Rejoice now, all ye heavenly legions of Angels:
all high things that pass understanding:
for the King that cometh with victory,
let the trumpet proclaim salvation.
Sing with joy, O earth, illumined with this celestial radiancy:
and enlightened by the eternal God thy glory,
believe and know thou hast put away the darkness of mankind.
So likewise let our Mother, his holy Church,
welcome the bright beams of light shed upon her:
and let his holy courts be filled with the praises of his people!
These are the words that begin the ancient hymn – Exsultet jam angelica, sung at Easter Vigil to bring in this great feast of the Resurrection. Creation, which had longed for redemption, witnesses the Resurrection – Jesus is the first-fruits and we who follow Him are filling up the harvest for glory!
Today in our Gospel we heard of the first moments, according to John, of the breaking in of a new reality in Creation – it is a very subdued account.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried while it was still dark. She went out of loving devotion – to anoint the dead body of her Lord, because it had been quickly buried just as the Sabbath began (on Friday night) and she chose, out of faithfulness not do this work on the Sabbath.
And she sees the stone that had covered the grave had been taken away from the tomb. She looked in and saw that the tomb was empty, and she ran to tell Peter and John – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Our proclamation of the Resurrection begins with a revelation of the absence of our Lord – as John recounts the events that happened – he and Peter ran to the tomb, they see the burial garments but not the Lord’s body – and John says when he looked in, he saw and believed! Despite all of the preparations Jesus had made, it wasn’t until the actual disappearance of Jesus’ body, that belief in His Resurrection began to come to their minds.
Whatever idea we might have of the resurrection of Jesus, we should pause before such a great mystery and keep an open mind, so as not to limit the truth and greatness of what happened that day. It is something that we can’t quite put our minds around.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his excellent book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, notes that in the gospel resurrection accounts there seems to be a “mysterious combination of otherness and identity.”
On the one hand, Jesus does not seem to be recognized when he appears. Think of Mary Magdalene, mistaking Jesus for the gardener [John 20:15]. Or think of the two on the road to Emmaus, who are joined by a stranger, who speaks on and on with them as they walk, but is only known later in the breaking of the bread – at which point he disappears [Luke 24]. Or remember Jesus’ appearance at the Sea of Tiberias, where he calls out from shore to the disciples who are in a boat to ask if they have any fish. They say no, so he tells them to cast out again, it is only after the catch, that they know him [John 21]. In every case, it is not by outward physical appearance that they recognize him, but by “a kind of inward knowing”. [Benedict]
On the other hand Jesus is clearly physically present to them – he tells them he is not only spirit, and proves it by eating a piece of fish in their presence – and yet his body is not restrained or confined by the laws of physics that we know. He appears in their midst in a locked room – he is able to appear and disappear at will.
Jesus’ resurrection is not simply a resuscitation, like his miracles of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain or that of Lazarus, who were resuscitated, only to die again later – but rather, Jesus is now permanently beyond the reach of death. He is showing us something utterly new. As Benedict puts it, “Jesus’ Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it—a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” Life has burst forth from the grave and opened his followers’ eyes to a new reality, a far greater glory that awaits us. Truly a “mysterious combination of otherness and identity.”
I want to say something for those here today who who are just beginning to come in or to return to the Church. When I was a young Christian, and people said, Christ is risen! and others responded, The Lord is risen indeed! I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about – was I supposed to be feeling something? Did they actually see him? Is there something I’m missing? What do they mean by saying, Jesus is risen?
Well it’s not that every true Christian has had a direct vision of Jesus. Even in Jesus’ resurrection appearances the Bible says it was only to chosen witnesses. So what is it?
For one thing, it is simply an affirmation of faith – something we believe because of the many witnesses in the Bible who attest to it. And the Apostles say, that unless Jesus rose from the dead, the whole of our Christian faith is worthless – they hold that it is as key to our understanding our faith and God as Jesus’ birth and his death on the Cross. And the Apostles are all adamant in the Bible in stating that they have truly seen Him.
