O Happy Fault: An Easter Homily by Archbishop DiNoia

April 1, 2013

The following homily was preached by Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, OP, at the Dominican House of Studies for the Easter Vigil, 2013.

The Descent into Limbo from the scavi at San Clemente, Rome
The Descent into Limbo from the scavi at San Clemente, Rome
Brothers and sisters in Christ.   “O happy fault. O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.”   Thus sings the soaring anthem the Exsultet in this solemn Easter Vigil tonight. But we must confess that these two words—“happy” and “fault”—do not seem to belong together.  To what depths of faith does their conjunction point us? To know the answer, we must adopt a divine perspective. A daring move, no doubt, but one to which faith itself invites us. When we take the God’s-eye view, what do we see? We see that no one has ever desired anything more than God desires to share the communion of His trinitarian love with us. This desire gave rise to a plan, a design, of grace and salvation. “For those who pleased him he set down, like an architect, his plan of salvation” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., Bk. 4, LH Readings Wednesday of the 2nd week of Lent). Astonishingly, at the very start, this divine desire was met with rejection, at Satan’s prompting, on the part of the first human beings to whom it was expressed. But not even the obstacle of human disobedience could thwart the plan born of God’s desire to share His life with us. For already this plan embraced the steps that God—undeterred because ever-merciful—would undertake to repair the damage caused by the initial rejection of His love. “Yes, the plan of our salvation / Had to have it ordered so: / Thus the multiform deceiver’s / Art by art would overthrow, / And from thence would bring the healing / Whence the harm brought by the foe” (Venantius Fortunatus,  Pange lingua gloriosi).
Easter at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
Easter at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Tonight at the Easter Vigil we hear read the key passages of Holy Scripture apart from which none of this would be intelligible.  There unfolds before us the ravishing canvass of the whole history of this divine plan from the moment of creation until now.  The plan includes the remedy for sin—exquisitely fashioned by the divine “art”—fit to the nature of the harm and the nature of the offenders. There unfolds before us tonight a canvass framed at one end by the disobedience of Adam and at the other by the perfect obedience of Christ the New Adam. In the complex pattern of figuration that weaves through this canvass, Christ is always and everywhere both anticipated and present. For He is “the Passover of our salvation…present in many so as to endure many things. In Abel he was slain; in Isaac bound; in Jacob a stranger; in Joseph sold; in Moses exposed; in David persecuted; in the prophets dishonored” (St. Melito of Sardis, Easter Homily,  LH Readings for Holy Thursday), and on the cross victorious. So precious is the remedy for Adam’s fault that on this night of all nights the Church has dared to call that fault a happy one. “O happy fault. O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer” (Exsultet). Tonight we celebrate our Redeemer’s triumph over the sin of Adam and the numberless other sins that jeopardized but could never wreck the plan of divine love.  “For Christ has ransomed us with His blood and paid for us the price of Adam’s sin to the eternal Father” (Exsultet). Grant that the fault is a happy one, but what sort of fault could have entailed the dire consequences for the human race which Christian revelation ascribes to it and, moreover, that required such a remedy?  What sort of fault could it have been? How could God have allowed its tragic sequels, not excluding the death of His only-begotten Son? What failure on the part of mere human beings could have disrupted and nearly derailed the loving designs of divine providence? With regard to Adam’s fault, consider these mundane analogies.  If, in a fit of anger I smash my friend’s priceless Japanese vase, even if he forgives me, we can never make the vase whole again, and even if we are successful at repairing it, it will always be a vase that once was whole and has now been put back together. Much more serious examples come to mind. Suppose my friend tells me something in confidence, and I go off and reveal this secret to someone else. Even if he forgives me, we cannot repair the damage I have caused, if nothing else, by undermining my friend’s confidence in me: he’ll think twice before telling me any more secrets! From your own experience, you can multiply examples of these seemingly irreparable harms—bad things that we do or say that cause consequences that cannot be undone, even when there is genuine regret and sincere forgiveness on all sides. Now suppose that the sin of Adam—that we have become accustomed, somewhat paradoxically, to calling both the original sin and the happy fault—suppose that this sin was an instance of an “irreparable harm,” something not susceptible of an easy fix.  In order to think along these lines, we must avoid viewing the fault committed by the first human beings—whom the Book of Genesis names Adam and Eve—as merely the transgression of some arbitrary limit or the failure of some capricious test set to them by divine whimsy. On the contrary, we must understand that something infinitely important was at stake, and that it constituted an implicit rejection—traditionally named disobedience—on the part of these first human beings, of the divine invitation to share the communion of trinitarian life. God could have but did not just make everything better on the spot. Rather, he accommodated Himself to the nature of the deed and thus to the human nature of its perpetrators—“art by art would overthrow.” We know from the Scriptures that He immediately undertook to remedy this otherwise irreparable harm, but it was a remedy fit to our nature and to the nature of the fault, and it would take time—a lot of time and a lot of preparation for the human race. “When mankind was estranged from him by disobedience, God our Savior made a plan for raising us from our fall and restoring us to friendship with himself” (St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit,  LH Readings, Tuesday of Holy Week). The sin of Adam and all the other sins of human beings—which might well have provoked only the wrath of a divine judgment and thus have been well and truly irreparable—inspired instead an act of infinite mercy and love in the sending of our Redeemer, prophesied and prefigured by a great line of ancestors stretching from Abraham through Moses to David, born of the Virgin Mary, for our sake crucified under Pontius Pilate,  who suffered, died and was buried, and who is tonight triumphantly proclaimed and confessed to be risen again. Not for nothing, then, has the Church dared to call this sin of Adam “a happy fault.”  And not for nothing does the Church celebrate these mysteries in the annual round of the sacred Liturgy from Advent to Pentecost. In this way, each one of us can learn to locate the meaning of his or her existence within the immense framework of this great plan of salvation which found a way to repair the irreparable and to save the utterly lost. According to the divine plan for our salvation, “Christ came in the flesh, he showed us the gospel way of life, he suffered, died on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead. He did this so that we could be saved by imitation of him, and recover our original status as sons of God by adoption” (St. Basil, LH Readings, Tuesday of Holy Week). The passage of our Redeemer—His Passover or “passio”—from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond: this pattern we must continually retrace and imitate if we are to be remade in His image and thus, despite Adam’s fault and, moreover, our faults, we may come to share in the communion which God so greatly desires to consummate with us. In the sacrament of Baptism we imitate his death by setting aside our sins, and, fortified by the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance, in the daily struggle to follow him faithfully we beg his forgiveness and continually shake off our attachment to sin. Dear friends in Christ, now we have the answer that comes from looking at things as God sees them. He undertook to clear away the wreckage our sins would otherwise have entailed for us by fitting the remedy to our nature—by sending a Redeemer like us in all things but sin, and yet unlike us in having the power to overcome all the obstacles to the blessed communion God desires to share with us. Not for nothing do we sing: “O happy fault….What good would life have been to us had Christ not come as our Redeemer?” (Exsultet)      

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