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Reality has Come

“Reality has come,” Melito, bishop of Sardis in the 2nd century, says in a homily for Easter. “The type has passed away… The lamb gives place to God, the sheep gives place to a man, and the man is Christ, who fills the whole of creation.

“The sacrifice of the lamb, the celebration of the Passover, and the prescriptions of the Law have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Under the old Law, and still more under the new dispensation, everything pointed toward him.

“Both the Law and the Word came forth from Zion and Jerusalem, but now the Law has given place to the Word, the old to the new. The commandment has become grace, the type a reality. The lamb has become a Son, the sheep a man, and man, God.

“The Lord, though he was God, became man. He suffered for the sake of those who suffer, he was bound for those in bonds, condemned for the guilty, buried for those who lie in the grave; but he rose from the dead, and cried aloud… I have freed the condemned, brought the dead back to life, raised men and women from their graves… I am the Christ; I have destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men and women up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.

“Come, then, all nations, receive forgiveness for the sins that defile you. I am your forgiveness. I am the Passover that brings salvation. I am the lamb who was immolated for you. I am your ransom, your life, your resurrection, your light. I am your salvation and your king. I will bring you to the heights of heaven. With my own right hand I will raise you up, and I will show you the eternal Father.”


The Resurrection Stories

The resurrection narratives in the gospels speak to the churches for which they are written which explains partially why they differ one from the other.

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s resurrection account, for example, obviously speaks to a Jewish Christian church confronted by a resurgent Judaism under Pharisaic leadership. The story of the Jewish guards at the tomb, an important part of Matthew’s resurrection narrative, was surely part of an attack on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. His messianic origins, his parents and the leaders he had chosen to follow him were also being questioned.

Matthew insists that Jesus really died, he tasted death in all its harsh reality. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out after a long silence on Calvary. He was buried, then he rose again.

An earthquake announces his resurrection and an angel clothed like lightening sits triumphantly on the stone rolled away from an empty tomb. Death has been conquered. Jesus appears to his disciples, however, not here at the tomb, but on a mountain in Galilee, according to Matthew’s gospel.  From there, he sends his disciples into the whole world to preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Christians of Galilee about 90 AD, when Matthew’s gospel was written, were struggling with Pharisaic Judaism for dominance in that part of Palestine; they may well have been losing the battle. In the centuries that followed, there is evidence that Christianity hardly survived in the land where Jesus began his ministry.

According to Matthew, the Risen Christ comes to urge his followers to a global mission. He does not dwell in the past;he is present where his followers are, leading them on.  At his command they are to leave Galilee which, instead of a place where the Christian movement ends, becomes a place of hope and new beginnings. Matthew doesn’t forget that the Risen Christ emerged from the tomb in Jerusalem, but he is intent on presenting him bringing new life and direction to his struggling church. Jesus constantly calls it to a wider mission.

Luke’s Gospel

The focus of the resurrection narrative of Luke is the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Matthew, Luke begins with the women at the tomb, but he also directs us beyond the tomb to a road where two downcast disciples sunk in disappointment are abandoning their hopes for God’s kingdom. He appears gradually to the two disciples. Slow to understand and to recognize Jesus, they see him finally in the breaking of the bread. They remember afterwards his words on the road.

Luke’s account of the Risen Jesus with the two disciples who have lost hope and are trying to find their way is a key to understanding the journey of the church the evangelist outlines in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. It will be a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Rome. But it is not a triumphant journey; it’s the road taken by the two disciples. Luke’s narrative is a wonderful corrective to a triumphalist view of the church and a perfectionist view of our personal journey of faith.

John’s Gospel

The Gospel of John, with its lengthy series of resurrection stories, begins in Jerusalem with Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene as she goes to the tomb in the darkness of Sunday morning and finds it empty. In John’s church the eye-witnesses to what Jesus said and did are long gone. John  emphasizes the incredulity of the original eye-witnesses. Mary, first of all , is convinced that the body of Jesus has been stolen. She and Peter are not at all ready to believe. Like the Emmaus disciples who do not see him at first, Mary does not recognize the mysterious stranger.She thinks he is a gardener and only recognizes him after he calls her name. The Emmaus disciples find him “in the breaking of the bread,” Mary recognizes him as he speaks her name.

Their stories remind us that the eucharist and the word of God help us recognize the Risen Lord. “My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says.

Mark’s gospel describes Mary in his resurrection account as the one from whom Jesus cast out seven devils and that’s the way John’s gospel presents her. She is not a romantic interest as some modern sensationalists would like her to be. She is a symbol of every individual whom the Risen Lord comes to save; she represents the weakest of humanity that Jesus will bring to the Father.