So first of all the Resurrection of Jesus is a matter of faith – we trust the Bible, which holds the testimony, the witness of the Apostles.
But secondly, people through the ages have experienced and into the present areexperiencing in their lives the power of the risen Jesus to bring life out of situations that were very much like death. And they identify the new life they experience as derived from His risen Life. As a priest I have the privilege and blessing of hearing many accounts of the way people have encountered the risen Lord – for some and for myself it is some combination of these ways:
- Whether a renewal of vision, a renewal of strength after weakness and spiritual drought, or a miraculous healing of hurts and even painful memories, or the restoration and renewal of broken hearts to be able to love again.
- For some it does include mystical experiences of visions and / or dreams – as promised by the prophets.
- For some it is the strange correspondences, “coincidences” where nature itself seem to speak in direct ways at just the right moment, or unexpected encounters with just the right individual at just the right time that seems to have been lovingly arranged by someone, or the sudden unexpected love received from a stranger, that made the person wonder later, who was that?
- For many it is experiencing profoundly Jesus’ mercy – the certainty of the forgiveness of sins, and a peace that passes all understanding. Some were found in a place of real hell on earth and then were lifted out by a power and love way beyond them.
- It is experienced by most as the ongoing inspiration by His Spirit in our hearts revealing the truth about ourselves and our relationships, and leading us to a better place.
- And it is communal too – Jesus promised us that whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name he is there in their midst – and those of us who have come to embrace Christian fellowship know this – know there is something added, something special in those friendships – we attribute it to the presence of our risen Lord.
God’s love, God’s light, God’s life dropping down from above like a gentle rain or experienced as a sudden torrent.
There are a myriad of ways that people experience the risen Lord…and can affirm, when someone says – Christ is risen! – they can affirm, as I can now too, even shout with joy – The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In our Epistle today Paul says– If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
We’ve gone through the forty day Lenten fast – if you’ve participated, I hope it has been spiritually enriching and that there is something the risen Lord has brought to your mind – something that bound you, something that must stay in the grave. Let us pray for the grace to leave it behind, and to seek and find a new and better country, to seek the things that are above, where Christ is.
You see, as Christians we experience the risen Lord as coming to us, but he also says we can participate in the work of being raised up, by putting to death sin and setting our minds on things that are above, by cooperating with His effervescent Spirit that is within us seeking always to lift us into that new life. His love lifts us!
Jesus has promised us a another way to know his risen presence – and perhaps you too are longing for it today – the Pascal Feast!
It seems that many of the occasions of Jesus’ resurrection appearances were in the context of a meal. The two disciples in Emmaus only knew him in the breaking of the bread. And Peter says in his sermon in Acts: “God raised him the third day, and showed him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen beforehand by God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.” [Acts 10:40-41] Remember Jesus’ inviting the disciples to breakfast on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias – it seems he even cooked the fish! [John 21]
He comes to eat and drink with us today – He says, Take, eat, this is my body; Drink this all of you, this is my blood of the New Covenant. In this meal he establishes and strengthens our covenant with Him.
We receive in our hearts the presence of the risen Christ. Jesus transforms the meaning of the Passover meal, fulfilling it perfectly with his own sacrifice, exalting it – His Passover means that judgement passes over us – peace comes to our hearts, if we’ve prepared ourselves by fully acknowledging our sins, and if we trust in His offering on the Cross. Then we come to know the certainty of reconciliation with God, and His love is kindled in us.
As with the Israelites who stepped out of political bondage to the Egyptians, so do we step out of every situation of bondage and slavery to the past, to walk in faith, in a new adventure, all the time recovering our true humanity and our dignity on that walk. The true and final Promised Land, is being opened up to us here and now, as we are made partakers of the Divine nature – and there is no better place on earth to be than with God.
And, as love, His Love, is shed abroad in our hearts – that is the risen Christ in us.
Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!