Sunday, March 27, 2016

Death Had Nowhere to Hide (Easter Morning)

I have a good friend who has a number of bright twenty-somethings working in his office. One of them asked him what he had planned for the Easter weekend.

“Church,” he said. “A lot of church.” 

“Really!” the young fellow replied. Well, yes, my friend told him, this is a big weekend for Christians. 

“As big as Christmas?” he asked with surprise.

“Bigger,” my friend said patiently, “Easter is the Super Bowl weekend for Christians.”

That’s not a bad shot at explaining the importance of this weekend to a non-believer. But where does one begin with believers? Every year priests preach about the Resurrection, but how often does our message come across as clearly as my friend’s words to his non-Christian colleague?

After all, every one of you already knows the basic story; and if by some chance you didn’t, the first reading gives you a summary—“they put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day”—and the Gospel fills in the details beautifully.

Our challenge is to go beyond the basic story so that we can understand what it really means. And that’s a lot tougher than pulling out a comparison to American football.

The Gospel today shows it can be hard to understand the meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus, even for believers. John arrives at the empty tomb and, “he saw and believed.” However, the sentence continues: “as yet, they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

That’s a bit confusing. Some scholars think that John has a full-fledged faith in the Resurrection, even without seeing the risen Jesus. But other writers offer good reasons to think that St. John only has initial faith at this point. Maybe he simply believes that God has acted in some way. The form of the Greek verb “believe” can mean ‘began to believe’ and after all, it is John himself who has written that they did not yet understand the scriptural prophecies of the Resurrection. (Francis Martin, William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, p. 334)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the discovery of the empty tomb just “the first step for recognizing the very fact of the Resurrection”.

So even if everyone here believes the tomb was indeed empty on that first Easter, and even if no one believes that the body of Jesus had been taken away, as Mary Magdalene feared, we have some distance to travel before we can say we understand the meaning of this event.

When the Gospel account says the disciples did not yet “understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead,” it is referring to the Old Testament—to the prophecies of “the resurrection of the righteous, of God delivering his faithful ones from death, and of the vindication of the Suffering Servant” which we find in various places.

It wasn’t that they had missed a clear foretelling that the Messiah would rise again; rather they’d failed to grasp the whole of God’s plan for deliverance of his people (ibid.).

Even if we haven’t a doubt about the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, it’s quite possible we do not understand the consequences of the facts. We may have “initial faith.” Maybe we sincerely believe God has acted in some way, even a wonderful way. But we do not know what it’s got to do with us.

We need the Holy Spirit to lead us to a personal understanding of how the death and rising of Jesus matters to us individually. Every Easter we have a chance to discover or rediscover the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection in our lives.

Please don’t think that this is an impossible dream, something only for the pious. Just before Holy Week I was talking to a young parishioner, a man not unlike the clever twenty-somethings at my friend’s office.  His much-loved grandmother had been buried just a few days before.

He began by telling me about their last visit, as she lay dying in hospital. Driving home, heartbroken, he recalled the famous words of St. Paul “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” But he answered back “Right here God, right here.” He felt alone and angry, and frustrated by death.

When he learned in the middle of the night that his grandmother had died, he had the faith to pray for her and to ask God to have mercy on her. But he was still troubled.

However, when he got up for work the next morning he opened up the daily email sent out from Matthew Kelly’s “Best Lent Ever” program, which suggested an activity every day in Lent. That day's was reading a passage from St. John: “In all truth I tell you, whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life….for the hour is coming when the dead will leave their graves at the sound of his voice:”

He found, in his own words “an answer to my prayer and some peace.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story any more than the disciples’ first look at the linen clothes was the end of the story. He read at the funeral Mass an Old Testament text that echoed the gospel message he’d been given in the email: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves….and you shall live.”

For what came next, I will let the young man’s own words tell the story.

“I looked up at my grandmother’s still coffin, at the head of which was the faintly flickering Easter candle. As my gaze broadened, I looked up to the altar and saw Father raising the consecrated host and declaring the foundation of our faith.

“At that moment, I looked back at the entire scene, and the whole of our Christian faith stretched out in front of me in divine juxtaposition.

“There was more life on that altar than there was in the entire church. As we went up to Communion, we passed the casket, united with my grandmother in her death, but, passing by the Easter candle, entering with her into life. There wasn’t a corner in that church where death could hide.

“In one week, my family and I experienced all of Lent and all of Easter. And God found a way to reach me as he always does. He reminded me of the “why” to our Christianity. I find it easy to get tangled up in small details or semantics of our Catholic faith, and it feels good to be stepping back this Easter and to just rest in the Lord. ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’”

That, dear friends, is what it means to understand the meaning and the power of the Resurrection. May we all be so blessed.

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