The Church offers us the story of the empty tomb on Easter morning. The first to reach the tomb and to make the discovery that the stone had been rolled away is Mary Magdalene. Our Lord had exorcised her from the bondage of seven demonic spirits. Venerable piety had alternately linked her to the prostitute whom Jesus reformed and to the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair. Although modern exegesis would place the latter associations in doubt, her role is remarkable given how women were generally regarded as inferior, possessing a third class status behind oxen and other forms of property. In the eyes of many, she would be worth nothing and invisible. And yet, along with the other holy women, she assisted our Lord and his apostles from their resources. Here, she is the first person at the tomb. Maybe this honor falls upon her to once again demonstrate how Christ comes to raise up the downtrodden and to reveal our equal dignity before the eyes of God? He comes for the poor, the oppressed, and the sinful. Mary Magdalene, maybe more so in that culture than our own, would come to highlight that mission. If as a child he could be worshiped by lowly shepherds then why could he not first appear to a woman who herself was lowly in the eyes of many?
In one version of the story, she becomes fearful and runs to Peter with the news. The second person to reach the tomb is called “the disciple Jesus loved” and we in our tradition have discerned this to be John. But, notice what he does; although he has outrun Simon Peter, he hesitates at the entrance of the tomb and waits for him. John is nothing if he is not humble. He knows full well whom Jesus has placed in charge of the disciples — it is Peter. Peter is the one who first recognizes Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But, remember what has happened recently. He has denied Christ three times. Unlike John, he runs and hides himself. He would not even be present at the Cross. Now, he is at the tomb. He is slowly recovering from his betrayal. With Jesus gone to the Father, it would be Peter who would be the rock of Christ’s Church. In the tomb he sees the various wrappings, but we are not told whether he discerns anything more. We, like Peter, might also find ourselves in the paradox of both betraying Christ by our sins and yet searching earnestly for him.
After Peter looks into the tomb, John takes his turn. With John there is no mention of the various wrappings and artifacts which the human eye can see. No, it is John this time that sees deeper than the rest. With the same eyes which witnessed the Crucifixion and somehow did not abandon hope, he sees and believes. He sees with eyes of faith. It is no mere empty tomb for him. Something new has happened — something unheard of — something which only a madman or a man of faith might hold — a man has risen from the grave. Notice that I say this is something new. In similar stories as with the little girl or Lazarus, a person comes back to life, but it is more like resuscitation than resurrection. Jesus would never die again. Jesus is totally transformed. Everything he is becomes something new and wonderful — beyond suffering — beyond sickness — beyond death. Suddenly the quote from Jesus, that if his temple is destroyed it would be restored in three days, makes sense. He means his very own person.
Later on, the Gospels would relate episodes where the risen Lord who is man and yet also very much God, would appear to his followers. He would greet his friends from a beach. He would appear to them in the locked upper room. He would appear to a couple of followers along the road to Emmaus and be recognized in the breaking of bread, an incident which is intensely important for us who also seek Christ in his bread of life broken for us at the Eucharist. These other incidents are wonderful treasures in our heritage from God, but we must first take seriously the initial response of John and then later the other disciples. In our own personal stories we see little more than an empty tomb. Jesus does not regularly manifest himself in a sensible fashion in our homes. Even in our Church, the reality of the risen Christ can only be present in the sacraments which reveal him to our eyes of faith and yet veil him to our five physical senses.
However, we like the early Church, know in our hearts that Christ is indeed risen BODY and SOUL. We have the ancient witnesses and know in faith that is alive and present through the power of the Holy Spirit. He promises that he would never abandon us, even unto the end of the world. In my fondness for history, I recall a passage from the great French general Napoleon after his final bid for power fails. He remarks that in his very own lifetime, his followers have forgotten him and that he is utterly deserted. And yet, Jesus who lives and dies a millennium and a half earlier still possesses disciples willing to surrender their lives for him. For Napoleon, in those last years of his life, this becomes evidence that the risen Christ is still alive among his disciples in the Church. This remains the case for us. Not only has the risen Christ made us into his Mystical Body, he manifests himself in the seven sacraments, especially in the Eucharist.
We are offered a share in his life. In baptism, we die with Christ (Good Friday) so that we might rise with him (Easter). We do not deserve this gift. But, in return for our faithfulness, it is offered all the same. Everyone who has ever died is still alive. All those who have believed in our Lord and were faithful now possess a happiness and life we could never even imagine. In the face of death, the resurrection is our one true consolation. Otherwise, we would be tempted to complete despair. This mystery also implies a great reunion, wherein we will meet Christ face to face, and along with him, the communion of saints whom have gone before us.
Each year our Easter Candle burns bright and tall once again, a symbol that after we have burned ourselves up bringing Christ’s light to those in darkness and his warmth to those in the coldness of sin, that we will likewise be restored and made new.
Yours in the Risen Christ— Father Joe
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