Easter Sunday, 2011
In what we’ve just heard (Jn 20:1-9), first a woman and then two men make a discovery. They discover, early on a Sunday morning, that a tomb that should have had a stone at its mouth and a body inside was now open and empty. This was a tomb, cut out of limestone, in an abandoned quarry just outside Jerusalem. It was the tomb where, some 36 hours before, Jesus had been buried after execution as a criminal. Now, the large stone slab or boulder that had sealed it had been moved, and the body was gone.
Some 6 years ago, one of our own monks famously disappeared. We’re still often asked about him. When things or living persons or dead bodies disappear, questions are asked! And so here. Perhaps we could think of a detective stumbling on a first clue, or of a scientist coming on a puzzling, anomalous fact. Possibilities run through the mind. Mary says, ‘They’ve taken the body’; John, it seems, already jumps to the right conclusion; Peter scratches his head.
Then, later that day, a second discovery followed the first. And it was different. In the 1st reading, Peter, recalling all this some years later, says: ‘God...allowed him [Jesus] to be seen, not by the whole people but only by certain witnesses...we who ate and drunk with him after his resurrection’ (Acts 10:40-41) What happened was that Jesus began to appear in person to some of his friends and followers. Jesus made himself known not as a spirit or a ghost, nor simply as the chap he was before, just restored to ordinary life (like Lazarus). No, but as a real human being with hands and feet (even eating and drinking), the same as they had known, but at the same time different, transformed, alive with a life beyond the reach of death. They did not always immediately recognise him. The tomb was empty because he had left it. He had ‘risen from the dead’, to use the classical phrase. St. Peter talking of this second discovery says, ‘God allowed Jesus to be seen’, literally, God gave him to be visible, God made him visible. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is described as making himself visible. To ‘discover’ literally means to ‘uncover’. So, God himself ‘dis-covered’ Jesus, uncovered him, made him visible (or Jesus himself did that). And this to certain people, who become witnesses to it - the maximum number given is about 500, and over a period roughly calculated as 40 days. And this in Palestine, in the spring and early summer of the year 30 or thereabouts.
Forgive me being rather long and laboured here. But there is a point. It turns on this idea of ‘discovery’. In 1880, thanks be to God, Dr Ronald Ross discovered how we get malaria. But he was discovering something old, not something new. Lady mosquitoes had been biting human beings for millennia. When in 1953 Messrs Watson and Crick discovered the structure of human DNA, they were discovering something that had been in humanity from the beginning. And so it is with scientific discoveries. But when Mary Magdalene and Peter and the others discovered the empty tomb, when Christ ‘dis-covered’ himself to them, what was discovered was not something old, something long there, but something completely new. How baffling, how perverse, that Christianity is thought of as ‘old hat’, as passé. It’s the very opposite. What it proclaims is the newest possible thing there could be.
This is Easter. ‘Christ is risen. He is truly risen.’ This is our faith. This is our joy.
The Popeoften uses the analogy of an ‘evolutionary leap’. Once, on this planet, there was something new: life. It has unfolded into all the beauty and variety of plant and animal. Later again, there was something new: the first human beings. The rest is history... Today comes something even newer: a human being risen from the dead. Risen from the dead, not in isolation, but, in Paul’s phrase, as ‘the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (died). In the Resurrection of Christ, we’re promised resurrection too. A new possibility opens up, a new dimension of life, a new future. Something is there that wasn’t there before. So Jesus isn’t just another past figure, over whom death has had the last word. He lives. And because he lives, we will live. His life is destined to unfold in us, in a renewed humanity. In its ultimate form this means we will live in body, soul and spirit. We will live at the very source of Life, God himself. We will live a life death cannot touch. A life where everything good, true and beautiful in our lives and relationships here and now will be found again, purified and complete. Every tear wiped away and not a grain of Nature’s power and beauty lost.
And today, thanks to the Liturgy, we sense all this, anticipate it. We’re given back ourselves and one another as something to delight in. We’re given back the world as it sprang in the beginning from the hand of God. And we can begin again.
Christ is risen! He is truly risen! It is this the apostles ran into, discovered, that Sunday morning in Jerusalem.
For now, for us, as Paul says, it’s still ‘hidden with Christ in God’. It is hidden within the old order of things, hidden in sacraments, hidden in the faith, hope and love of frail human beings. It has been ‘dis-covered’ only by faith, as an object of hope, of future good. The testimony of the apostles to Christ’s Resurrection is handed on by the Church, and can only be taken on faith. Yet none of the other many explanations of that empty tomb and those 40 days have shown themselves in the end as rationally tenable; they all spring a leak. We end up in the paradoxical situation that the only reasonable thing to do is to accept the apostolic witness, and believe this as the truth, as God’s ‘word’ to humanity. And when we do, such a wealth of meaning, such a sense of ‘Yes, that’s it’, comes into our lives, such a possibility of life unfolds before us, such a horizon opens up, such a Presence makes itself felt, that we know it would be absurd, suicidal, not to believe.
Christ is risen! He is truly risen! This is the song of today. It was, says Peter, God who dis-covered, uncovered, made visible this astonishing new thing, this best of all possible things. And though in a different way than to that first generation, God still uncovers, unveils his Christ, his Son to us. This is the scope of the 50 days of Eastertide which follow the 40 days of Lent. But more than that, it is the great opportunity of the 50, 60, 70, 80 years of our life. There is a Providence behind the great discoveries of science. There is a Providence behind the life of each of us. God opens up to the human race, as it pursues its zigzag course, the hidden mysteries of the world we live in. And even more, he ‘dis-covers’, he longs to un-cover, the still more hidden mystery of his love, that eternal plan of which resurrection is the goal. He wants us to see here and now, in faith, in sacrament, that Face that will unveil itself to us at the end of our life. May our life - our short life, our brief day - be like that day of Mary and Peter and John in Jerusalem. May it be a day of the ultimate discovery: the face of the risen Christ!
Fr. Hugh, OSB