First let me extend everyone here, to the whole parish family of St. Philomena, my own prayers that each of you will celebrate a most joyful and peaceful Easter, the victory of Jesus over death. As we celebrate this feast, I have a sense that we take it too much for granted. We talk about the Easter mystery, which means the sufferings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. We say those words so easily as though it's just kind of a normal thing that someone rises from the dead, but it wasn't and isn't.
Those first disciples really had no clue. In the other Gospel accounts, in Mark's especially, the disciples come to the tomb and after they discover that the body is gone (it's women disciples that do this) they're all upset and they just leave without saying anything to anybody. They don't know what to do. Today we hear about Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb and being upset. At least she runs and gets Peter and John and they come back to see what's going on, but they too leave. Nothing seems to change.
The Mass of Easter Day
It took a long time for the disciples to begin to understand what Jesus had told them. He had said that the Son of Man is going up to Jerusalem, be handed over to his enemy, be tortured, executed, but then rise from the dead, "I will be lifted up." But they never, never really understood what he meant. So when this happens, they were just clueless. They might have thought (and maybe some of us think this way) that Jesus was talking about what we would call a resuscitation.
In other words, when someone goes into a deep, deep coma, appears to be dead, but then comes back to life. There are a couple of examples of that in the Gospels where Jesus resuscitates someone and they come back to a normal life like it was before. But this isn't a resuscitation. There's something totally different about the resurrection of Jesus. He had been dead; now he's alive, but in a totally different form, a different way.
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You're not going to be able to touch him like you could before. He isn't resuscitated. It's a new life, one that's promised to all of us eventually. But for those first disciples, it was just something they couldn't begin to grasp. Of course it had never happened before, and would not happen again. It's unique in human history. But then we discover that there is a way they begin to understand. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved -- he's always identified that way and he was the one disciple that stayed to the end.
He was there at the foot of the cross. His love for Jesus was so strong that he would not be separated. The others ran and hid, saved their own lives, but John was there. We notice that in the Gospel the other disciple, John, who had reached the tomb first, also went in. He saw what was there and he believed, which means he had this relationship with Jesus. That's what faith means -- that you enter into a relationship with God. John believed.
He was the first one to begin to have a sense that this was different -- you relate to Jesus now through faith, not through sight. Then in that Gospel passage of today, if you go on just a couple more verses, Mary Magdalene, who also was at the foot of the cross and who loved Jesus with an extraordinary love stood weeping outside the tomb and as she wept she bent down to look inside. She saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been -- one at the head and the other at the feet.
They said, "Woman, why are you weeping?" "Because they have taken Jesus. I don't know where they have put him." As she said this she turned around and saw Jesus, but she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?" She thought it was the gardener. Mary answered, "Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and remove him." Jesus said to her, "Mary."
He called her by name, Mary. She turned and said to him, "Rabboni," which means Lord. Then Jesus said to her, "Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father who is your Father, to my God who is your God.'" So Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord and this is what he told me -- to spread the good news." What's the common link in those two incidents? Each of these people -- Mary and John the apostle have this special relationship with Jesus.
It's a relationship that's built on faith, on believing. It's a real relationship, but it's not one that is built on your senses, something you can see or hear and so on. It's faith, but also it's bonded by love. John had that special love for Jesus and Mary Magdalene did too. There's a beautiful passage in the book called the Song of Songs. It's part of the wisdom books of the Old Testament. In this passage it's a song between two lovers.
The one says, "Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for love is stronger than death. It's jealousy is lasting overcomes the power of death. Love burns like a blazing fire. It blazes like a mighty flame. No flood can extinguish love nor rivers submerge it." Love is stronger than death. That's what brought John and Mary Magdalene -- the first two to really accept a new reality that Jesus is alive! Through love we can be connected to him.
Through faith we know him, but that's the only way. We can't prove it through any kind of human calculations, but through love. Through faith we establish a relationship with Jesus who is alive. Our spirit life, which is deep within us, connects with the spirit life of Jesus and we know he is risen! It brings great joy to our hearts when we really begin to understand this, not as some resuscitation, but a whole new way of living on a different realm, a different way.
Jesus is alive forever and draws us into his risen life. If we strengthen our relationship with Jesus through faith and through love we will come to know him as Mary Magdalene did, as John the disciple did, and gradually the other disciples. It's really something totally extraordinary and I hope we never just take it for granted again, if we have before. Understand that this is a new thing. It never happened before, it hasn't happened since, but it will happen to all of us if we stay united with Jesus, our risen Lord.
That then brings us to our final reflection today. To stay united with him, to grow in love of Jesus, it probably calls for some change in our life. That's what our second lesson today is about. "If you are risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind and your heart on the things that are above, not on earthly things, for you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."
Then Paul says here's how to change: "Clothe yourselves then as is fitting for God's chosen people, holy and beloved. Put on compassion -- feeling with others, loving others -- kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another. Forgive whenever there is any occasion to do so. As God has forgiven you, forgive one another. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony and then the peace of Christ will overflow in your hearts. For this you are called to be one body and so be thankful."
Be joyful, rejoice, change your lives, follow this path of Jesus and you will always be united with him. Remember: Love is stronger than death. Love will keep us always united with Jesus here in this life and forever. So as we leave the church today, I hope we will, as Paul tells us, focus on the things that are above, change our lives so that we live according to the way of Jesus, who lives forever in heaven and is reaching out to bring us to him. That's what the joy and the peace of Easter truly means when we understand what the resurrection is.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]