Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011, Fr. Clifford


Today is Easter Sunday, the first day of the week, and the dawning of a new way of God being present among us, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Easter is so huge that it takes a whole week to celebrate, and even that is not long enough. Yet if we look at the Gospel that the Church gives us, it seems strikingly un-celebratory. Here you are, all dressed up in your Easter finery, and here are readings–sober and understated. We expect readings about divine power, lights in the sky, trumpets and drums, disciples dancing in the streets.

Instead–what do we get? A lone woman checking out the tomb of Jesus, and happening to notice the enormous stone at its entrance to the tomb rolled back. She returns to the disciples to let them know, to keep them in the loop. When she reports to the apostles, she sets off an undignified footrace by two of them–Peter and an unnamed "other disciple whom Jesus loved." The greatest morning in Christian history and these two seem more intent on getting to the tomb ahead of the other rather than to check out the tomb. Look at the text. Not once or twice, but four times the author boasts he won the race: "They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter," "he arrived at the tomb first," "Simon Peter arrived after him," "then the other disciple went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first."

I think we can forgive the details about the footrace. It is a very human thing to remember what we were doing when something momentous happens. What were you doing when you first heard about 9/11? Where were you when you proposed to your spouse? What were you doing when you heard that one of your parents had suddenly taken ill or died? The place we were in, or the work that we were doing, becomes part of the memory.

More significantly, the running of the two disciples shows how depressed and confused they were. They wanted something to distract them and get them out of themselves. Though the text tells us the disciples had not understood about the resurrection ("For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead"), they would not have reacted unless they were tense and confused, no matter how slight. But let us look more closely at the two disciples. The "other disciple whom Jesus loved" is not identified, though he is mentioned several times in the Gospel. We don’t know for certain who he is. Is it John, the author of the Fourth Gospel? Is it Lazarus? John is the most common suggestion. Whoever he is in fact, he does not go in until Peter arrives. In all the Gospels, Peter plays a pivotal role in the resurrection accounts. The first reading gives a sample of his preaching. Notice how confident and assured he sounds: "This man God raised (on) the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. . . that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name." It was right for John to wait and let him enter the tomb first.

What Peter and John saw was an empty tomb rather than the risen Christ. As incarnate son of God who defeated wickedness and death itself, Christ was preeminently worthy of a stupendous victory celebration. No honor would have been too great, no celebration would have been too elaborate. But Peter, who represents the apostles, only looked at an empty burial cave. But he saw more: "he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place." What to make of the placement, Peter did not at the time know, "For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead." But "Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed." Why did he "believe"? A good question, but the text does not tell us. Some scholars think that the presence of linens indicated that grave robbers did not steal the body, for they would not have left the valuable cloth behind. More perceptively, the scholar Raymond Brown thinks that the cloths outlined the original position of the body of which, which passed through them, leaving them undisturbed. The "other disciple whom Jesus loved" put two and two together, and believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.

I would like to stop here for a moment to reflect on what has happened in this low key scene. The disciples initially stood in front of an empty tomb, which stunned them and led them to shed their gloomy and defeatist thoughts. More was needed, of course, namely, the Spirit’s touch and personal encounter with Jesus. But they started to listen and be open. An increasing consciousness took hold that something great had happened, even if all the details were not yet discernible. And for most of us, this indirect and slow route will be our route. It begins with an "empty tomb," not necessarily the vision of the risen Christ, but something that makes us notice, brings us up short. Then comes the spirit’s touch, and then the encounter with Christ, risen from the dead.

The scene we have witnessed, it must be stressed, is the beginning of a process, not the whole process. Next Sunday, we will see a direct encounter of the risen Jesus with Mary Magdalene, who did not "go back home" as the two male disciples did. Jesus appears to her and carries on an extensive conversation with her, gently drawing her out of her loneliness and near-desperation with the result that she becomes the apostola apostolorum, "the apostle to the apostles," by announcing to them that she has seen the Lord.

That is why we have the long Easter season–to give us time to let the empty tomb experience blossom forth into an encounter with the risen Lord who lordship is in this world now. Let us attend to the signs of the times.

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