‘He is not here’

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In his Easter Sunday ‘Urbi et Orbi’ message, Pope Francis did what he does best – reminded us of the universal applicability of the Good News:

That is why we tell everyone: “Come and see!” In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.

The litany of disaster areas which followed attested eloquently to the absence of love, the absence of Christ; where men attempt to enforce their wills, there Christ is absent; there love is absent. We know well enough what mankind does without God. Indeed, we have enough evidence of what mankind can do in the name of God to be fully aware of Satan’s ability to work on our pride. It is no accident that the author of Genesis focuses in on Satan telling our first parents that if the eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge they will have the wisdom of God himself; we do, indeed, tend that way. When we do, we become that whited sepulchre of which Christ spoke; gleaming in the outside but full of dead things on the inside. He is not there with us, He has gone; we have made no room for Him there.

Newman spoke of the effects of what he called ‘the prejudice of honest religious minds’ when describing the hostility of the Apostles to Jesus’ revelation of His fate:

Our Lord said, “Behold we go to Jerusalem, and all that is written of the Son of man shall be accomplished. For He shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and scourged and spat upon; and after they have scourged Him, they will put Him to death, and the third day He shall rise again.” Could words be plainer? Yet what effect had they on the disciples? “They understood none of these things, and this was hid from them, and they understood not the things that were said.” Why hid? Because they had not eyes to see.

The same was true of the reaction of the disciples to Mary’s story of the appearance of the Risen Christ to her. They had been taught

that the promised Messiah or Christ, who was coming, would be a great temporal Prince, like Solomon, only greater; that he was to have an earthly court, earthly wealth, earthly palaces, lands and armies and servants and the glory of a temporal kingdom. This was their idea—they looked for a deliverer, but thought he would come like Gideon, David, or Judas Maccabaeus, with sword and spear and loud trumpet, inflicting wounds and shedding blood, and throwing his captives into dungeons

and they could not reconcile this with the suffering Messiah, despite the fact that there is plenty in Isaiah and the Psalms which pointed in that direction. Newman comments:

You see that the mistake of the Apostles, and their horror and rejection of what nevertheless was the Eternal and most blessed Truth of the gospel, arose from a religious zeal for the honour of God; though a false zeal. It were well, if the similar mistake of people nowadays had so excellent a source and so good an excuse. For, so it is, that now as then, men are to be found who, with Scripture in their hands, in their memories, and in their mouths, yet make great mistakes as to the meaning of it, and that because they are prejudiced against the true sense of it.

We, too, can, in our zeal for our Church, make the same mistake as the first Apostles. We can conceive in our mind an image of what the Church should be, and when it is not that, retreat into criticism, or the search for the ‘real’ church – one which satisfied what we think she should be.

The real Church is where it always has been, and always will be, comforting the afflicted. Nor is that to say that it does work which can be done by the State or aid agencies, because, for all the good these can do, they cannot touch what really ails us. Our hearts are, as Augustine wrote, restless in us until they find their rest in God. To love those whom no one else will love, to show the patience of Christ in the face of the brokenness of this world, these are the marks of the Church, quite as much as orthodox doctrine; indeed, without the former, without love, what use is orthodox doctrine alone – we are as sounding brasses? We do not preach salvation by works, but if our faith prompts us to no works, then not all the preaching in the world, even though we had the tongues of angels, will avail us. Anyone who thinks of Christian love as some pink fuzzy warm feeling does not know it, or the real and permanent sacrifices it demands of our pride.

The Empty Tomb

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empty-tomb

At the heart of our Faith is the empty tomb. St Paul was right to observe: And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. It is yet another sign of the authenticity of the accounts of the evangelists that they made no attempt to coordinate their accounts of this, the most central events. Elsewhere on this blog we have shown how the accounts do not contradict one another, but are, rather, what one might expect from four different perspectives, none of which was by an eye-witness; that the first witness was someone whose testimony would have been worthless, Mary Magdalene, is another of those signs of truth, and we see in Acts, St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, and St John’s first epistle, the importance the evangelists attach to their status as men who had seen and heard the Risen Lord. St Paul emphasises again and again that he is handing on what he had been told; he is an eye witness to tradition.

