Fr Bob Eccles finds Easter as hope and joy in a time of grief – and encourages us to follow the example of Mary Magdalene, and keep in touch.
Grief catches us in different ways. Here are three people early in the morning by a garden tomb after two nights and a day of loss, such great sorrow. This Easter morning we have opened St John’s gospel at the point where Peter has slipped into the empty tomb ahead of the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, that must be his great friend John. Clearly this tomb is roomy, almost like a cave, big enough for each of them to go in and look about. Then it’s John’s turn. We are not told what Peter’s thoughts were, only John’s. Though both must have seen the same things, grave cloths no longer wrapped round a body but dropped on the floor or neatly rolled up.
Did Peter not notice anything special? Had he no idea why Jesus’ body wasn’t where you’d expect to find it? John in his turn went in to see for himself, and for him what had happened was beyond doubt, the significance of the discarded wrappings that had been round the body struck him like a blow. He thinks the unthinkable. He saw, the gospel writer says simply, and he believed. Irresistibly we think of Christ’s words to doubting Thomas later, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
We have met these men often enough to guess how they would react to such a sight. The gospels give us a good idea of Peter, this outspoken and quite dominating personality, impulsive, cut out to be the leader or is he just the type to elbow others out of the way. Knows all the answers and usually gets it wrong and needs to be put right.
John less in evidence, his relation to our Lord more confidential, by nature a contemplative, intuitive, the person anyone might like to have as their best friend or to take care of their mother if it has to come to that. In the gospel stories about the appearances of the Risen Lord most people need a lot of help to take in what’s happened, but John gets it right first time. So perhaps although Peter didn’t believe as readily as John did, John had faith enough for both of them.
If we now pick up the gospel again at the place where the Sunday reading ends, if we continue, it’s to find a third witness, Mary Magdalen still there, lingering outside the tomb, all by herself. As though in her grief she can’t tear herself away. The men have seen what there is to see and gone away again. Waiting there faithfully she comes in for the experience the male figures haven’t had, this glorious moment of an unspeakable joy, she is in the presence of her Risen Lord. She mistakes him for the gardener until he speaks her name, Mary, she tries to embrace him but can’t be allowed: don’t touch me, I am on my way to the Father. And he tells her to go and tell his brothers that he is risen from the dead. In my old Priory in Brussels, her statue stands in the garden, looking down at the friars taking their recreation or making for the gate into the street. The garden of course, just where she should be, and it’s a woman’s job to see the preachers on their way.
St Thomas Aquinas (his turn next) taught that the word of Scripture was not realized – didn’t come to full expression – merely in a single moment of past history, at the time of Christ’s Incarnation, it is realized also, and in incarnate form, within his body, the Church. Young Dominicans are told, the Word of God that is on your lips is to be made flesh in the hearts of the hearers. And the Church is always moving forward in history, the Church also belongs to the present moment, to modernity, she is not an heirloom or a museum. She speaks our language and she lives in the now. She hands on to this generation the fruits of her contemplation, and her word for handing on is tradition, that’s the work of the life-giving Spirit in our hearts, our imaginations and our wills.
Put it simply! What Mary Magdalen, Peter and John discovered at the holy sepulchre is still for the Church to discover, even this local church gathered this morning or looking in, an evangelical moment. Ours has to be the delighted, overjoyed love of Mary who wants to embrace her living Lord, the enlightened faith of the disciple John, and even the willing hope of Peter slow on the uptake. The Church of Mary, Peter and John is the Church of you and me. The Church is the school of faith, hope and love and we are at that school, her students, what disciple means.
Long-faced pundits of the Facebook sort say the plague will kill off the Church, well it killed off the Lamb and Flag and other watering holes, so it did. Suffering and sadness will discourage you from putting your trust in religion. Is that so? I look around and I see people at Mass in their front rooms, whose homes are a house of prayer. I see the Pope arrive in Iraq a penitent pilgrim and go knocking on the door of an ayatollah some could only see as an enemy. I see great waves of generosity, people ‘walking for water’ everywhere. I see the dying go out to meet their Saviour with lamps of faith alight. I hear young people ask, what is the Lord asking of me? People look at the hopeless priests and see through us. Thank goodness for that! And say, it’s down to us now to be missionary disciples. I believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church and I have not only believed, I have seen, I have seen in believing people the sign of God’s mercy and compassion.
Don’t let’s look for the living among the dead! The risen Christ is living and he is with us today, so long as it is today. He is with us in mystery, that is in the sacraments of faith, he is present as we are present to one another, wherever two or three are gathered in lockdown together. Or just when we pick up the phone. Go on pick up the phone, there’s someone waiting to hear from you! (could be me). He is present in the wretched of the earth and he waits for us there, with the joy that lights up the faces of the poor. Christos aneste, alethe aneste! Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Amen, alleluia.