Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart
If this is Easter, why does it still feel like Lent?
None of the gospels relates the actual resurrection, that is, the rising of Jesus from the dead. There are two reasons for this. First, no one was present to witness it. There were witnesses of the empty tomb and his appearances, but these are the aftermath of the resurrection, not the event itself. Secondly, resurrection is transformation into an entirely new mode of existence – not just some sort of resuscitation to the old life. Perhaps this is the reason why no one immediately recognizes the Risen One.
The first witnesses all agree that the tomb that received Jesus was empty. Among the four Gospels there are other points of agreement. The first witnesses to arrive at the burial ground were women, who carried the news of the empty tomb to other disciples. There are also notable divergences.
In the other three gospels, the women approach the tomb in daylight. Mark says “the sun had risen.” Matthew describes the sun as “dawning,” and Luke refers to early dawn “when the sun had risen.” Daylight: a time when hope and faith are in the air. Not so in the account we heard today. John’s Gospel remembers that Mary Magdalene went alone to the grave while it was still dark. In John’s Gospel darkness is a sign of the absence of faith. Mary will indeed come into the light, but she has a journey to travel.
The journey toward faith first takes her away from the empty tomb. She runs to Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved and reports that someone has entered the tomb and taken away the body of Jesus. Significantly, she reports: “We don’t know where they put him – including the two other disciples in the darkness of unbelief.
Nonetheless, the two reverse the journey of Mary Magdalene, taking us back to the empty tomb. Peter enters the tomb first, and the gospel is careful to note a strange detail: the clothes of death are empty. Not only empty, but someone has folded them and placed them in different locations; the cloth that had been around Jesus’ head has been “rolled up in a place by itself.”
Now the Beloved Disciple enters the tomb and sees what Peter saw: the signs of death, empty, folded and put away. They are no longer needed. Mary Magdalene was right: someone other than Jesus has been active in the tomb before them. With great simplicity, John describes what happened to the second disciple, the one whom Jesus loved: “He saw, and he believed.”
What did he see? We heard the details of an empty tomb and the now useless burial clothes. But he did not see the risen Jesus. An absolutely important detail and next Sunday’s gospel reading will tell us why. Jesus will call “blessed” “those who have not seen but believe.” My friends, that includes us.
Like all the disciples who have gone before us, on Easter we stand together before an empty tomb. The faith that enlightens that tomb is not something instantaneous, a sort of spiritual Nescafé or instant tapioca. Like Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and John, and our mothers and fathers before us we need to travel – always journeying from a darkness of unbelief to the blessed light of faith, seeing more than meets the eye, connecting dots of the events that life throws at us.
This Passover and Easter, communities of faith across the world find themselves surrounded by buildings that at first glance look like empty tombs. Our synagogues, mosques and churches, formerly lit and loud with prayer and praise, have been strangely silent. The silence is loudest on Easter, making this great day feel like an unwelcome extension of Lent. But, let us look again.
The One who was active in the tomb of Jesus before the arrival of the disciples is still at work, protecting all who walk in the shadow of death, summoning people out of darkness into light. The love that called Jesus from the tomb is at work in this empty cathedral and, beyond its walls, among all who are united by the faith that this magnificent building represents and celebrates. That love asks us to stay home, when every social and religious instinct calls us to be together and embrace in the peace that only Christ can give. Because of the empty tomb, all the sacrifices that love bids us make on Easter 2020 are united to the One who displayed the greatest love of all: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Despite all our present limitations, something has been enkindled this Easter, a light more faithful than the morning star which never sets. Jesus has come back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on humanity. This is the Light we had been hoping for.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. With joy let us keep the feast!