Sunday, April 17, 2022

This Is the Day

Morning has always been my favorite time of day. Although I am almost always awake early, most mornings I have no reason to rush, now that I am in what we euphemistically call Senior Ministry. Morning Mass in the Motherhouse chapel is at 8:15. So most mornings I have plenty of time to sit in silence and savor the early morning quiet.

Every morning is, in a sense, a new beginning, a chance to start over. In 1st-century Jerusalem, the Sabbath Day’s rest would have been followed in the morning on the 1st day of the week by the typical urban hustle and bustle as people returned to their daily work and regular routines. It would have been business as usual too, although much more silently so, for the dead, decaying in their graves, who (then as now) were expected to stay dead. But, when Mary of Magdala came early in the morning, while it was still dark, she saw that the stone, that was intended to be a permanent barrier between the living and the dead, had been removed from the tomb.

John’s Gospel mentions Mary only. Other Gospel writers tell us she was accompanied by other women as well.

Like the tragic images we have seen in recent weeks of mass burials in Ukraine, and like the many abridged, truncated burials during the pandemic, Jesus had been buried in haste. He had died in the afternoon prior to Passover, as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. Having replaced that sacrifice with the sacrifice of himself, he was buried – in a hurry because of the impending holiday. So, the women’s purpose in visiting the tomb was mourn Jesus properly.

Instead, they found something surprising and unexpected. instead of staying in the tomb (as the dead, then as now, were expected to do), Jesus lives again – and lives a totally transformed and gloriously new kind of life. So, this 1st day of the week, we awaken not to business as usual, but to something totally new – to the greatest thing that God has ever done, the most important event in all of history.

And yet, however hard it may be for us to imagine (in this age of omnipresent social media and the 24-hour news cycle), at the time hardly anyone even noticed. It is rather the resurrection’s long-term effects, which we notice, which we experience, and which bring us here today – as Jesus’ body that lived and died and still forever bears the marks of his passion emerges from the tomb to transform our world, starting right here and now with us.

Even so, as we just heard, the first few made aware of this momentous news left the empty tomb more confused than elated: For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

In a world which seems permanently stuck in a dark, pre-dawn position, the disciples needed to experience the kind of change that could only come from the Risen Lord’s living presence among them. And so do we, which is why we are here, where the Risen Lord brings us together as no one else can.

Since have no visual or verbal record the actual moment of Jesus’ resurrection, what we have 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 are what we read and hear in the gospel stories of, first, an empty tomb and, then, of appearances by the risen Lord – and 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, and finally in the testimony and letters of Saint Paul, who wasn’t there at all at Easter, but who eventually experienced the risen Lord himself and was forever changed as a result.

The resurrection’s effects on the world were soon evident in people’s responses to the apostles’ amazing story, in how the story has since spread, in the dynamism at the heart of the Church’s existence that has propelled it outward in 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 (almost beyond recognition) 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 not so much with new knowledge as with a new hope.  (If “knowledge is power,” hope is even more so. Just ask the Ukrainians!)

So, instead of the 1st day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this 1st day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, where death no longer has the final say. We are here, in this holy place today because there is now a new day, on which God has, so to speak, 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].  And so we say: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!

And that is what brings us back Sunday after Sunday, to hear what happened next and so experience the effects of the resurrection ourselves. On my way into the church this morning, I paused at the parish photograph from 11 years ago. I thought of all the people in that amazing photo, whom I had the privilege to know in my 10 years as your pastor, some of them no longer with us, and of all that has happened here for almost 170 years of parish life, that, like the crowd in that picture, has spilled out from this building, into the surrounding society. Today in the bright light of the resurrection, we all join hands and hearts with our predecessors here and with all who have preceded us in the long chain that takes us back to those first disciples, confused and frightened at first, but then overjoyed and empowered by what they – and we - have experienced.

Now, in the Church, we’re not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple singled out in the Gospel story. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, weighed down by so many struggles, run much more slowly. What matters most, however, is where we finally end up. The early Christians esteemed Jesus’ disciples (particularly Peter), but they understood that, even for them, following Jesus was neither automatic nor easy.

So, whether we are runners or walkers, let us also accompany the disciples to the tomb, which in a business-as-usual world would have remained dark and sealed, but from which the stone has been removed – so we too can see and believe. Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so deadly ordinary and old. 

That is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world.

The story of those first disciples and those first communities of Christians invites us to live in the here and now with the assurance that what was happening, there and then, continues to happen as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself 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 gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom we are joined in the Risen Christ’s body and ascend with the Risen Lord to his Father.

Easter invites us to start living, here and now in the present, that new and different future to which the Risen Lord is already leading us.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 17, 2022.

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