Desolation to hope

The readings for Easter Sunday seem to be a letdown from the no-holds-barred celebration of the Vigil that took us from creation through Christ’s resurrection, punctuated with the new fire, bells and all those alleluias. On Easter morning, the church takes a step back to say, “Now we need to think about all of this and integrate what it means.” That’s the process we’ll be involved in for the next 50 days.

Today’s selection from John’s Gospel can’t be considered as much more than an inconclusive Resurrection account. It tells us that when Mary of Magdala and Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” saw the empty tomb, the beloved disciple “believed” but that none of them understood, leaving us with Mary Magdalen’s core question: “Where is the Lord?”

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Psalm 118
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-9

One message this Gospel brings home is that our alleluias may be too facile. The disciples who knew Jesus most intimately were devastated at his death and confounded by the first signs of Resurrection. Because of that, it’s probably a very good thing for us to be left with Mary at this point in her experience. If we can’t imagine her devastation, we’ll never understand her Easter joy.

When we read the Resurrection Gospels objectively, we realize that the empty tomb didn’t prove anything. Far from being a sign of hope, it was more like a doubling down on the disciples’ depression.

The only really good news in this selection is that the beloved disciple “saw and believed,” but what exactly he believed remains unclear. At best, he believed that Jesus had returned to the Father, a situation that did little to address the bitter angst of the question Mary presented for all of them, “What happened to the Lord?”, along with “What does it mean for us?”

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In the face of that question, the Letter to the Colossians tells us to seek what is above. While that might sound like a prescription to imbibe in a good dose of denial, in reality it’s exactly the opposite. The author who writes in Paul’s name tells us to fix our hearts and minds on Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father. That will sound like pie in the sky until we remember what the early church would have envisioned when they heard it.

Rather than picturing Christ the King robed in fine liturgical vestments, their image of the risen Lord had hands, feet and a side scarred by the crucifixion. The original evangelizers had vivid memories of the man who had been beaten, mocked and spat upon, the one who had somehow found the breath and spirit to forgive his enemies as he died at their hands. When the early Christians set their minds on what was above, they saw the innocent victim, now risen and continuing to share the power of God’s invincible love.

Experts say that addicts can’t be helped until they have “hit bottom.” In the same way, only those who have endured a measure of Christ’s passion or suffered in solidarity with those who have can fully appreciate what it means to “think of what is above, not what is on earth.” In this sense, earth is the realm of injustice, envy and lies. It is the sphere in which Mary wandered on that first morning, the place of cruelty on top of death.

We know that later on that first day Mary would encounter Christ and would have her eyes raised to a different plane. As Paul says, Christ her life was about to appear and transform her imagination. As a result of her encounter with her risen Lord, she would begin to understand how Christ’s resurrection changes everything. The wounds of Jesus had not disappeared, but they did not define him and the forgiveness he offered promised that those wounds need not define those who inflicted them. As she grasped this reality she was envisioning “what is above.”

John and Paul convey this mystery in heady language. In today’s first reading, Peter says it more simply. He tells the bare-bones story of Jesus and does his best to explain the Resurrection. What it all comes down to for Peter is that knowing Jesus and meeting him as risen Lord converted him and his fellow witnesses into apostles, people who continued Jesus’ own mission of proclaiming forgiveness.

Today’s readings offer us a variety of approaches to the Easter mystery. They invite us to consider our own experience as a Gospel to be shared. We may know Easter faith as a slow journey from desolation to hope. It may be a vision of transformed reality that orients us to live each day from above. It can also be like Peter’s simple response, “We knew it, saw it, and now must proclaim it.”

There are many models, and ours will probably grow and change. What is essential is our response to the question: “What does it mean for us?”

[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the U.S.]

This story appeared in the April 7-20, 2017 print issue.

This Sunday scripture commentary appears in full in NCR's sister publication Celebration, a worship and homiletic resource. Request a sample issue at CelebrationPublications.org.

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