By: Rev. Paul Scalia
As on Palm Sunday, Psalm 118 occupies a prominent place on Easter Sunday. At the Easter Vigil, it falls after the Gloria, between the New Testament reading and the Gospel. Prime liturgical real estate, that. Likewise it holds the privilege of being the Psalm for Easter Sunday Mass. The Liturgy calls attention to verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” But verse 22 has great bearing on this feast as well:
The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
These words originally referred to the nation of Israel itself, and in particular to those returned from the Babylonian exile. Under fierce persecution, that small and weak nation rebuilt the Temple, the Lord’s dwelling. The great nations around little Israel scorned and destroyed her. She was the stone rejected by the builders, by those who hold the levers of power in the world. But by her return and rebuilding, she had now become the cornerstone – that is, the most significant nation, the foundation for God’s household.
Such was the original meaning. Our Lord, however, takes these already significant words and applies them to Himself. Days before His Passion, in a confrontation with the chief priests and Pharisees, He tells several parables to prophesy their loss of authority (cf. Mt 21). To convey this harsh lesson He uses verses familiar to them:
Did you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’? (Mt 21:42).
He even interprets the reference for them: “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit” (Mt 21:43). Bad enough that He speaks about upsetting their authority, He even co-opts their psalms in the process!
Good Friday reveals Jesus Christ is the stone rejected by the builders. Both the religious and the civil leaders – those who build society – rejected Him in the harshest way. More importantly, and independent of their intentions, He had become the rejected stone by becoming sin itself, assuming the guilt and shame of all sin and of every sin. Christ on the Cross is the rejected stone, unfit for any construction or dwelling.
Easter Sunday reveals Him, however, as the cornerstone, the foundation of God’s new creation. Christ risen from the dead is the pattern for all who are to rise in Him. The new life in which He rises is fit for every construction and establishes the Church as God’s dwelling place. “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11). On Him, on the basis of all He has accomplished and promised, we build lives of beauty and holiness.
But notice that His rejection is the principle of becoming the cornerstone. It is not simply that the builders rejected Him at first, then had a change of heart, and brought Him back as the cornerstone. Rather, his rejection was the condition for Him becoming the cornerstone. Through – not despite, but through – that rejection, through His dereliction on the Cross, He becomes the cornerstone. Or, to put it in other terms that Jesus Himself uses, His rejection was the seed falling to the earth and dying so as to bear fruit (Jn 12:24), the stone rejected so as to become the cornerstone. Easter is not about Christ’s life after death but about His new life through death.
So also for each of us: Our sins have made us rejected stones – broken, divided, unfit for any building or construction. But by entrusting to Him our sins – and indeed all our weaknesses and every wound – they become the occasion for forgiveness, grace and new life. They become, in a sense, the material for new construction. Again, it is not simply that once we were cut off from God by sin and now He has brought us back. It is, rather, that He has made our sins – our rejection – the very occasion and place of our experiencing His salvation and the means by which He makes us a new creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).
Hence the purpose of our 40 days now at an end: to acknowledge and experience that rejection that sin has caused. Only to the degree that we do so will He establish us as cornerstones. But….having done so, He then reveals His glory through us. It is not the supposedly perfect – the chief priests and Pharisees – that the Lord chooses as the stones of His new creation. It is, rather, those who have repented, who know themselves to be rejected stones: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). Only the repentant sinners are made cornerstones, foundations for God’s dwelling in the world.
This is His glory, the work that He alone can accomplish. On Easter, He alone takes us, rejected stones, and incorporates us into His dwelling place: “For by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes!”