By Father Francis Xavier Weninger
As often as the Church, in commemoration of the glorious Resurrection, celebrates the yearly recurrence of the Paschal time, and entones the joyous Alleluia with her children, so often do we recall to mind those privileged souls who, the Gospel tells us, had the happiness of hearing the glad tidings: “Jesus, lives; He has arisen,” of listening to,of beholding the risen Jesus. This privilege was not limited to one or two; but was enjoyed by a number of the disciples, who believed and hoped in the Lord. Often, too, we go in spirit to the sepulcher with the holy women who went thither bearing ointments, and think of that bliss which filled their hearts when, from the angel of the Lord, they heard the welcome words: “He is arisen.” We think of Mary Magdalen, whose joy found utterance in the single word, as she knelt before her Lord, “Rabboni.”
We behold the wondering Apostles, when, on the evening of the same day, as they were assembled together “with closed doors,” their Master stood before them and pronounced the blessed words: “Pax vobis”–“Peace be unto you.”
O Mary, Mother most joyful, infuse into our hearts that bliss which filled your own upon that first happy Easter-morn, that we, like St. John, may experience its most wonderful effects for the salvation of our souls! I speak in the name of the newly-risen Jesus, for the greater honor and glory of God!
“He is risen; we have heard it even from the angels!” said the holy women, as they returned from the sepulcher. And as the Apostles heard the wondrous tale, two of their number immediately arose and hastened away; but the “dearly beloved Apostle,” St. John, in the fervor of his love, left St. Peter far behind, and, arriving first at the sepulcher, found the stone rolled away. St. Peter, however, was the first to enter the empty tomb. In him, therefore, is illustrated the Apostle of faith, while St. John typifies the disciple of love. In the divine economy, every thing is full of a deep, mysterious meaning, and herein we learn that faith must first penetrate the soul before the flame of divine love is enkindled in the heart. John followed Peter, and, as he placed his hand upon the winding-sheet, which, but the evening before he had wrapped about the sacred body of his Lord, a flood of joy rushed over his soul, and filled his heart with happiness, as he felt that Jesus had indeed arisen, that Jesus lived.
We will today consider the character of his holy Easter joy, and endeavor to understand how mighty and sanctifying it was rendered by the excessive ardor of his love for Christ. To clearly realize the intense joy of this saintly disciple, we must recall the feelings which agitated his heart while, for love of the crucified One, he stood beneath the cross, and think of those words of Holy Scripture: “According to the greatness of my sorrows your consolations gladdened my soul.” St. John stood at the foot of the cross wholly absorbed in compassion, adoration, gratitude, and resolution, according to the will of God, to follow Jesus unto death, through love; and, therefore, the Alleluia of the Easter joy, in which his heart rejoiced at the tomb of the arisen Jesus, was a participation in the sentiments of adoration, thanksgiving, and determination to be faithful to his calling as Apostle in proportion to his love for Christ.
The one who loves, so rejoices at the happiness of the beloved object that it would seem as if he were happier to see the joy of his friend than to feel his own. For example, what joy is experienced by a mother whose child has met with some great good or benefit, or has been unexpectedly saved from some impending danger! But of true friendship Holy Writ testifies that it is stronger than all other love–witness that of David and Jonathan.
But incomparably more tender was the friendship of St. John for his Saviour, and in the same measure his heart rejoiced at the certainty that He had burst the bonds of the grave and lived once more. This joy must have stirred his heart to its very depths, and moved him, in a much greater degree, than it affected St. Peter and the other Apostles, because he had beheld his Saviour in agony upon the cross, in suffering and in death. His loving heart was more sensitive than theirs.
The Alleluia of his Easter joy was the outburts of his overflowing friendship. It was, at the same time, one of adoration and thanksgiving for the consummation of the Redemption. Until that time the life and labors of the Lord had been, as it were, veiled in the obscurity of a mystical darkness; but by the Alleluia which came forth from the heart of Jesus as He rose from the tomb, all radiant with celestial light, this vail was rent, and that Easter morn forever dispersed the gloom. St. John, as he stood by the grave of the risen Jesus, realized more clearly than ever the whole order of salvation; and what an “Exultet” arose in his heart as he entoned it, in the same sense in which it is sung by the Church on Holy Saturday, to announce the joyful truth that Christ had risen. As often as we hear it, our souls are filled with the joy of this holy Easter day. St. John entoned it at the sepulcher, in the name of the whole human family. Even as the Church sends forth her most joyful chants, so sang his heart, overflowing with the joy of that Easter day: “O Ineffable Miracle of Grace! to forgive Thy servant his sins, Thou hast delivered up Thy Son!”
“Of what avail had it been for us to be born into the world had we not received the grace of redemption? O happy fault which gave us such a Deliverer!”
