HOMILY OF CARD. JAMES FRANCIS STAFFORD
American College Chapel
Surrounded by darkness we wait and listen. It is our Easter Vigil. Contemporaneous with the vigil, peoples in New York, Dublin, Paris, London and Tokyo are celebrating the centennial of the birth of a man who wrote what is arguably the most influential play of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett. His birth-date in Ireland on April 13th, 1906, marked his identity forever, for it was a Good Friday. Like so many of his generation, although baptized into Christ as a child, Beckett became an atheist. However, he remained a Christ-haunted man until his death in 1989.
Beckett wrote about waiting. In fact, his Waiting for Godot is among the century’s most famous plays; it explores the uniquely modern boredom of life-long waiting in vain. He was inspired by the painting of Caspar-David Friedrick’s Two Men Contemplating the Moonrise still on view in Berlin’s Schloss Charlottenburg.
Beckett’s play contains useful insights for 21st century seminarians. Among other things, he shares with St. Mark the subtle magnetism of a literary reserve. The first evangelist surprisingly ends his Gospel with the women standing within Jesus’s empty tomb and being seized with “trembling and astonishment.....They said nothing to any one, for they were afraid;”. Mark’s final punctuation is equally reserved - a semi-colon.
Like St. Mark’s ending and indeed like his entire Gospel, Beckett resisted the demands of a crude optimism. Having participated in the II World War and then experienced the Holocaust through photos and films, he saw our condition as many others do. Humans are divided from themselves. While enduring the random cruelty of existence, they do not understand it and are condemned to live it. For him the human body is disembodied, broken, imprisoned, isolated, and absent. His view of the the body is far from seeing it endowed with a Eucharistic dignity. His pervasive nihilism is rooted in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger, the high fathers of postmodernism.
In his Waiting for Godot the following is a typical dialogue between two tramps on a country road. Standing and peering beneath a leafless tree and a full moon, Estragon asks: “Do you see anything coming?” Vladimir responds, “No.” They resume their vigil in a state of forgetfulness and hopelessness. Beckett means their silence to be metaphysically unbounded.
Dear Seminarians , you are waiting in this Easter Vigil. Your contemporaries in the 21st century in the Western world, in Japan and elsewhere will frequently ask you in the future, “During your waiting, your annual vigil, do you ever see anything coming?” Tonight I anticipate their question and ask you, “What are you waiting to see or hear? Why do you wait long hours in the night? Are you expecting something? Whom are you anticipating beneath the first full moon of Spring?”
These questions or their equivalent are everywhere confronting Christians. I will attempt some answers. Emphatically I insist that we are not waiting for Godot. Our watch cannot end by simply affirming the aesthetics of the staging or such like. You and I await for Someone in this vigil. We await in faith the coming of the Spirit of the Father and the Son. It is within the drama of waiting that God’s true glory, truth and goodness will be disclosed to us. While it was still dark the Spirit of holiness first revealed the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Jn. 20: 1; Rom. 1: 4). The risen Jesus our Lord is the final realization of God’s justification of creation. “It was reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom 4: 22-25). So unlike Beckett, we must jettison the burden of the ennui of postmodern adults and enter fully into the drama of awaiting in faith the event of divine freedom.
Our faith teaches that the Holy Spirit himself is the glorification of the love between the Father and Son. The Holy Spirit alone can bring about during this night-vigil our glorification and the glorification of the world. For the Spirit is the Love-Person in the Trinitarian God. But only a childlike person is open enough to discover the loving tenderness of God’s Spirit. He was first revealed in the incomprehensible distance of the Son’s abandonment by the Father and its abolition by the Son’s return to the Father. It was the love of the Holy Spirit who brought about both the Trinitarian distancing and its abolition.
The Spirit of Truth alone can bring those within who now stand outside waiting. When we are brought inside the truth of the Spirit by faith, we necessarily become participants in an absolutely new, eschatological event. During this night-vigil we pray that our community may realize the petition of Jesus to his Father, “Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world”. (Jn. 17: 24). Jesus’s “I desire” is uttered within a prayer. This prayer does not directly concern his own glorification, but rather the participation of his disciples, whom the Father has given him, in the glory which his Father has given him before time began. Finally, we should pray for faith tonight that the Spirit may teach us that Jesus’s vicarious death has not alienated us from ourselves but relieved us of a burden that was foreign to us. “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves” (2 Cor. 5: 15).
We celebrate the night in song. In the Exsultet the deacon reminded us four times that “This is the night....” “The most blessed of nights...” “The power of this night dispels all evil....” St. John of the Cross describes the night as noche oscura; for him ‘night’ is an expression of the divine transcendence and of faith. Charles Peguy’s ‘night’ is God’s dark-eyed daughter enshrouded in a great mantle; she is God’s loveliest creation. Night is the creature of the greatest hope. Children know it as God’s young Hope. For Peguy night is finally the calming, restoring, enveloping, nourishing, soothing veil that descended upon the dreadful day-light drama of Good Friday. It was the night when God withdrew from the terrible day for it was the day in which the Father heard the cry of his Son on the Cross which will never fade.
But in the third millennium we cannot escape from the other night, the night of the two men in Waiting for Godot. It is the night all postmoderns are familiar with. It is a night of slavery to boredom in which life is seen as short and brutal, mostly characterized by disarray, pain and unhappiness. It is the night in which “The Lessness” of life is advanced as beauty. Beckett writes that life in such a night is like “a light which comes upon a pile of garbage; one hears the cry of a baby; the light goes out.” Drama is absent from such a life.
Last Saturday night in Split, Croatia I heard of a postmodern miracle in the night. It took place in a totalitarian prison. Before his imprisonment during the 1990's Balkans war a young Croat journalist had been an atheist. While in prison, he found Christ. Shortly thereafter he was murdered by the Serb government. In a posthumously published play he revealed that while awaiting death , he found Christ. His concession fidei was short and dramatic, ”My sense is that life is always dying into Christ.”
The promise of our pascal-night vigil is the same: the triumph of our faith and God’s love over death. To welcome Easter love requires a childlike poverty. The child is naturally open to the mystery of love. But he grasps love only after he knows that he has been grasped by it. So in the darkness of this Easter Vigil, we call upon the Spirit of holiness to make us one with the filial poverty of Jesus. The Son sought only the honor and glory of his Father, not his own. He allowed himself to be robbed of everything in utter obedience. His utterly child-like obedience is the exact expression of the divine fullness, which does not consist in ‘having’ but of ‘being-given’. The pattern is the same for us, his disciples. “Every perfect gift is from above” (James 1: 17). We await the Spirit. He alone instructs us through the paschal mystery that “gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to bear fruit” (Meister Eckhart).
J. Francis Cardinal Stafford