As he rises from death Jesus has been changed, John’s gospel indicates. The lack of recognition of him by his disciples tells us that. Yet he is the same. “Life is changed, not ended,” we say in our prayers. He has a mission beyond this world to prepare a place for us. So Mary is not to cling to him. He will come again to take her and all of us to himself.

Like Mary Magdalen, who represents the weakness of us all.  Thomas the apostle, on the other hand,  represents institutional doubt, the doubt of the church and all humanity before the mystery of the resurrection. Thomas is not unique.

The locked doors of the Upper Room are more than a defense against the Jewish leaders. The Risen Jesus must come to his church with his gift of peace and forgiveness to renew it in its mission.  He comes to be present and to show us the wounds in his hands and his side, which remain in his risen body. When we see them in him and in also others, we will recognize him.

In John’s gospel Jerusalem is where Jesus meets his followers first. He meets them as individuals, like Mary. He meets them together as they gather on the first day of the week and on the Lord’s Day. He meets them in sacraments and signs. He empowers them with the Holy Spirit, the Creator Spirit.

After recalling his appearances in Jerusalem, John recalls the appearances of Jesus in Galilee, continuing the tradition of the two places where the early church saw the Risen One appear.

The gospel accounts of the resurrection offer a wonderful picture of how the Risen Christ comes to us as individuals, as a church and as the world.

His Glorious Wounds

A reflection by Athanasius of Antioch in Wednesday’s Office of Readings speaks about the glory of Jesus. First, he had a glory before the world began. It was a glory far beyond the light of the sun, a light inaccessible to us. We could not even look at him.

None of the appearances of the Risen Jesus in the gospels reveal a glory like that. Becoming human, he relinquished that glory and experienced death on the cross

His glory now appears in the mystery of the cross, as he repeatedly shows his disciples the wounds in his hands and his side.

“ It was necessary for Christ to suffer: it was impossible for his passion not to have happened. He said so himself when he called his companions dull and slow to believe because they failed to recognise that he had to suffer and so enter into his glory.

“Leaving behind him the glory that had been his with the Father before the world was made, he had gone forth to save his people. This salvation, however, could be achieved only by the suffering of the author of our life, as Paul taught when he said that the author of life himself was made perfect through suffering.

“Because of us he was deprived of his glory for a little while, the glory that was his as the Father’s only-begotten Son, but through the cross this glory is seen to have been restored to him in a certain way in the body that he had assumed. `

“Explaining what water the Saviour referred to when he said: He that has faith in me shall have rivers of living water flowing from within him, John says in his gospel that he was speaking of the Holy Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified. The glorification he meant was his death upon the cross for which the Lord prayed to the Father before undergoing his passion, asking his Father to give him the glory that he had in his presence before the world began.”

For more on the wounds of Christ:


Belief Comes From His Wounds

Reading the letters of St. Paul of the Cross you notice how often he wishes the one to whom he’s writing to be placed in the “wounds of Christ” or the “holy Side of Jesus” or his “Sacred Heart.”.  “I am in a hurry and leave you in the holy Side of Jesus, where I ask rich blessings for you.”

Expressions like these seem to be pious phrases until we read the story of Thomas from John’s gospel. Jesus shows the doubting disciple the wounds in his hands and side, and Thomas believes.

Belief is not something we arrive at by our own powers of reason or will. Faith is a gift that God gives through Jesus Christ.

Signs of Faith

“What shall we do?” those in Jerusalem who hear Peter ‘s witness to the Risen Jesus ask. “Repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus so that your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter responds. (Acts 2,38)

Now at the Easter Vigil we baptize those who hear the Easter message for the first time and we who are already baptized renew our baptismal commitment. We ask forgiveness for our sins and a greater openness to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We’re reading these days (http://www.universalis.com/readings.htm) from the wonderful catechetical sermons of Cyril, the 4th century bishop of Jerusalem, which he gave to the newly baptized of his community, in the great church of the Anastasis, built over the tomb of Jesus and the rock of Calvary. Today it’s called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Those being baptized were led down into a pool of water to symbolically die and rise in the very place where Jesus died and rose again. What a powerful experience that must have been!

They were anointed as they came from the baptismal pool. The Holy Spirit was given to them.
Cyril explains that this is the same Spirit who rested on Jesus when he came from the Jordan. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor.”

It’s “the oil of gladness,” Cyril says, “ a source of spiritual joy.” “Rejoice,” is a word you hear over and over in the gospel, especially at Easter. Before you run off to do anything, take time to rejoice and don’t stop rejoicing.