St. John also thanked God, as he had never done before, for the grace of the election which, in the kingdom of Christ, became his portion, recognizing more clearly than ever the privileges which he enjoyed before all men, even the Apostles, especially that one which gave him the care of Mary, the Immaculate Virgin, the Queen of heaven, the Mother of his Lord. How he rejoiced that he would have her example and her prayers! for it would be her duty to care for her adopted son as became a tender and loving mother. Well may St. Paul exclaim: “I chastise my body that I may not become a castaway.” No marvel was it that St. Peter trembled when he thought upon the judgment which would come after death; but St. John, the adopted son of Mary, was, through her, assured of his eternal salvation. And in relation to the duties of his apostleship in general, as he stood by the Saviour’s tomb, how greatly encouraged he felt!–how firmly he resolved to be a fruitful branch in the vineyard of the Lord!
What invigorates the soul in its apostolic calling is the strengthening power of faith, hope, and charity, united with an earnest love of our neighbor. These were precisely the sentiments which prevailed in the heart of St. John as he burst forth in that glorious Alleluia by the grave of Christ.
The certainty of the Resurrection, as St. Paul affirms, is a pledge of the whole treasure of faith, “If Christ had not risen again, as He said,” writes the Apostle of the nations, “we would have been miserably deceived and disappointed and left without a name.” But He did arise, and we possess our holy faith with its promises for time and eternity. We also shall arise and live with Him forever. But St. Paul was not at the sepulcher; he did not touch the sacred body of Christ, but the beloved disciple did. With what strong testimony for the truth of the Resurrection, therefore, could John announce the Gospel with the assertion that he had lived with the Redeemer on the most intimate terms of holy union; that he beheld Him when He breathed forth His last sigh upon the cross; and looked upon Him after He had risen from the dead. The sentiments of his heart were that of triumphant faith.
What invigorates a soul in the exercise of its apostolic calling is victorious hope. “The Lord, who calls me to this office, is also my strength, and will, at some future day, be my reward.” Who experienced this in a higher degree than St. John? To whom was more fully and more bountifully given the vivifying power of Christian hope than to him who was permitted, while still on earth, to pierce the golden vista of the celestial vault, and gaze upon the mysteries of heaven?
Finally, what urges the true Apostle on in his holy mission more than any other thing is love–the love of God and man. In these respects, St. John was, as you know, eminently called the disciple of love. His very Epistles, contained in Holy Writ, stand, and will remain forever, undying testimonials of this his apostolic love. This, dearly beloved in Christ, is the character of the Easter-day of St. John and of his Easter Alleluia; and these the conditions, to feel it re-echoed in our own hearts. Amen!
The glorious orb of day was still invisible to the expectant world in the early Easter-morn, when the earth trembled as if moved by some terrible convulsion of nature and an angel of the choir of the Powers, radiant and beautiful, hovered above the sepulcher wherein lay the Body of Christ, and descending rolled the stone away. Instantaneously the glorified soul approached, the Sacred Body was transfigured, and the Lord arose, body and soul, more brilliant than the sun, which now burst forth in all its splendor to pay fitting tribute to Him Who gave it light–Who came forth the Victor of all the powers of evil, the Conqueror of death and hell. Then were seen the millions of holy souls who, for four thousand years, had languished in the gloomy prison of Limbo, full of trust in the Lord, and waited until “patience had her perfect work.”
Adam and Eve, the venerable patriarchs and prophets, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, with legions of holy angels, surround the Redeemer, the Sun of justice, the Lord Who had risen in all the grandeur of His Majesty. Yet a little while and He will ascend from the Mount of Olives, penetrate the heavens, and take His place at the right hand of the Father, clothed with the glory which flows from His divinity to His humanity, and send throughout high heaven celestial light to intensify the bliss of the angels and saints therein. In other words, all that which causes heaven to be heaven, will be imparted in its full extent by Christ to all the blessed therein. Let us today, therefore, look up to Him as the Sun in the kingdom of eternal beatitude. Let us picture to ourselves the heavens opening to our wondering view, while strains of sweetest music fall on our raptured ear. It is the angels entoning their Easter hymn.
O Mary, Queen of heaven, enthroned at the side of thy divine Son, pray for us that we may one day see Him in His glory and share in His beatification forever! I speak in the holy name of Jesus, Who arose from the dead, to the greater honor and glory of God!
What causes heaven to be heaven is, first, its external magnificence. When God created the visible world, the angels burst forth in praise, as Holy Scripture says in the Book of Job, on beholding such a stream of divine power and wisdom and goodness. Even after the sin of our first parents it still presented a scene of beauty and grandeur, and it does so still.
What a wonderfully majestic spectacle is afforded by the “deep and dark blue ocean” as it seems blended with the brilliant skies which it reflects in its depths! What a glorious radiance is cast upon the changing waters by the setting sun as he sinks to rest–as he gilds the ever-tossing waves with tints of the most gorgeous hue. The world of stars which sparkle in the darkness of the night, form a most enchanting sight; how then would it be, were we permitted to contemplate those wonders of creation through that lofty arch of the heavens, so far above the stars, and view the essence of those objects of which we now only behold the exterior appearance?
But as a diamond, encircled by precious stones, emits rays of dazzling light from the center of a diadem, so does the glorified humanity of Christ shine forth amid the angels and saints, as the mystical Sun, compared to which, our sun is naught but a waning light. In this glorious radiance of the humanity of Christ, the Blessed eternally contemplate the crown of the creation, especially if we consider its transfiguration at the end of time.
