March 31, 2013 - The Resurrection of the Lord - The Mass of Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34A, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9
Easter has always been a "Big Deal" in my southwestern Minnesota family. It is a day for feasting and loads of fun and lots of laughter. But last Easter Shawna (a pseudonym) the twenty-something, self-proclaimed agnostic daughter of one of my cousins, surprised me: "I think Easter is just a lot of lights and lilies; trumpet flourishes, flowers, and a really good story!" To this I, in my best pastoral tone replied: "Well yes - it is a really good story! But I do think it's more than that, as well." "Well how do you know?" Shawna responded. And here is the real point of what I want to say here: "I don't really know - but I do believe!" The storyis good - more than good - it's pushing three millennia, and has changed my life and countless others!
The "Resurrection of Christ" refers to the bodily rising of Jesus from the dead on the third day after his death on the cross and his burial in the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea (Lk 22:50-53). The Resurrection of Christ, which is celebrated at Easter, is the central mystery of the Christian faith (CCC, 638). Notice I used the words "mystery" and "faith." To speak of a mystery is not to deny that what I speak about is real. Many things are real - but we cannot explain them. For example, we know that the common drug aspirin is useful for alleviating many ills, yet scientists cannot explain exactly why. We commonly take it when we have a headache, for example - having faith that it will help us.
One day in the fourth decade of the Common Era, three men were crucified (as were hundreds of others) by the Roman occupiers of Palestine. On the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, it read, "King of the Jews." Today, we know little of the other two men. But Jesus' followers came to believe that he rose from the dead and this faith still remains present now in profound and powerful ways. St. Peter's statement in today's First Reading attests to this presence (Acts 10:34a, 37-43). Over time, the Resurrection was recognized as central to all Jesus said and did. Christians addressed him in prayer and worship; to confess that "Jesus is Lord!" defined Christian identity.
But did the resurrection really happen? Yes, something really happened after the death of Jesus. Today's Gospel tells of the evidence of the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-9). Clearly, from the conversations on the Emmaus road (Lk 24:13-35) the resurrection surprised and amazed Jesus' disciples as it does us! Yet, what followed was transformative for throngs and multitudes across history; it was life-changing, beginning with St. Paul - the former persecutor of Christians to became a leading Apostle (Gal 1:13-17; I Cor 15: 8-10).
But what actually happened? Even in spite of today's science (e.g. the Shroud of Turin) - no one really knows. There were no eyewitnesses. But the effects of whatdid happen have continued to unfold across the globe through the present moment. According to the New Testament, early Christians believed that Jesus was transformed into a new mode of life; a spiritual existence that gives freedom and glory to all (II Cor 3:17; I Cor 15:44-45). We can speak of the resurrection as a "transhistorical event" - as theologian Richard McBrien explains: "Something that took place on the other side of death, and therefore, which lies beyond the confines of time and space (Catholicism, 435).
To who did the resurrection happen? Many challenge that early Christians just suddenly became enlightened and evolved in their consciousness, coming to realize more fully the significance of Jesus' example, teachings, and healing activities. This would be similar to the appreciative insights we gain following the death of a loved one or heroic figure today. But that's not all early Christians claimed; there was a bodily resurrection - something happened to Jesus, not only to the disciples.
Evidence for the bodily resurrection is found in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples: he is touched (Jn 20:27) he eats real food (Lk 24:41-43) he teaches and commissions Peter (Jn 21: 15-22). However, there was something very different that made it impossible for his closest disciples to recognize him (Lk 42: 16; Jn 20:14; 21:4), even to the extent that they doubted his identity (Matt 28: 17; Lk 24: 41). He is able to disappear and reappear - clearly not like other humans - but in another form (Mk 16:12; Lk 24:31; Jn 20:19, 26). All in all, Jesus' bodily existence changed; he became a spiritual body and a "life-giving spirit" (I Cor 15: 44-45). And - as today's Gospel points out - it took some time before the disciples more fully understood that the Scripture foretold "that he had to rise from the dead" (Jn 20:9).
Mary Magdalene's witness is true - something had happened to Jesus body! But while Peter and John went home, she faced her bewilderment. She vulnerably expressed her confusion in tears and questions (Jn 20: 11-15) She looked into the empty tomb a second time - and this time saw angels (vv.11-12)! She called Jesus "Lord" (v.13); and when the risen Christ called her by name, she responded in faith - her life was changed (v.16)! This is why of the countless women who followed Jesus, we know her name. As we celebrate Easter, may we be like Mary Magdalene - and Shawna - and stay open to this great mystery. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
The Erica and Harry John Family Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics
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