by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away, so she ran off to Simon Peter and the other disciple (the one Jesus loved) and told them: “The Lord has been taken from the tomb! We don’t know where they have put him!” John 20: 1-9

My reflection on this Easter Sunday gospel-reading leaves me utterly convinced that those closest to Jesus had not the slightest expectation that he would be raised from the tomb. He was certainly not, in their view, going to be another Lazarus. Their behaviour confirms for me that they regarded him as fully human as they were – a mortal man whom they loved dearly but taken away from them through a violent death by execution. If there is one thing about Jesus that John stressed in his Gospel, it is that the God whom Jesus loved created the world and loved dearly that world and all its inhabitants. Moreover, John and the other evangelists underlined the humanity of Jesus by the way in which they described the countless encounters he had with very ordinary people – fishermen, soldiers, people with disabilities, tax-collectors, beggars and untouchables. Accordingly, the Gospel writers present a Jesus who accepts the humanity of those around him. So, we see in today’s gospel reading that he is not even slightly upset by the fact that Mary Magdalene does not recognise him. Rather, he seems to enjoy her surprise. Similarly, he makes no attempt to disassociate himself from his disciples despite their bumbling and apparent inability to cotton onto his messages to them. He does not stop loving friends and a world that are less than perfect.

Week after week, when we gather in our parish communities, we proclaim our belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We proclaim, too, our belief in Jesus’ promise that resurrection to eternal life awaits us. The paradox in that is that, when we gather to celebrate Easter, we are not expected to be ready for an examination on our beliefs, on what we proclaim when we recite the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Easter is meant to be a celebration of life and hope. So, when the risen Jesus appeared in disguise to Mary Magdalene, he did not examine her on the beliefs she held. He knew she was grieving his death and was certainly not expecting him to have been raised from his grave. Just as we have often done, Mary had gone as early as she was able to visit the tomb of a dear, recently-deceased friend. And she was devastated to discover that his tomb looked as though it had been raided by body-snatchers or vandals intent on obliterating anything that indicated Jesus had actually existed. After all, those who want to blot out all memory of someone who has died engage in desecrating that person’s grave or any other evidence that points to that person’s existence. We have all witnessed the destruction of statues and commemorative plaques of leaders who have fallen from favour. Many, for instance, will remember the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s an attempt to blot out his memory. Mary Magdalen was in a state of intense shock, believing that the grave of Jesus had been vandalised and his corpse carried off. The only thing that might reverse the shock and hurt that had befallen her, was an equally intense positive experience. The risen Jesus provided her with that by greeting her by name. She was blessed with a very real experience of resurrection. What she had not even been able to imagine became a reality. By simply calling her by name, the risen Jesus filled her emptiness with hope immeasurable. That was Easter for Mary Magdalene, and Easter for us occurs when we, too, know we have experienced an encounter with the risen Christ. That happens when something overwhelming occurs in our life that demonstrates that love really is stronger than death.

In a homily he delivered in the Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon on Easter Sunday 2018, the scripture scholar and pastor, Craig Barnes asserted: “No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until she or he has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen. Easter is the last thing we are expecting. That’s why it terrifies us. It’s not about bunnies, chocolate eggs, springtime or cute new dresses. It’s about more hope than we can handle.”

The experience of devastation and darkness is, of course, subjective. What can turn one person’s life upside down does not necessarily have the same impact on another’s. Intense feelings of loneliness, isolation and rejection are not universal. But most of us experience them at some time or other in life.

Florida has featured in news bulletins across the world in recent days as former-President Trump has left his home there to go to New York to face criminal charges. However, a few short years ago a Florida High School in a town called Boca Raton was in the news because one of its students was courageous enough to stand up against practices of bullying and rejection happening in the 3400 strong student body. A young man by the name of Denis Estimon took the initiative of starting a group which he called “We Dine Together”. He took the risk of telling fellow students of the intense feelings of loneliness and rejection he experienced when he arrived at the school as a young refugee from Haiti. For a long time, nobody would go near him at lunch time, let alone talk to him. He realised that there must have been others who were being excluded. So, now about to begin his final year of high school, he convinced a few friends to join him in making an effort to ensure that everyone had at least someone else with whom to hang out during lunch-time. Fellow students heard him, and as a result, bullying and rejection of others has all but disappeared in Boca Raton High School. An Easter experience can be triggered by something as simple as that. What is encouraging is that Denis Estimon’s initiative has been adopted by a rapidly increasing number of schools.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus was a scholarly first-century AD Roman writer, researcher and surgeon. He compiled what may have been the world’s first encyclopaedia. Only eight volumes, dedicated mainly to medical matters, survive. Extant, however, is a comment he recorded about Jesus. He was puzzled by the fact that many people witnessed the execution of Jesus but hardly anyone saw him after he was raised from his grave. – “only a crazy woman and a few fanatics!” While there is no empirical evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus, today’s first reading from Acts confirms what Celsus asserted, without the derogatory comments about Mary Magdalene and the disciples. In Acts, Luke quotes from a discourse delivered by St Peter in the house of the centurion Cornelius: “We are witnesses to all that Jesus did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him, finally, hanging him on a tree only to have God raise him up on the third day and grant that he be seen, not by all, but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by God – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10: 39-41)

Of note, is the fact that the risen Jesus did not appear to Caiaphas or Pilate in “I told you so” triumph. Yet, If God had intended the resurrection of Jesus to be a verifiable event, it would not have been carried out in pre-dawn darkness without witnesses. We simply don’t know if it was anything like the raising of Lazarus. While we believe that it really happened, neither we nor anyone else will ever be able to prove or disprove it. Jesus’ victory over death is something that belongs to the Christian community. The mission of the Christian community is to practice resurrection by bringing hope and healing to the hopeless and the broken. We are missioned to be instruments of resurrection to those in dire need. As Christians, we practice resurrection in refugee camps, nursing homes, in soup kitchens, wherever there are victims of rejection, injustice, abuse and neglect. The key for doing that is to be in relationship with the risen Christ, to draw our strength from him. When He addressed Mary Magdalen by name and she responded with the affectionate “Rabboni”, she was transformed from being a devasted mourner of the dead Messiah into first witness to the risen Christ. We, too, have a responsibility to witness to that same risen Christ.