16 April 2017
A Sermon for Easter Day
Our celebration of Easter tends to surround us with familiar things. We have commemorated all the events of Holy Week, and when we come to the Easter celebration, we know what to expect – the music, the flowers, the order of the Mass, even the sermon has the ring of the familiar.
That was not so for St. Mary Magdalene, as she made her sad journey to the tomb on that first Easter morning. She had kept watch with the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the cross on Friday afternoon. She had seen the lifeless body of Jesus placed in the arms of His Mother, and she knew He was dead. She had helped to make the hasty burial preparations, and now she was returning to finish what she thought would be her last act of love towards her Master. But it was then that things seemed to be disoriented, and not as she expected.
When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb in the semi-darkness, what she saw was very disturbing. The massive stone had been rolled away from the opening, the entrance to the tomb was wide open, and she knew things were not the way they should be. Her first thought? Grave robbers! In fact, those were the first anguished words from her mouth when she ran back to tell the disciples, Peter and John. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put him!"
We can understand her panic and her grief. First they had crucified her Master. Now they had stolen His body – the body to which she had planned to give her final loving care. As soon as she tells them, Peter and John both run to the tomb.
John is faster; Peter is braver. John takes a tentative peek inside and sees the strips of burial linens. He hesitates. But Peter, never one to hesitate over anything, heads directly into the tomb. He sees the burial linens along with the cloth that covered Jesus' head. But something is strange here, out of the ordinary. Everything is neat and in order. The head cloth is folded up by itself, separate from the shroud. Whoever did this was not in much of a hurry. The grave-clothes are exactly as there were on Christ’s body, completely undisturbed. Whatever had happened, it was obvious that this was hardly the work of grave robbers.
John finally gathers up enough courage to go inside the tomb to take a good look for himself. And he records this solemn sentence about his own reaction: "He saw and he believed." He saw the empty tomb and the undisturbed linens, and he believed Jesus' word that He would rise from the dead on the third day. He saw and he believed. That’s where we get the phrase, “Seeing is believing.”
But we should understand that seeing is not necessarily believing. And conversely, believing does not necessarily involve seeing. When it comes to our faith, “seeing” puts the evidence before the eyes, but “believing” is trusting that Jesus is true to His word. It is quite possible to see and not believe.
The Pharisees saw with their own eyes the miracles Jesus performed, but they did not believe. Peter saw the same things in the tomb that John did, but Peter did not believe at first. Later that week, another apostle, St. Thomas said, "Unless I see His wounds and touch them, I will not believe."
It was not just what John saw, but it was also what Jesus had said, which led John to believe. And Jesus prepared us for the fact that it is possible to not see and yet believe, when He said to St. Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." That’s a direct reference to us. And St. John emphasizes this point when he writes, "They did not yet know from the Scriptures that Jesus had to rise from the dead."
Jesus would soon open their minds to see from the Scriptures that Christ must suffer and on the third day rise. That is why He gave them an empty tomb and undisturbed linens. It was to preach to them on that first Easter morning. They were not yet able to get it from the Scriptures, because it is later, near the end of his Gospel, that St. John writes, "These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."
We do not see what those disciples saw on that first morning. In fact, we cannot see what they saw. The original sites are there, and we can visit them as places of prayer and devotion, but things no longer look as they did. If we travel to Jerusalem and visit the very site of the resurrection, the only reason we know it is the place is because others have told us that it is. There is nothing there now that would let us know what had happened.
Sometimes we might be tempted to think that it would have been easier to believe all this back then, at the time of Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and John. They were eyewitnesses to all that surrounded Jesus' death and resurrection. They saw all of this with their own eyes. Sometimes it seems as though it would be so much easier, if we could just see “with our own eyes!” Just to be able to peek into the open, empty tomb to glance at the linen burial cloths, maybe a glimpse of a bright angel or two, and a look at the face of the resurrected Jesus. It would be so easy for us to believe if only we could see, or at least we imagine it would be.
But the written record handed down to us tells us differently. Seeing is not necessarily believing. Mary Magdalene saw Jesus with her own eyes and she thought He was the gardener. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus saw Jesus; in fact, they walked and talked with Him for seven miles, but they didn’t recognize him until He broke the bread at the table with them. Seeing is not necessarily believing.
Look around at the people of any Catholic parish. There is little visible evidence to tell the world that it is a gathering of holy people, cleansed and claimed by the blood of Christ. But God has declared that it is so – and He expects us to live in such a way that this fact becomes evident to the world.
The next time you hear someone say, “Seeing is believing,” don’t accept that. It simply isn’t true. If we follow only what we see, we will end up racing from one tomb to the next, from one church to the next, from one preacher to the next, perhaps even from one religion to the next, – always searching for something that we can see with our eyes, but coming up empty. We will end up as Mary Magdalene started out on that first Easter morning when she said, "They have taken my Lord, and I don't know where they have put him."
As believers and members of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church, we do know where Jesus is. First of all, we know He is at the right hand of the Father in heaven, restored to His place of eternal glory. But we also know that He is in the midst of His Church, which is the living Body of Christ. And we know this: the same crucified and risen Jesus, who defeated death and crushed the head of Satan, and whom Mary saw in the garden that morning, is located in the tabernacle of every Catholic church, hidden yet really present, unseen yet truly and objectively with us. He calls each of us by name from the waters of baptism, making us new creatures by the power of His death and resurrection. We are buried in Him and He is buried in us. When we receive Holy Communion, He buries His crucified body and blood in us, and He remakes us by giving us new life. He could not be any clearer about it: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise Him up on the Last Day."
Jesus gave His life so that we could have eternal life.
When we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we are also claiming the promise of the resurrection of our own bodies on the Last Day. In rising from the dead, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Last Day of the old creation on this day, which is the first day of the new creation. The stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty and orderly. Death has been swallowed up in victory. The disorder and darkness of death has been reordered by the Light of Christ. Death has been swallowed up in victory. Jesus Christ is risen, and in Him, we too will rise in glory.