I watched Susan Boyle, the wonderful 47 year old woman from Scotland, who sings like an angel and looks like a nobody. Over 2 million have watched her so far on Youtube sing on Britains Got Talent 2009. Look at the joy that pours out of her.

Yes, she’s got a wonderful voice, but see her joy.

Mary Magdalene

Besides Peter, Mary Magdalene is a key witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Her story is told in John’s gospel which speaks of their meeting in the garden. For the rest of her years Mary would remember those moments by the tomb.

In the morning darkness she had come weeping for the one she had thought lost forever. She had heard him call her name, “Mary”. She had turned to see him alive and the garden became paradise.

Like a new Eve she had been sent by Jesus to bring news of life to all the living. She was his apostle to the apostles. The belief of Christians in the resurrection of Jesus would be founded on this woman’s word.

On Easter Sunday the church questions her:

“Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?
‘I saw the tomb of the now living Christ.
I saw the glory of Christ, now risen.
I saw angels who gave witness;
the cloths, too, which once covered head and limbs.
Christ my hope had indeed arisen.
He will go before his own into Galilee.'”
–Easter sequence

Fascinated by her story, medieval spiritual writers added simple human details to the Gospel accounts. According to the author of the Meditations on the Life of Christ, Mary held the feet of Jesus when he was taken down from the cross, because she had kissed them and washed them with her tears once before.

“(At the tomb) she could not think, or speak, or hear anything except about him. When she cried and paid no attention to the angels, her Lord could not hold back any longer for love… ‘Woman, whom do you seek? Why do you weep?’ And she, as if drugged, not recognizing him said, ‘Lord, if you carried him away, tell me where, and I will take him.’ Look at her. With tear-stained face she begs him to lead her to the one seeks. She always hopes to hear something new of her Beloved. Then the Lord says to her, ‘Mary’.

“It was as though she came back to life, and recognizing his voice, she said with indescribable joy, ‘Rabbi, you are the Lord I was seeking. Why did you hide from me so long? …I tell you so much grief from your passion filled my heart that I forgot everything else. I could remember nothing except your dead body and the place where I buried it, and so I brought ointment this morning. But you have come back to us.’

“And they stayed there lovingly with great joy and gladness. She looked at him closely and asked him about each thing, and he answered willingly. Now, truly, the Passover feast had come. Although it seemed that the Lord held back from her, I can hardly believe that she did not touch him before he departed, kissing his feet and his hands.”
For more on Mary Magdalene, see http://www.cptryon.org/holylives/nt/magd/

The Rocks were Rent

I’ve been thinking about the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, that claimed 292 lives. We stopped on our pilgrimage from St. Mary’s at that beautiful old medieval city on our way fron the shrine of St. Gabriel in the Abruzzi last November. Now it’s in ruins.

In January, 1915, an earthquake hit the town of Pescina, about 25 miles from Aquila, killing 3,500 of the town 5,000 people. The Italian writer, Ignazio Silone, a native of the town, dug his mother’s body from its rubble and would remember the day the rest of his life.

“In an earthquake,” he wrote, “everyone dies: rich and poor, learned and illiterate, politicians and people. An earthquake accomplishes what words and laws promise and never achieve: the equality of all.”

News from the Passionist shrine, not far away, was that the community there were sleeping in cars outside the buildings, which have been shaken by the shocks.

They buried their dead in L’Aquila on Good Friday at a mass funeral.

Earthquakes are awful experiences. They ‘re the harsh face of nature– our mother, our sister, our brother– that nourishes us with life and delights us with beauty. Yet, nature also brings death and destruction. With all our technical expertise we can’t predict when or where the earth will open up.  Quakes are no respecters of persons: old, young, rich, poor are taken.  Treasured buildings completely destroyed.

It’s interesting that Matthew’s gospel says “the rocks were rent” when Jesus died. He was describing an earthquake. But this one reverses the equation; it brings the dead to life.

“This day you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the thief hanging in the dark at his side. As the rocks are rent, the dead rise. Jesus’ resurrection reaches out to all humanity, to all the dead.  And the earth itself takes part in the mystery. An earthquake, its sign of death, becomes a sign of resurrection.

The mystery of his cross speaks to the mystery of death. As the earth quakes, God wills that there be life.

On television news from Aquila, a reporter picked up a cross from the rubble and handed it to a Franciscan priest who was showing him a ruined church. Then the earth quaked again and they had to get out of the church. How significant his gesture was!