By: Fr. Scalia
The familiar hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is a loose translation of the Easter Sequence (Victimae paschali laudes). The hymn exhorts us, “Christians, haste your vows to pay.” Although the original Latin has nothing about “haste,” the translator’s poetic license hits the mark: Easter calls us to a certain swiftness and alacrity.
Indeed, everyone seems to be in a hurry in light of the Resurrection. On Easter Sunday Mary Magdalene runs back from the empty tomb to tell the Apostles. Then Peter and John run to see for themselves. The two disciples who encounter Jesus in Emmaus “set out at once” – back to Jerusalem to tell the rest. Later, at the Sea of Tiberias, when Peter learns that it is our Lord standing on the shore, he immediately jumps out of the boat and into the sea and hurries to the shore.
Running can indicate different things: fear, competition, or urgency. The story of Philippides, one of the most famous runners in history, sheds light on its meaning. He was the legendary messenger who ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. “Joy to you, we have won!” he said…and then died on the spot. This example from antiquity hints at the meaning of the Easter races: the Apostles and disciples learn of Christ’s victory and they race to share their joy.
But in the end Philippides can give only a hint. The Christian reality outpaces the pagan image. The joy that inspires the running of the Apostles and disciples is about victory, not over any earthly power, but over death itself. It is a spiritual alacrity for the risen Lord – both to see Him and to make Him known. The Apostles and disciples hasten to see for themselves and then to bring the news to others.
Of course, this swiftness at Easter simply calls our attention to what should be a constant in the Christian life. In St. Paul’s words, we are to “run so as to win” (1 Cor 9:25). Hebrews exhorts us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Heb 12:1).
This Easter alacrity – meant to be a staple in our lives – serves as the proper remedy for our spiritual torpor. The creature comforts we enjoy (in a manner surpassing any other time in history) make us sluggish to prayer, lethargic in our devotions. We might respond to God’s initiative…but not immediately, not with the swiftness that it deserves. And this languor is not neutral: if we do not run towards our Lord, we will be overrun by sin. So it is that most of our culture’s sins are really those of listlessness and sloth, of boredom with divine things, the refusal to stir ourselves to action for God. This spiritual somnolence becomes eventually a refusal of God’s action within us. As the late Judge Robert Bork famously put it, we are “slouching towards Gomorrah.”
Ultimately, we hasten towards the things we love. And that should worry us terribly, because we race after all the wrong things: entertainment, physical pleasure, money, promotion, etc. And since those things are ultimately passing, we find ourselves not running towards something but just running in circles.
The ability to run the race – and persevere in it – is not our own doing. It comes from the grace merited on the Cross and bestowed at the Resurrection. As St. Thomas observes, the gift of divine love “adds to natural love of God a certain quickness and joy.” The Prophet Jeremiah gets a sense of the swiftness the Lord desires when he receives the rebuke, “If running against men has wearied you, how will you race against horses?” (Jer 12:5) Clearly, God intends this swiftness for more than just the natural order.
We hasten toward the things we love. Let us pray, then, that His Easter grace perfects love within us – to rouse us from our worldly stupor and make us run in the ways of perfection.