One of my favourite films of all time is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the 2002 Canadian-American romantic comedy which ended up being the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time. The sequel came out this past week. The original film centres around Fotoula Portokalos, a 30-year-old Greek ‘old maid’, who works in her family’s restaurant but dreams of something more, and Ian Miller, a high-school English teacher from a white Anglo-Saxon protestant background. In one scene Toula explains to Ian that at Easter everyone will say to him Christos Anesti – Christ is risen – to which he should be ready to respond Alithos Anesti – He is risen indeed – ideally with an alleluia or two added.
Though nobody knows the exact origin of this practice, it is said to have started with Mary Magdalene who, as we heard in today’s Gospel, was first to see Christ’s empty tomb and to tell the world that Christ was risen. According to a tradition amongst Eastern Christians this tradition, the practice began when Mary Magdalene later presented the Roman Emperor Tiberius with an egg, greeting him with the words ‘Christ is risen!’ Tiberius answered by telling her that it was as impossible for a man to rise from the dead as it would be for the egg in her hand to turn red; as soon as he said this, the egg changed colour, becoming bright red…
As you might have guessed, this story is also the origin of our practice of giving eggs as gifts on Easter Sunday. But why did Mary Magdalene choose an egg as her symbol of Easter? Well, one obvious reason is that eggs represent new life, since it is from them that new birds emerge. But more than that, the egg symbolises new life breaking free from a sealed chamber; the shell then becomes Christ’s tomb, from which He has broken free today, Christ from which He has risen today, so that we too might break through the shell of our own failings and mortality, and rise with Christ into new life.
Thus the egg, and the Easter season more generally, come to represent two periods of time, which we must all face: the present, which we experience now, and the future, the time yet to come. The present time is often marked by great joys and excitement such as that we see on our children’s faces at the prospect of chocolate Easter eggs, or such as we may feel due to a family reunion today. But the present age can also be a time of trial and tribulation. Just this week, in a week that should be Holy Week, we have witnessed what Pope Francis called “the abominable cruelty” of the terror attacks in Brussels, killing over 30 people and leaving 200 more injured. Not so long before that we had the attacks on Paris and on many places in the Middle East. Going back a little further, only days after I became Archbishop of Sydney, we suffered a terrorist incident only a few hundred metres from this Cathedral. It brought very close to home the campaign of the Daesh or Islamic State organisation in Syria, Iraq and beyond to wipe out all trace of Christianity in that part of the world where Christ rose from the dead and to terrorize whole populations the world over. Only a few weeks ago, similar extremists in Yemen murdered four Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa nuns). All these events suggest our world is not as safe as it used to be.
Only a little more than a year after I became your pastor I was, as many of you know, struck down by a serious sickness called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. I was at one stage paralysed from the neck down in intensive care at St Vincent’s Hospital. I am now gradually recovering and I hope I will have learned much about the logic of sickness and recovery, of evil and redemption that all of us will experience at one time or another. Many others, I know, suffer worse with little hope of things getting better for them. Some are much longer trapped in the hospital ward or the grave. Some are not yet able to join us singing Alleluias this morning. Yet so radical is the power of Easter that it does eventually break down the walls even of the tomb. Easter comes to the sick, the depressed, the lonely, and the deceased today and brings new life where it surely cannot be found. Life visits Death this morning and Life says: ‘I shall be your death, O Death’. Today Life reigns in every hospital, in every broken heart, at every deathbed, and even every graveside.
The season of Lent, then, symbolises the present age, a time of preparation to meet the Lord, a time to make ourselves ready to enter into new life. Lent is not just something that happens each year for a few weeks: it is our entire life on earth, in which we are called always to change, to help those around us to change, to change for the better, that we might be ready for the eternal Easter that awaits us.
After Lent, the time of grief, of fasting, of preparation, we have Easter, the time of joy, of feasting, of celebration. It is at Easter that the egg is broken, that the walls of the tomb are smashed, that we break free into new life and new joy. This is why in the Paschal greeting we are inclined to say, not simply ‘Christ is risen’, but ‘Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!’ We cry alleluia because we have come to a time of praise, we have entered into new life, and so we rightly cry out with joy.
Like Lent, Easter is not simply an annual time of remembering some distant past event: no, Easter means entering eternal life with Christ – a life made possible by the Cross not just two thousand years ago but only two days ago. We celebrate Easter on earth to remind us that we should always be looking towards the eternal Easter in heaven.
So today, after Mass, feast! Even if, like me, you still have your personal trials find within yourself the grace to join the Church in saying Alleluia, Whoopee, for Easter is a time of joy, and the happiness that we feel with our loved ones or our Christian brothers and sisters a foretaste of the happiness awaiting us all in Christ. For as St. Teresa of Avila said: “When I fast, I fast, when I feast, I feast!”
This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Easter Sunday Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 27 March.