When we were toddlers, our fathers clutched us in their big hands and tossed us upwards so that we nearly touched the ceiling. They let us go for that exhilarating, frightening fraction of a second and then quickly caught us while our faces still registered the playful terror we had experienced. Without being able to name it, we knew then the reality of death and the grace of salvation. We have lived with that awareness all the days of our lives. Of course, we made peace with our fragility, our mortality, to the extent that most of the time we’ve not been conscious of it; we have shoved it back into the remotest recesses of our minds. We make our daily choices, good and bad, as if we were here to stay or as if, at least, we can for a long time enjoy what we build or acquire. Occasionally we are reminded that Daddy rescued us from that mortal enemy that he so bravely teased and tempted. We know it has always been there, lurking, waiting, never satisfied, and that it is there now.
But today we celebrate! It is not a last meal we partake of, like doomed prisoners granted a final fling. We celebrate a triumph staggering in its significance. No mere hope or wish has called us here; only a fact of faith can justify an assembly like this one: a man has faced death uniquely and has conquered it. He has robbed it of its power. He has rendered it forever incapable of claiming us. Jesus has died. Jesus is risen. Jesus will come again.
In thousands of parishes around the world adults who have faithfully prepared for entrance into the church were baptized at the vigil liturgy last night. The abbreviated pouring of water over their heads took the place of the total immersion that once was practiced and still is in many Catholic and other Christian churches. The candidates’ going down into water that can kill is an anticipation of death, an acknowledgment of the present reality of death and a personal encounter with it. The baptized dare to do that only because they know that Jesus has been there before us, has been to the realm of death and has defeated the enemy. Our going there is not a taunt or a flirtation; it’s not even a boast. It is a claim that is meant to set the direction of our entire earthly life: death has no lasting power over us. We are to live freely, joyfully, confidently, with our hearts turned always toward the life that awaits us in death, even as we invest enthusiastically in the present world, God’s gift to us now.
So what if there really is a God? And what if God is love? And what if love simply had to satisfy this most fundamental yearning of ours — the appetite for life itself? And what if God’s presence among us became so obvious, so recognized and acknowledged in this man Jesus that we could somehow participate in our own rescue? What if through Jesus God lived our life and died our death and gave new meaning, even a new identity to both? Wouldn’t that be something??