Father Donald Senior, CP

April 12: Resurrection of the Lord

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

What did Mary see?

Acts 10:34, 37-43; Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9

The readings for this Sunday are exuberant with Easter joy. From the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Peter’s breathless testimony about Jesus and the Spirit engulfing the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family so that these Gentiles, too, believe in the Risen Christ.

We hear the joy in the exultant praise of the response Psalm 118, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever!” and the confident faith of Colossians, “When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.” 

And what could match the story from John’s Gospel with Mary of Magdala coming brokenhearted to the tomb and discovering the stone rolled back and the tomb empty?

Hundreds of millions of Christians around the globe will encounter these readings on this strange Easter Sunday, even with so many churches closed and crowds dispersed. Here in Chicago we are practicing social distancing and exercising “shelter in place.” Other Christians are even less fortunate than most of us — some in refugee camps, others in jail or in border detention centers hearing these same words under dire circumstances.

A few years ago, I heard these words in another set of circumstances. I was giving a Holy Week retreat at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, California. Easter morning Mass was outdoors in their beautiful garden, with the scent of flowers in the air.

Then, too, we heard this account of Mary coming to the tomb, finding it empty and running to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” The two disciples run to the tomb and, as is usual in John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple is faster and gets there first but waits for Peter to catch up.

Peter goes into the tomb and notices something unusual for any grave robbery: The burial cloths are neatly rolled up. What has happened here, the disciples muse? For the Beloved Disciple there is a stirring of hope.

After that Easter Mass, a woman in the congregation introduced herself as a nurse who worked in a local prison. “I was struck for the first time about that reference to the folded burial cloths,” she told me. “Most of my patients are young people whose lives have been utterly destroyed by drugs.” 

She said there are subtle signs when some of them begin to heal and come back to life. For example, they start making their beds, folding their blankets and hanging up their clothes without being ordered to do so. Their crucifixion, as it were, was public — arrests, trials, incarcerations. But their resurrection was subtle and the signs of new life were quiet.

I never forgot her observation and how much the experiences of her patients were like the Gospel accounts of resurrection, including the one we hear today. Although numbed by the terror of the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and the apostles see signs of hope. 

Even in the midst of death and uncertainty, life is more powerful and asserts itself. As we will hear in other readings from this Easter cycle, the signs of life become even more assertive: the risen Jesus calling Mary’s name in the garden when she mistakes him for the gardener; Jesus appearing in the room where the disciples are huddled in fear; a mysterious stranger who reveals himself in the breaking of the bread with the two disciples fleeing to Emmaus; a voice from the shore of the Sea of Galilee inviting frustrated disciples to come and eat breakfast with him.

At this unusual and frightening time — an Easter unlike any other — our Scriptures invite us not to be overwhelmed by fear and death but to look for the subtle signs of life: the loving kindness of others; the heroism of first responders and medical workers; the steadfast beauty of our trust in the God who brings life from death.

The famed paschal sequence for Easter Sunday poetically asks Mary Magdalene — “Speak, Mary, what did you see?” It is a question for us as well this Easter.



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