‘Christ my hope has arisen’

Father John A. Kiley

In Easter Sunday’s first reading, St. Peter is resolved that Jesus Christ was a good man. “He went about doing good,” the head of the apostolic band insists, “healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:38).” St. Peter knew first hand of Christ’s benevolence. He was an eye-witness of Jesus changing water into wine to spare a young couple’s embarrassment. Along with James and John, Peter saw the raising Jairus’ daughter. He helped haul ashore from his own boat the miraculously large number of fish. Peter’s own mother-in-law was the recipient of Jesus’ miraculous touch. He was awe-struck when the storm at sea was calmed. An astonished Peter discovered the fish with a coin in its mouth and he also observed the withered fig tree. And of course it was St. Peter’s rash act of severing a servant’s ear that was selflessly corrected by the just arrested Jesus, his last public miracle.
While awed by Jesus’ compassion and thoughtfulness, St. Peter was rightly disheartened by Jesus’ wretched death. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:40).” That Jesus died crucified on the wood of the cross on Calvary’s hill was certainly common knowledge by the time St. Peter and the other apostles began their public preaching. Yet St. Peter chooses to emphasize the horror of his Master’s death by comparing it to a public lynching. Public execution after two contrived trials was bad enough. But St. Peter wants to emphasize the meanness and cruelty of Jesus’ final hour so he attributes Christ’s demise to the madness of a mob, whisking away their victim, stringing him up amid revelry, and leaving him in twisted horror to choke out his last breath. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”
St. Paul, in the gentler words of Easter’s second reading, makes the same charge. “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed (1Cor.5:7).” Yes Christ, too, like the Temple’s ill-stared flocks has been put to death, slaughtered on behalf of wayward mankind. Crucified on Calvary, hanged from a lonesome tree, butchered like a ritual animal – there is no pleasant way to recall the death of Christ. It was nasty.
Yet in spite of these weighty reminiscences, the Christian believer on this Easter Sunday can find genuine hope. In the words of Blessed Juliana of Norwich, a medieval recluse, “The worst has happened and has been repaired.” The faithful have indeed witnessed this past holy week that the worst has indeed happened. The very Son of God has been crucified, sacrificed, “hanged on a tree.” What greater evil could be perpetrated than the bitter rejection of God’s Eternal Word who entered into history to atone in his own person for the sinful ways of mankind? Yet in the midst of this tragic event, this Easter Sunday’s Gospel passage affords much hope; Blessed Juliana’s repair work has commenced: “On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb (Jn.20:1).” Yes, the stone resting ajar was the first sign of restoration, renewal, and repair for the early Christian community. After all, as St. John observes at the conclusion of the Easter Gospel, “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead (Jn.20:9).”
So the worst has indeed happened: Christ was hanged on a tree. Yet the evil of Good Friday has happily been repaired. The chief apostle on that Easter morning saw the first evidence of a restoration of right living, a renewal of personal integrity and, most of all, a return to Divine reverence: “When Simon Peter arrived…he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place (Jn.20:8).” These first indications, these tiny hints, that his Master had genuinely resurrected, truly return from the dead, certainly gladdened Peter’s heart and fortified him to begin the long process of continuing Jesus’ work of “going about doing good.”
Easter is one of those few liturgical solemnities that preserves a thousand year old hymn celebrating the theme of the day. The Easter sequence, “Victimae Paschali Laudes,” is attributed to Wipo of Burgundy (d.1048). This medieval chant tells the Easter story of death and life locked in a struggle, by which Christ, the Paschal Victim, victorious over death, reconciles humanity to the Father. The chant highlights the story of Mary Magdalene, who first finds Christ’s empty tomb and then discovers the clothes which once covered his head and limbs. Mary happily proclaims “Christ my hope has arisen; to Galilee he goes before you.” Christ’s resurrection was the first happy step in repairing the evil of Calvary; the continuing spread of the Gospel, from Galilee to the ends of the earth, is now the Church’s enduring task.