Easter Sunday 2017
Homily preached by Fr Prior at Ampleforth Abbey at the Easter Sunday morning mass (Sunday 16th April 2017). Readings: Acts 10:34.37-43; Psalm 117; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
(Image: from a manuscript kept at the Abbey of Monte Cassino).
I want you to imagine yourselves going to the tomb with Mary of Magdala. You have spent a long time, possibly some years, following this teacher, healer and charismatic preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. You have got to know him and to love him, and to admire his work. Maybe it is his work with sinners and those at the margins of society which particularly attracted you. You have also got to know his disciples. You know they are very human, but you are part of the group, the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.
Over the last few weeks it has become clear that a crisis was brewing. The authorities seem to have decided to stop Jesus’ work for ever. He is betrayed, arrested, an unfair trial takes place, there is no possibility of an appeal, and the sentence of death is carried out hurriedly. There is no opportunity for farewells. You are there too with the other disciples and Mary of Magdala.
How do you feel? Numb, confused, completely shattered. How could this have happened? If Jesus was the Messiah, how could God have allowed this? Was it all a mistake? Were we all fooled? Have I wasted my life? Were the Jewish authorities right all along?
Think what it felt like when a close relative died, how you felt. Especially if the death was sudden, and there was no chance to prepare. Think of people who are killed for no reason, and what a shock that is to their family and friends. This is part of how you felt on the day after Jesus died. But it was worse than this. Jesus wasn’t just a close relative, a dear friend. He was the one who gave meaning to your life, changed your whole focus. And he had been killed.
So there you are with some of the others during the Saturday, while everyone else in the city celebrated the Sabbath day, the special Sabbath during the Passover week. You don’t say much. What is there to say? You long for the day to end, for evening to come. But when it comes, you can’t sleep. You have no energy to do anything.
Eventually Mary of Magdala suggests that someone ought to go and do for Jesus’ body what could not be done on the Friday. He had been buried hastily because it was almost evening and the Sabbath was about to begin. There had been no time to wash the body and do whatever else had to be done.
You go with Mary. Perhaps you carry the spices. It is not yet light. You shouldn’t really be out yet, but you take a risk. You get to the tomb together. The stone is rolled away. Why? Who has done this? Has someone stolen Jesus’ body? What do you feel now?
There you are, standing next to Mary, staring open-mouthed at the tomb. Not only had you lost the man who gave purpose and meaning to your life, the man for whom you would have given up your own life, but now even his body had gone. You wouldn’t be able to come here and sit next to his grave quietly and prayerfully, and remember him, like people normally do in graveyards.
You are devastated. You don’t know what to do. Perhaps you wonder whether you might have got the wrong tomb, so you decide to go and find Peter. He and John come with you to the tomb. They agree that you have got the right tomb. They go in, one at a time and agree that the tomb is indeed empty. That really does look like the end.
But it is from this point that the realisation begins to dawn first on Mary of Magdala and then on Peter and John, and you that it wasn’t that someone had stolen the body but that Jesus had risen from the dead. He is now living, but not an earthly life, but a new life. This is not resuscitation, like someone who has stopped breathing, but then starts again. That was what happened to Lazarus: he had to die again a few years later. No, Jesus’ resurrection is to a new and complete life: he will never die again. He has won the victory over sin and death, and now he passes that gift on to us. On the very same weekend that the Jews celebrate Passover, the escape of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, we have a festival for our release from a much more serious slavery.
There you are, with Mary of Magdala, Peter, John and the other disciples. Jesus has appeared to you. He is not dead, but alive. The wounds are still there; he really had suffered; but he has been transformed. When he said he would rise from the dead he had spoken the truth. He has been transformed and now he has transformed you, and your faith. You are ecstatic with joy. The tears run down your face, tears of happiness. You are all talking at once, and you go out from where you are to tell other people. You are so excited. You just can’t help yourself.
So it is also for us here at Ampleforth. Today we celebrate the Resurrection. We too are full of joy and happiness. We celebrate, we sing for gladness, we pray, we thank God and finally we go out of here to tell other people the fantastic news that the Lord Jesus has risen from the dead and has released us from our sins.