- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

(This is the 103rd installment of the UPI series of sermons. In his Easter homily, the Rev. Dr. Robert Imbelli, a Catholic priest of the archdiocese of New York, who teaches theology at Boston College, reflects on the intimate relation between the believer and the risen Christ).


This sermon is based on the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach.


In a few short years Ronald Rolheiser's book, "The Holy Longing" (Doubleday, 1999), has become a spiritual classic.

Rolheiser expresses the heart of the book in these words: "For Christians, Jesus Christ is the center of everything: our meaning, our hope, our self-understanding, our church lives, our theologies, our spiritualities. … After all, everything else is merely a branch. Jesus is the vine, the blood, the pulse, and the heart."

Jesus is this and more, because he is the living one. As the risen Lord himself proclaims in the very last writing of the New Testament: "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades" (Revelation 1: 17&18).

In the light of Christ's promise and presence Christians live and move and have their being.

The author of the Book of Revelation received his life-transforming vision on the Lord's Day, the day on which the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. The language of Latin countries continues to honor this day with the Lord's name: Domingo or Domenica, thereby preserving a trace of the sacred even in a secular world.

It is not the day of the physical sun, but the day of the son of righteousness, freed from the bonds of death — risen, as he said.

From the early centuries of the church, as believers began to ponder the inexhaustible significance of Christ's resurrection, they spoke of it, not as the first day of the week, but as the eighth day: the day of the new creation.

God's whole purpose in creation is now fulfilled, beyond all imagining, in the resurrection of Jesus. The human created in the image of God has been raised in God's own likeness.

Thus when Christians were able to embody their new spiritual vision in architectural forms, they often fashioned their baptistries in octagonal shape. It was only fitting that the place of Christian rebirth exhibit the eight-sided symbolism of new creation.

The words inscribed around the dome of the ancient baptistry of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome, declare: "Those reborn in these waters yearn for heaven's kingdom; here is the spring of life whose source is Christ's cross."

Hence, Easter joy not only celebrates Jesus's victory over sin and death. It does that and more. The liturgy of the Orthodox Church indeed exults that, by his resurrection, Christ "trampled death by his death." But it continues: "and he gave life to those who lay in the tomb."

For this reason the great icon of the Resurrection in the Orthodox tradition depicts the descent of the Lord to the nether world to set free our first parents, Adam and Eve, and lead them to glory. The risen Christ calls forth risen Christians.

The eighth day of the new creation has begun, but it is not completed. Those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus, as Paul teaches, "have been baptized into his death" and have begun, through Christ's resurrection, to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6: 3-4).

But their journey continues, marked by the ongoing struggle of flesh and spirit, old self and new. Thus Paul exhorts Christians to "celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5: 8).

The whole of Christian life is this ongoing commitment to appropriate more fully our baptismal conversion to the Lord, to allow his Spirit to inspire and guide our way.

The traditional practices of the church, such as prayer, fasting, confession, works of justice and peace are privileged means to realize, make real for ourselves and in ourselves, the grace and challenge of baptism and the new creation it inaugurates.

One practice that some find indispensable is that of spiritual guidance or direction. It is always a grace to discover a "soul friend," whose wisdom and experience can guide us in the way of Christ, help us "discern the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4: 1).

Clearly, most such spiritual guides are contemporaries who we can consult face to face. But, in the Spirit, we are also able to become contemporary with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, yet who continue to guide and inspire us.

For many, Augustine in his Confessions is such a guide, or Dante in his "Divine Comedy"; Teresa of Avila in her "Interior Castle," or Thomas Merton in his "Seven Storey Mountain."

But one whose spiritual integrity and influence extends beyond Christians to touch and inspire those of different faiths or even no explicit faith is Johann Sebastian Bach. In his sacred works Bach weds text and music into a transparent and transcendent whole.

Bach instructs us as he probes the depths of sin and suffering and ponders the price of our redemption. But his faith and song also uphold us, since they are ever sustained, as in a cantus firmus, by the presence of the risen Christ.

Pervading all Bach's sacred music is the intense and intimate relation between the believer and Christ, who is living Lord, loving bridegroom, unending joy, heart's desire.

Yet the musical depiction and celebration of this relationship appears utterly devoid of sentimentality. The depth of Bach's musical intelligence signals the awesome cost of redemption, while his chaste affection soars to the heights of ecstatic abandon.

Bach is the sublime evangelist of Easter: a Mary Magdalene at the summit of musical genius.

Bach embodies in his music and moves his hearers to embody the prayerful plea of the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, himself so sensitive to music's power. "Let Christ easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east."

And let all the people cry: "Amen. Alleluia!"

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