As God the Father created the world by the Son, so do we contemplate in the light which is Christ, the ideal of the creation as it was conceived by the eternal Father, and consider it so in all its relations to the creation of grace through the same Jesus Christ. No one can so well explain the beauty of a work as the author thereof. Contemplative soul, look up to Christ, Who has arisen, and rejoice; soon shalt thou see Him in His glory.
What adds to the happiness of heaven is, secondly, the sight of the glorified world of spirits. The angels are the blossoms of the creation. The doctors of the Church with St. Bernardine of Sienna affirm that God created more angels than visible corporeal beings because He was Himself a Spirit. Those beautiful spirits are divided into nine choirs, each end higher than the other, as we are taught to believe by our holy faith, viz: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Thrones, Dominations, Powers, Virtues, Cherubim, and Seraphim. Each choir is higher, and therefore more beautiful than the other. We will one day behold in heaven the reason of this, but some of it we are already permitted to know.
For all their beatitude and glory, the angels are mediately indebted to Jesus. The holy Fathers assert that it was the confession and adoration of the Son of God, Who was to become man, into which mystery God permitted them to glance, which confirmed them forever in grace. And after Christ ascended into heaven the angels beheld, according to their ranks, the increase of glory which they were to receive from the glorified King of that celestial realm. This increase of glory, conferred separately on-every choir, like rays of light, is centered in the brilliant humanity of Christ, the King of every choir of them.
It is somewhat similar to the choirs of the Saints, which are different too, glorified by their individual graces. In heaven we will one day, through the grace of God, behold Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Holy Innocents, the Virgins, the Confessors, the Bishops, the Martyrs, and the Apostles of Christ. Each of these choirs is distinguished by a particular degree of glory. By whatever degrees of glory these choirs are distinguished, transfigured, and beatified, their different glories, with those of Mary herself, the Queen of the Saints, are as so many rays which are concentrated in Christ as the Sun.
What adds to the individual bliss enjoyed by the saints of God in heaven, is the fact that it is a reward conferred upon them for the holy lives which, in imitation of Christ, they led upon earth. But, as the Church at the Council of Trent taught, God crowns only the gifts of His grace whose Creator is Christ. The rays of all the merits of the saints unite therefore in Him, the author of grace.
What causes heaven to be heaven is the united enjoyment of all its joys through Christ our Lord. In that blissful home all will be united in love with Christ and with one another, as He is one with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Heaven is mine; all is mine through Jesus Christ! Such will one day be the outburst of joy of every sanctified soul.
What causes heaven to be heaven is the thought that it was already lost to us, and that Christ, the Redeemer, regained and re-opened it for all. Alleluia! What enhances its bliss since Christ ascended thither, is the character it possesses as the kingdom of triumph. Here, too, we have no reason to envy the angels, for upon one occasion only had they an opportunity of acquiring merit through Christ, when they confessed and adored the Son of God made man, and were thereby confirmed in grace. Although they are, as St. Paul calls them, ministering spirits, they but fulfill the will of God without increasing their happiness or merit. This is not the case with us children of men. Every breath, every thought, every desire, every work, through divine grace, may be an occasion of merit for us to increase our glory in heaven, which is, therefore, for us also the kingdom of triumph.
Life is, as Holy Writ testifies, a warfare against the enemies of salvation; but Christ conquered them, and we can do likewise through Him. We know not what joys of heaven would have awaited us if we had never sinned; but this much is certain, it would never have become what it is now, the kingdom of triumph, which character elevates its joy in an immeasurably great degree. In conclusion, beloved in Christ, “what is heaven?” Listen! It is God. “I myself,” says the Lord. “I am your infinite reward.” Yes! It is the beatific vision of God, an intimate union with Him who is all delight, beatitude, and love. All this we shall possess through Christ. The end and aim of the creation is God Himself, the glorification of His perfections in their exterior relations. We distinguish, in this regard, His omniscience, omnipotence, wisdom, mercy, longanimity, justice, truth, majesty,–His beauty, beatitude, and love. But all these divine attributes concentrate their most brilliant radiance in the work of Redemption, consummated by Christ. So, then, it is Christ through Whom we are permitted to contemplate God in the triumph of His perfections in heaven, and be there inseparably united with Him.
That is proved by His prayer as High Priest: “Father, I pray Thee, let them be one with Us, as We are one;” and again: “No one knoweth the Father save the Son, and those to whom the Son will reveal Him.” This is verified by Christ the Sun, in the kingdom of light, as it is written: “In Thy light we will see light.”
The various ways in which God so wonderfully conducts us to our destiny, in conjunction with the fate of all, will then decidedly prove that it is Christ to whom we are indebted for the possession of heaven. Therefore, one day, the tribute of praise will resound before His throne in heaven: “Worthy is the Lamb to receive divinity, adoration, gratitude: Who has redeemed us with His blood, and has made us as kings in His celestial realm.” St. John asserts: “The city of God needs no light, for Christ is her light.” He, the glorious Sun of Redemption and Salvation. Amen!