Easter homily, 16 April 2017
There's been a lot of talk this Holy Week about the passing of the Australian comedian and social commentator, John Clarke. His co-presenter Bryan Dawe talked about being on a tram in Melbourne with people nodding compassionately and knowingly at him on the news of John's death. Bryan recalled that an old man had once commented to John, 'You know what you two do? It's a secret between you and the audience'. As Bryan says, 'We always respected the audience and they respected us.'
These are not the sorts of things we expect to hear when someone is still alive. Once they are dead, those who love and admire them recall all sorts of details about their life, finding new meaning and new depth even in the everyday things. We have all known loved ones who have died, and we are sure that their spirit lives on — perhaps in their children and grandchildren, and perhaps in their achievements and artistic productions. The disciples in today's Easter gospel would all have known such loved ones and they would have treasured those memories. But their experience of Jesus' resurrection is something altogether different, and so it is for us. That's why we turn up to Church today proclaiming our belief in the Risen Jesus. This matters ultimately for each of us.
We remember that the disciples left Jesus in the last hours of the passion in a bad way. One of them betrayed him and went off and committed suicide. Those closest to him fell asleep when he was enduring his agony in the garden. The ever-assertive Peter went to water and denied him three times even after Jesus warned him that he would. Only one of them is reported to have been at the foot of the cross. But after the death and the strange happenings of Easter morning, Jesus was back with them as best of friends, breaking through the locked door in the upper room, telling them not to be afraid, and promising them peace during conflict, light in the midst of darkness.
We are told that Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark. For John, the great story teller, dark is where we expect to find unbelief. Mary gets to the tomb and sees the stone rolled away. She rightly suspects that the body may well have been stolen. What other explanation could there be? John can dispel that theory by describing how the burial cloths were neatly wrapped, including the cloth over the face of Jesus. No thief rushing under cover of night would have gone to the trouble of unwrapping the body and folding the cloths neatly for future use.
John expects us the listeners to recall that when Jesus responded to the call of Lazarus's sisters going to the tomb of Lazarus, he ordered that the stone be moved away and that the onlookers unbind Jesus and set him free. John goes to pains to tell us that there was a separate cloth to cover the face of Lazarus, just as there was a separate cloth to cover the face of Jesus. We know who moved the stone and who removed the cloths with Lazarus. They did it at the command of Jesus. We enter the mystery of the stone and cloths being removed for Jesus. He was in no position to give a command. This could only be done by God, his Father.
There is then the sprint by Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Peter sets out first, because that's what we expect of a leader. But the other disciple does not need any pope or bishop to show him the way to faith. He gets there first. He sees and he believes. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. Whatever the false and tardy steps of our church leaders (and there are many), we see and believe. Those leaders are able to affirm us in our faith.
Unlike these two disciples in the Gospel, we have now understood the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. His rising from the dead is the definitive change in the relationship between God and creation, between God and us. We, like our loved ones before us, will all die. We will leave great memories and hopefully something of our spirit will be preserved by those who love and admire us. But that's not all there is. That is not the end for us or for them. We are assured continued life with God, and this is the source of our Easter joy. The Risen Jesus gives us something to live for, something to live by, and something to die for.
This Easter, we are immersed in the darkness of Syria, of North Korea, and the bombings in the Coptic Christian Churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday. But we see the light. We dare to hope for a better world to come. We dare to hope for the repair of our fractured human relations. Why? Because we too have rushed to the tomb and beheld not only the rolled back stone but also the neatly wrapped cloths which speak to us of the Risen Lord, the one who embodies the hope that we, and all we strive for, survive the grave and the remembrance of those who love and admire us.
We, like Jesus, are invited into eternal life with our God who shows us the way, the truth, the light, and the life. Let's share our Easter eggs with those who judge us least worthy to embody the message of hope and life eternal for all, even for them. If we don't share with them, we don't believe. If we don't invite them to the table, we are simply indulging in chocolate and the fare of Easter bunnies. The Lord is risen. We are the inheritors of life eternal. This is our secret between us and God. God respects us beyond death. And we respect God here in our world and in our life. Jesus died so that all might have life, and enjoy it to the full. Happy Easter.
Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.