Words on the Word
Acts 10:34, 37-43: I can witness that God raised him to life.
Colossians 3:1-4: When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear.
John 20:1-9: He saw and he believed.
Some time ago, I visited a friend dying of cancer. She was a woman in her 50s, a good, kind person, the mother of four children. She had been church-going throughout her life, but the prospect of death caused her to reevaluate, not without strictness, her Christian faith and practice. In what turned out to be our last conversation, she told me, ‘You know, for most of my life I have regarded the Christian message as a lovely fairytale. Only now do I seriously ask, could it actually be true?’ There was a note of anxiety in her questioning. But there was also something else, a quality it took me a while to identify. I’d call it exhilaration—the term doesn’t seem too strong. It contains that element of thrill we feel when we start something new, something unknown that requires a new and therefore unrehearsable response. Thrill of that kind is caught up in wonder. We knew it as children; but, as we grow older, wiser perhaps (perhaps also a bit jaded, even cynical), we lose the ability to be wonderstruck. We expect life to be just more of the same. And since that’s what we look for, that tends to be exactly what we find. Until, that is, we stand within reach of the boundary which for each of us ineluctably spells rupture: a manifest end and a possible beginning. Faced with death, we have to ask: ‘What has this really been about?’ Of a sudden, we perceive immense possibilities. My friend left this life as a pilgrim setting out on a journey, carrying no unnecessary baggage, no extra tunic, no second pair of sandals, no copper in her belt, equipped only with Christ’s peace, which, in her final months, she came to know as substantial and real. On her tombstone her husband had these words inscribed: ‘At last you will know’. It is a beautiful epitaph, outlining a goal we all hope to reach.
To many of us, I dare say, the Gospel of Easter can appear a little like it did at times to my friend, as a dignified fable, a comforting romance, a tale we tell to reassure ourselves, without probing its substance overmuch. It opens onto such a lot of unchartered territory! We may lack both the energy and the courage to explore it. But does it not make sense to begin this work deliberately now, not to leave it to the end, when we shall have much else on our minds? The apostolic testimony put before us today is an outstretched hand, inviting us to set out, to draw into the deep.
In our Gospel, John, the beloved disciple, affirms the literal truth of Jesus’s resurrection. John, who was there, bears witness and urges us, too, to believe by virtue of his testimony. The first stage of adult Christian faith is to examine the apostolic claims and to make up our minds: does this hold water, or not? To have faith is not to be credulous. The evangelists appeal to our critical sense, and expect us to use it.
In our first reading, Peter proclaims his version of the message. Like John, he tells us what happened; then he takes us further. The rising of Jesus, he says, is the singular event that enables for all times the forgiveness of sins. Such forgiveness is something we may know experientially. To make progress in discipleship is to have the honesty—the guts—to own up to our sin; to take responsibility for those things we have done that mar our true self as God intended it, as our enlightened conscience envisages it. To declare this truth in sacramental confession and to obtain the Lord’s pardon is to meet the risen Lord: on this point, the Church is emphatic. Easter Morning is not lodged in the past; it is present here and now in so far as, like Mary Magdalene, you and I go out in search of Jesus, and keep searching till we find him.
Paul, in our second reading, holds out a promise more audacious still. Too often we regard his epistles as ammunition for controversy. Paul is, after all, the authority invoked when thorny issues arise, be it the nature of justification, women’s status in the Church, the Christian view of politics, or whatever. We easily overlook what is Paul’s essential message, namely: the transformation of our nature in Christ, the claim that Christ’s victory over death gives us also the potential to know, even this side of the grave, a foretaste of eternal, beatific life. ‘Your life’, Paul tells us, ‘is hidden with Christ in God’. Elsewhere he says, ‘Christ is our life’. Are we ready, brothers and sisters, to risk this existential shift of focus? Are we ready to abandon our acquired, constructed sense of self and discover ourselves again ‘in Christ’, to enter a condition that Paul, who weighed his words, describes as ‘glory’? This is what Easter enables us to do, if only we are minded, by grace, to receive what it is Christ’s wish to give us.
The gloriousness of Christian existence was central to the thought of our father St Bernard, who spoke of it often, stressing all the while that it does not make for an easy life. For this glory, he once wrote, ‘is a secret glory, it lies hidden in tribulation’. In the power of Christ’s resurrection, our very crosses become repositories of blessing, sources of surging joy. By living always in the light of the Risen One, may we know that darkness has been overcome and is henceforth mysteriously illumined. Amen.