by Br Julian McDonald cfc
On entering the tomb, they (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) saw a young man sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. This frightened them thoroughly, but he reassured them: “You need not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has been raised up; he’s not here. See the place where they laid him. Go now and tell his disciples and Peter: ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’” Mark 16, 1-8
Since the onset of Covid, the restrictions around public gatherings have meant that we have been unable to conduct the funerals of deceased family members, relatives, community members and close friends in the manner to which we have grown accustomed. There have been no vigil services, wakes and sharing of memories. Numbers of those able to attend funerals have been severely restricted, and there has been almost no scope for refreshments and chats after a burial has taken place. It took me some time to appreciate the impact of these restrictions on those grieving for the person they had lost. I came to appreciate just how important are a cup of tea and a chat at the conclusion of a funeral. They are, I suggest, integral to the grieving process.
If we don’t share memories of the deceased, if we don’t share with those we know and trust something of our feelings of emptiness and loss, we can get stuck in our grief, we can get caught in forever visiting the grave of the one we have lost. And there is a consequent risk of becoming unhealthily locked in the past. That is not to dismiss or belittle visits to the grave of a loved one. Those visits can be part of healthy grieving. However, it’s important not to become trapped there.
In Mark’s account of the three women coming to visit the grave of Jesus, there is not the slightest hint that they were coming with thoughts of resurrection. Having so recently watched the execution of the one who was so important to them, they were coming with a supply of perfumed oils to anoint Jesus’ body. That was a natural and understandable part of their grieving process. But they were stopped in their tracks by an unnamed messenger, who was clearly expecting them and who not only gave them proof of Jesus’ resurrection, but also gave them a direction to share the good news with their friends, including information as to where to find him.
It’s important at this point to stop and look at how Mark had structured his Gospel for the community for whom he had written it. He launched his Gospel with the words: “The good news of Jesus Christ begins here” (Mark 1, 1). Then he spent almost 16 chapters elaborating on that beginning, at the end of which he handed it over to his community, urging them to involve themselves in continuing the story of that good news. If we are participants in the story, not mere observers, we, too, are being urged to continue the story of God’s love for the world expressed in the life, mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I read recently an article by a Lutheran pastor, in which he paraphrased the message the three women were given by the young man in white when they stepped into Jesus’ otherwise empty tomb: “I know you’re here for Jesus of Nazareth. But he’s not here. You need to go and do something else with your grief. There’s a good life out there in front of you. Go now and tell some of your friends what I’m telling you: Jesus has been raised, and he’s a good bit ahead of you. He’s gone on to Galilee. That’s where you can catch up with him.” (Peter W. Marty, It’s Easter. Step into the Future, The Christian Century, March 9, 2021)
We belong to a Church that will forever be in process. The process is not about changing the foundations on which it has been built. – the Good News of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. But it is about living that Good News in ways that will make an impact for good in a world that is also in the process of unprecedented change. And that is uncomfortable. There are those around us who want to reclaim a comfortable, secure, nostalgic past. We’re not always sure of the next step. For many, comfort is more manageable than venturing into an unknown future. However, the resounding message of Easter is to open ourselves to God’s confidence in a future opened up for us by the resurrection of Jesus.
When we gather in faith to bury our dead, we can forget that they, too, were people of faith who, like us, have struggled to express that faith as fully and effectively as they (and we) might have hoped. But let’s not forget that they probably would want us to keep on living with purpose, love and hope, doing our little bit to contribute positively to the world of which we are but a part. If our grieving were to be interrupted by a young man in white, we might hear something like this: “Friends, I know your thoughts are for the one you have lost, and even for yourselves and how you will cope. But, be assured that there’s good stuff ahead, a future into which you can step with hope. And Jesus, about whom you know something, is already in that future. Moreover, he’s waiting for you to notice and catch up.”
In a truly inspirational presentation to the Trinity Institute, New York (2007), Moral Theology Professor Peter J. Gomes from the Harvard School of Divinity spoke of the role that Christians have in continuing to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ begun by Mark in his Gospel. In speaking of our role in what he calls “God’s Unfinished Future”, Professor Gomes highlighted the role of hope. Christian hope is clinging to the certainty that even when things don’t turn out right, we will continue to endure, trusting in a God who will never abandon us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that hope is born of faithful endurance through the trials that come our way. It is not optimism that seduces us into pretending that all is right with the world while we fail to look at the dark side. Paul wrote: “We know that affliction makes for endurance, and endurance for tested virtue, and tested virtue for hope. And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5, 3-5).
Easter does not deny the reality of disappointment, betrayal, suffering and pain. However, it does proclaim reason for hope in the human condition. If we dare to open our eyes, we come to know that the risen Christ is present to us in the compassion, care and acceptance we experience in engaging with every good person who in his/her way continues to share the good news of Jesus. We do that, too, when we rise above life’s difficulties to give love and life to others, to mend and renew broken relationships, to proclaim in our actions the good news of the empty tomb. Easter is God’s definitive proclamation that life is in the future, that it is up to us to continue to be good news. Paul surely got it right in writing to the Philippians: “I give no thought to what lies behind, but push on to what is ahead…life in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3, 13). Love, compassion, humility and selflessness will ultimately triumph over hatred, prejudice greed and death. That’s the message of Easter.