Easter Sunday, April 5, 2021.
On Easter Sunday, April 16, 1843, more than a year before he became a Catholic, 22-year old Isaac Hecker attended a Catholic Mass for the first time. In his Diary, he wrote how he had found the experience “impressively affecting.” He was especially struck by how the priest pointed, while he was preaching, to a painting of Christ’s rising from the tomb “with a few touching remarks turning all eyes towards it which made his remarks doubly affective.”
However impressive that painting may have been and however effective a prop for that priest's preaching, the gospels are clear that no one actually saw the resurrection. Artists have tried to picture it, of course, but that’s art, highly imaginative art at that. We have nothing either visual or verbal that depicts the actual event of Jesus’ resurrection, an event which apparently defies description. Instead, John's Gospel [John 20:1-9] tells us that on the first day of the week. Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. What Mary and the other women saw and experienced - what we experience and keep experiencing - are the effects of the Resurrection.
Every morning is, symbolically, a new beginning, a chance to start over. In the normal course of events, however, the Sabbath day of rest should have been followed in the morning on the first day of the week by business as usual – both for the living, who would go back to their regular daily work, and even more so for the dead, decaying in their graves, who (then as now) were universally expected to stay dead. If anything, the ubiquity of dying and death during this terrible pandemic this past year has reinforced for us the awesome reality of death's apparently terrible finality, which separates family, friends, and fellow citizens from one another, as surely as that stone was meant to separate the living from the dead.
John mentions only Mary Magdalene. The other evangelists tell us that she was accompanied by other women as well and that their purpose was to anoint Jesus' dead body. They came in grief, not in hope. Instead they found something surprising and unexpected. For that Sunday – and every day since – the world has awakened not to business as usual, but to something totally new. And, yet, the story leaves no doubt that the first few to be made aware of history's most momentous news saw nothing at first but an empty tomb, which left them more confused than elated, For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
In a world which seemed permanently stuck in the dark, pre-dawn position, they needed to experience something more, the kind of change that could come only from the Risen Lord’s living presence among us in his Church. Easter invites us to put ourselves into the picture with Mary Magdalene, and the other women, and then with Peter, and all those disciples unexpectedly experiencing an alternative to endless grief.
Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event of the most monumental importance. Even so, however hard it may be for us to imagine - in this absurd age of social media and 24-hour news - the world hardly noticed the resurrection at first. And many still don't. Nor would we, if the story had stopped there.
Easter invites us to peer confusedly into the open door of the empty tomb, where nothing is anymore as it seemed before - and then to keep coming back, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, to be filled in on what happened next, what has happened since, and thus experience the effects of the resurrection for ourselves, to experience not just that Jesus was but that he now is. That is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the Risen Lord and his power to change the world, changing them first of all.
Really important things are remembered for their long-term impact - not, as in the world of social media and 24-hour news, for the short-term noise they make. So, although no one actually saw or heard the resurrection, what we do see and hear are the resurrection’s effects – first of all on the disciples, and then on the world, and finally on us.
The resurrection’s effects on the disciples unfold in what we see and hear in the gospel stories of their visits to the empty tomb, then later of the appearances of the risen Lord himself, still later in the preaching of Saint Peter and others in the Acts of the Apostles and in the amazing response of those who heard their preaching, then finally in the testimony and letters of Saint Paul, who wasn’t there at all at Easter, but who himself eventually experienced the risen Lord and was forever changed as a result.
The effects on the world were soon evident in the enthusiastic response of Jews and pagans alike to the amazing story the apostles told. In the long term, its effects have been equally dramatic in how the story has spread and the Church has grown as a result, in the dynamism that is at the heart of the Church’s existence in the world and that has propelled it outward in almost 2000 years of world-transforming activity.
Finally, its effects are evident in us, transformed in mind and changed in heart, by the unique power of this utterly unexpected event, which has glorified the humanity Jesus shares with each of us, and which has brought us together in a way in which nothing else could have, empowering us - even in this world of ongoing grief - with unexpected and unimaginable hope.
So, instead of the first day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this first day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, where grief gives way to hope. The resurrection is God’s powerful alternative to business as usual. None of us were there that first Easter Sunday – and, had we been, we would surely have been as amazed and uncomprehending as the disciples themselves. But we are there now, because God has, on this day, re-created the world in his Son, Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, and buried, but now risen from the dead. That new day is today – and every day from now on, until we too will appear with him in glory [Colossians 3:4].
On the way, some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter – Peter, whom Jesus nonetheless chose to be his Church’s principal spokesman. But, whether we are runners or walkers, what matters most is that we too have come to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world – may look inside, may see, and may believe, and may be changed by the experience.
According to an ancient tradition, when Jesus descended among the dead, our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, saw his bright light penetrating the deep darkness they had been stuck in for so long, whereupon Christ released them, and they and their descendants joyfully joined him in celebrating his triumph over death. For the disciples who came to see Jesus’ tomb early in the Sunday morning darkness, whatever they thought they were going to do, it was a dead man whose tomb they came to see. They too were stuck in the dark, like Adam and Eve and all the generations in between, in a world where grief always seems to have the final say.
But the amazing experience of encountering the Risen Lord led the first disciples out of the dark and beyond their grief to risk everything to create a unique new community, whose story we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. It is in the ongoing creating of - and living in - this community we call the Church, that Christ continues to reveal his victory over death.
The disciples’ story highlights how what was happening then continues to happen in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to us through the experience we share as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit.
And so we say today: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!
(Photo: Easter 2021, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY)