“What do you think must be chiefly avoided by you, you ask? The crowd.” Thus opens Seneca the Younger’s seventh letter to his philosophical protégé Lucilius. A Stoic worldview underlies his laconic answer. After all, as Seneca elaborates throughout the course of the letter, it is the crowd which is the source of constant temptation toward vice. The crowd delights in gruesome gladiatorial spectacles and senseless violence. If one associates in any way with it, one is smeared with its collective vice.
Seneca’s advice is not outdated. How often today peer pressure, and the desire to find a place in society, threatens to overturn one’s moral upbringing. How often too the majority — in any time and place, really — is possessed by a love of violence and vanity antithetical to the life of virtue.
Even the Latin word that Seneca uses for the crowd,“turba,” is not vindicated by its linguistic history. “Turba” is etymologically related to our words “turbulent,” “perturbed” and “disturbed.” It has a profound sense of disorder that is not lost in English.
Yet, at the Easter vigil, these ancient words pierce through the dark church: “Exsultet iam angelica turba caelorum” — “Let the angelic crowd of the heavens rejoice!” Once again “turba” — “the crowd” — appears, but wholly renewed. The angelic crowd too is tumultuous, not on account of fear or anger or frenzy, but out of ecstatic joy. The angels rejoice because the impossible has been rendered possible: Christ has risen, precisely as He said.
The idea of the jubilant crowd is not confined to this first proclamation of the Easter season. Beginning with the Easter Vigil, when catechumens are admitted to the crowd of the faithful, the Easter season finally concludes at Pentecost, the day on which three thousand were added to the Church. Thus, the whole season is turbulently alive with the growth of the community of believers.
Easter is the opening of so many paradoxes, reversals, and miracles that “were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25). Yet, at a university, where the community is yearly replenished with a host of new students, it is particularly fitting to pause at the redeemed beauty of crowdedness which Easter heralds. Especially at the University of Dallas, where the crowded mall serves as an emblem of the university’s life, one must consider how to live out the spirit of the crowd in such a way that it does not represent the scene of vice, but the joyful energy of the resurrection.
The way to do this, I think, lies first in realizing why we gather. What draws so many students to daily and Sunday Mass, what prompts them to appeal to professors to let them overcrowd classes, what inspires little groups to come together in earnest discussion on the mall? It is, or at least ought to be, the love of Truth. Indeed, this love of truth ought to be the motivation for every sort of gathering on campus. Joy is precisely found in living the truth; anything less is fundamentally inauthentic.
Second, we must understand that the holy crowd is meant to contain all people. It is in the spirit of Easter that Christ gives His apostles the grand commission to preach the gospel and baptize all nations (Mt 28:19). We too are called into the work of this evangelization, and because of the education that we receive at the University of Dallas, we have been provided extra talents, as it were, for the purpose of evangelizing and for which we will be held accountable.
Thus, now is a time for rejoicing, not individually, but collectively, celebrating the resurrection that reconfigures the course of human history. At the same time, as we ecstatically celebrate this mystery — and as we celebrate any joyful occasion of things human or divine — we must never twist joy as an excuse for vice. Instead, as an Easter people, we proclaim a joy which Seneca could never have dreamed of: the crowd itself can be made good and rejoice in the good!
Let us take on this task then, to love truth and to spread the love of truth to others, so that our community, and eventually the whole crowded community of the world, will turbulently rejoice in nothing less than the mystery of the resurrected Christ.