise that they, of all people,
should have been chosen by God,
should find themselves here, tonight,
teetering on the edge of something as crazy
as living life as a Catholic Christian,
that heritage of saints who are forgiven sinners,
that vast and unruly collection of characters,
that ancient family made ever new
by children born of water, oil, bread, and wine.
For us gathered here tonight,
our catechumen and candidates
are an icon of what can happen
if we let God off the leash,
if we let the fears
that we place as guards
at the entrance of the tomb
faint away before the wildness of the risen Christ.
They show us the power of the Spirit of Jesus,
that blows where it will
and blows away our therapeutic
and political agendas.
For us, too, the Spirit of the one
who raised Christ from the dead
has sent forth tremors
that have shaken with fear
the guards we have placed on our lives,
setting us free to live for God,
no longer slaves to sin and death.
For Christ is risen from the dead—
unleashed, wild, and free—
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tomb
bestowing new life.