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Diebus Saltem Dominicis: Easter Sunday – Christ our Pasch was sacrificed

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We have looked at the Epistle Reading for Easter Sunday in the past offerings of this column.  However, because of present developments in the modern Church, it bears both reviewing and extending.

As always, we need contexts.  I like to think of the contraption used during eye examinations, the one with various lenses that get clicked from setting to setting until everything becomes clear.  A first context is that we have finally come through the penitential season of Lent, through the dark waters to the shore which is Easter.  The way the sacred liturgy, especially of the Vetus Ordo, was stripped of elements until the Church was completely still and silent and dark, like Christ in His tomb, guides us in our own pursuit of spiritual resurrection and perfection.

Next, we have the context of the Roman Station, which is St. Mary Major.  The Vigil rites were at St. John Lateran.  Now, on the morning of the Resurrection we go – at least in our hearts and imaginations – to the first and perhaps greatest of churches in Christendom dedicated to the Mother of God.  It is fitting that we come to St. Mary Major on Easter morning.  There is a strong tradition that the first thing which the Risen Christ did was appear to His Mother.  If Mary played her perfect part in the Annunciation, when the Word became flesh, and at the foot of the Cross, where our redemption was finalized, then it is appropriate that she would play an intimate role in the Resurrection, the ultimate defeat of sin and death.  As St. Vincent Ferrer points out, in visiting His Mother first, Christ would also fulfill the Commandment to honor His mother.  Other saints have posited this first visit and it is reasonable to think this is what took place though there is no attestation to it in Scripture.  As Duns Scotus would put it, putting a bookend to the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s destined role in view of Christ’s saving mission: Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit.  What a consolation it would have been for Mary, who beheld her Son’s tortured Body on the Cross, to have Him come to her Risen and Glorious.

The next context to consider is the placement of the Epistle pericope (cutting of Scripture for liturgical reading).  We are in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  Corinth was a strongly pagan place and the Christians there were tempted to backslide and stray into pagan ways of thinking and behaving.  At first Paul corrects the doctrine of their faith.  Next he wades into their morals.  At this point, 1 Cor 5, Paul seems not only concerned, he seems angry.  Happy Easter.

In 1 Cor 5 Paul addresses a terrible scandal among the Corinthian Christians saying that it is commonly known (hólos akouétai).  Someone has committed incest with his father’s wife and, not only has the community not done anything about it, they “puffed up” (pephusioménoi), an image of leavened bread.  He tells them to expel this man from their community: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”  Indeed, this is the motive for all the Church’s censures, especially excommunication.  They are medicinal, intended to bring repentance and reconciliation.

It is in this context that we find our Easter reading!

Brethren: Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  (1 Cor 5:7-8 – RSV)

Let’s see more of this passage from 1 Cor 5.  We have to have a larger context in order to gain the implications of this reading and not merely remain on the surface: “Hey, the paschal lamb is mentioned… Easter, right?  Let’s use this as the reading!  Easter, right?”  Those who put the Mass forumularies together were more sophisticated than that.  Here’s 1 Cor 5: 1-13.  But the Mass reading is vv. 7-8… that’s it.

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? [READING – BRETHREN:] Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  [END READING]

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Quickly, some guy in the Christian community is shacked up with his father’s wife.  No one has done anything about his presence in the community.  He is clearly partaking of their activities and the Eucharist.  Paul directs that they, as a body, authoritatively – in fact with the authority of Christ through Paul who is their special overseer, expel the man from the community so that he will repent, correct himself, and return to the assembly, saved.

This all flows from the fact that Christ, the Paschal Lamb, was sacrificed for us.  The Latin says, “Pascha nostrum… our Pascha”.  In Greek we read:  “καὶ γὰρ τὸ πάσχα ἡμῶν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐτύθη Χριστός – for Christ our Pasch was sacrificed for us”.  That ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν (“hyper humon… for us”) wasn’t just once in history.  It is ongoing.  Christ was the Lamb slain for our sins.  He still is the Lamb for our sins.  Because of this Paul says “Cleanse out [ekkathárate – aorist imperative, “Ya’ll purge!”] the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.”  Be sinless.  Get rid of what is sinful, even people until they can be readmitted.

After Israel, the chosen People observed their Passover, they had a week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-17). They were to purge all physical leaven, yeast, from their houses. This wasn’t just about physical leaven.  It was about interior personal sins and also manifest public sins in the community.  Leaven, here, is sin and bad doctrine (cf. Gal 5:9). Just as Passover pushed the Jews to purge sin. Christ, our Passover Lamb, encourages us to purge sin (whether individually or as a group).

What must replace leaven, is “sincerity and truth” v. 7.  In Gal 5:22-23 the fruits of the Holy Spirit are given.  Hence, good examples replace bad examples.  Virtues expel vices and prompt more virtues.

Even on this Easter Sunday, we are given a serious spiritual message vital for the health of our souls and of the whole community of the Church.  If we tolerate certain sins – in this case clear sexual immorality – we appear to condone it and even bless it.  That cannot be.  It is directly contrary to Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians.  It is what the Church gave us for a reading for hundreds of years, knowing full well what would happen if we all just shut up about it.

The implications of this are manifold.  First, there are sins that are bad enough that they merit being driven out of the community until such a time as the behaviors or ideas are corrected.  This is excommunication, forbidding the reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as a stinging prompt to change. Excommunication is always medicinal.  It looks to the good of the individual and it protects the community from harm.  This isn’t a suggestion.  This isn’t a contradiction of “Judge not lest you be judged” in Matthew 7.   Paul specially calls for judgement on the part of the community, over which he still claims jurisdiction by Christ’s authority.

That last part about the community is important for our reading.  Paul uses the image of leaven, yeast, in bread.  Leaven is a symbol of sin.  Leaven gets into the dough and starts to puff it up.  Sin gets into the community through scandalous behavior which people tolerate, at first, and then imitate.  In v. 1, Paul says that the scandalous shack-up is being reported.  Word is getting around.  In a context which was still strongly pagan, toleration of such scandalous behavior could have dire consequences for the integrity of local Churches and of doctrine.

Just a little leaven in the dough, and the dough puffs up.  Just a little opening to sin is enough to ruin a community.

Happy Easter!

Seriously, this is an appropriate reading for Easter Sunday.  It is so appropriate that v. 7 appears several times during this Mass and then daily in the Easter Season.  “Pascha nostrum immolátus est Christus… Christ our Pasch was sacrificed” is in the Epistle, of course, and also the Gradual, and implicitly in the Sequence “Victimae Paschali” for “victim” points to sacrifice.  Also, the Easter Preface read every day has the phrase.

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