The Resurrection by French artist James Jacques Tissot. Tissot painted more than 300 paintings from the New Testament, a third of which are owned by the Brooklyn Museum, New York.
The Resurrection by French artist James Jacques Tissot. Tissot painted more than 300 paintings from the New Testament, a third of which are owned by the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Editor’s Note: Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., will celebrate Mass for the Easter Vigil, April 11, at 7 p.m. in St. Rose Church, Belmar. The Mass, which will be livestreamed without a congregation, can be viewed at TrentonMonitor.com, the Diocese’s YouTube channel and all other diocesan media outlets. 

Following is Bishop O'Connell's homily for the Easter Vigil:

Jesus of Nazareth lived most of his life in obscurity without much notoriety or attention paid to him. The Gospels tell us about his birth in Bethlehem and, later, about his appearance in the temple at age twelve. Other than that, the Gospels are largely silent about Jesus of Nazareth until he appears before John the Baptist in the Jordan and begins his public ministry around the age of thirty. Those hidden years of Jesus’ life leave everything to the imagination and to speculation. And while that is true of Jesus of Nazareth it is not true of the Messiah, the Christ. A thousand years or more of Old Testament writings and traditions kept the Messiah before their minds and in their hopes and expectations. 

We can trace the development of those writings and traditions tonight in the readings selected for the Easter Vigil: from the creation story and the call of Abraham in the book of Genesis, to the liberation of the chosen people of God, Israel, in the Red Sea, through the prophecies of Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekiel, salvation history is mapped out for us, leading us to the promised Messiah.

It is the New Testament, especially the Letters of St. Paul and the Gospels, that connect all that was planned and foretold about the Messiah with Jesus of Nazareth. And the events of Holy Week that we have remembered and celebrated together through the miracle of technology make that abundantly clear.

The week begins with Jesus triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and continues with his celebration of Passover with the twelve apostles. The week ends with his brutal crucifixion and death. The Church’s liturgy for Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday paint the picture in a most dramatic way and they lead us to Calvary and to Jesus’ tomb. Although Jesus was an “unknown” for most of his life, he certainly attracted enough attention in the last three years to lift people’s hopes that the Messiah had come and the Messiah was he! But now he was dead, put to death in a most humiliating and cruel way, dashing the hopes of his followers that he was anything but the Messiah. But that was not the end of the story.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us tonight that when the women came to the tomb in which Jesus was buried, the stone was rolled back; his body was not there; the tomb was empty, like Churches throughout our Diocese tonight. Perhaps that is the connection of faith we can make to tonight’s Gospel, the connection we can feel in the emptiness that surrounds us in our parishes for the first time in our memories. We need to be home, not with our parish communities of faith as on every other Easter night, separated as we are because of the ravages of a worldwide pandemic. The emptiness of our current experience brings the message home.

In the emptiness of the tomb that we share, we realize “He has been raised just as he said,” the message the women were told by the angel. And then they saw Jesus of Nazareth and realized that he was Jesus the Christ, the Messiah  that everything that had been said and predicted about him had been fulfilled, had come true. They remembered the prophecies of Holy Scripture as we did tonight; they remembered his words as we do tonight. And it brings us comfort, confidence and strength.

My sisters and brothers, the Lord Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. That is what we celebrate tonight. That is what joins us with Christians throughout the world. That is the heart of our faith  its life, its breath, its everything. There is no more significant human expression than faith in Jesus’ resurrection. He didn’t just die and come back to life. He was not revived or resuscitated. Jesus’ resurrection is about new life, transformed life, a completely different order of existence. He rose from the dead leaving death behind him. The tomb is empty. This is about glory and triumph. “Christ once raised from the dead shall never die again; death has no more power over him.” And the source of our joy tonight is that he offers the same triumph and glory to us who believe in him. That is the meaning of our baptism when we say we die in Christ only to rise in him, new, changed, different, filled with grace and light and life.

Easter is that moment in the history of the world when the world was changed forever: changed by an obscure Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died but who rose to new life, Jesus Christ the Messiah of God! His risen, new life is ours tonight and, because of this Easter night, is ours forever. What we are going through now can never take that away.