Christ is Risen! He had said He would rise, but not one of those who went to the tomb that first Easter morning expected that prophecy to have come true; they all seek for other, worldly explanations. Even the devoted Magdalene  thought ‘they’ had taken the body. The explanation had been given to them all in advance; none had believed. Jesus said that those who had seen and believed were blessed, but even more blessed were those who had not seen but still believed. On this Easter Sunday, as on every Easter Sunday, we are joined in our churches by those who do not often come, but who are called there by some old memory or some prompting of conscience or curiosity. We are joined also by those catechumens who have undertaken the long pilgrimage to the Easter consummation. We are called, also, to renew our baptismal vows and to renew our own encounter with the Risen Lord. Perhaps we are also reminded of what a minority we are in the secular culture which surrounds us?

Some will say it is all to the good, and that now only those who really believe come to the Church, that means we have a purer, if smaller, church. But that is not how the Apostles saw it, neither is it how the Church has acted in its long journey through time. It does not exist to be a small club for the pure, it is, in Pope Francis’ striking phrase, a ‘field hospital for the wounded’. We are not called by the Easter Resurrection to withdraw into the safety of our version of the upper room, but rather, as the recipients of the Great Commission, to go out there to testify to the hope that is in us.

Neither are we told there is but one way that this commission might be carried out: neither those of us who treasure the richness of the solemn liturgical tradition of which we are heirs; nor those who see vitality only in noise and enthusiasm; nor those who lament what was and fear what might be; nor yet those who fondly imagine that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds, have a monopoly on these things. The empty tomb poses a challenge to us all.

He could not be confined to the tomb, and He is with us to the end of time; what witness to we offer, not just at this time, to that great hope? How can we help both those who are newly entered into the Faith, and those who have come today on a rare visit? How can they help us? Are we an exclusive club for those who are pure, or are we a place where the brokenness and messiness of this fallen world can find some healing – and if so, at what price to us? We can, none of us in whatever Church, leave it all to the priests and those who have been ordained. Can we rise to the words of St Peter:

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light;

On this day of days, when the darkness of sin was banished and the light of God triumphed over it, may we be renewed in Him, and He in us, and may we bear witness to the hope we have been given. We are saved through His blood. We have followed Him through the path to Calvary, and we have stood with Him watching from afar at Golgotha, now may we rise with Him. He is Risen – He is Risen Indeed!

 

Gospel for Easter Sunday Year A

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women discover an empty tomb

John 20:1-9

St Augustine tells us that Christians call the Lord’s Day the first day of the week because it is the day on which He rose from the dead. Chrysostom reminds us that just as Christ was born from the inviolate womb of his mother, so he rose again from the closed tomb; as he was the first-born of his mother, so now he is the first-born from the dead. Hesychius of Jerusalem teaches us that just as he sanctified human flesh by his incarnation, so he gives life to the dead by his resurrection. This day brings us a message of joy; it the day the Lord rose again and with him rises the race of Adam; on this day paradise is opened to us; on this day death is trampled underfoot; the underworld is despoiled and Christ is King indeed!

Dionysus of Alexandria points out the mystery of the resurrection, and how the evangelists give slightly different accounts: Matthew says it is at the end of the Sabbath; it was ‘early, when it was yet dark’, John tells us; it was ‘very early in the morning’ according to Luke’; the ‘the rising of the sun’ according to Mark. In truth no one knows the hour save the Father; but the tomb was empty; He is Risen! Theodore of Mopsuestia reconciles the varying accounts for us, as does St Cyril of Alexandria who point out that early morning and late night coincide, and all agree that it was in the middle watch before dawn broke.

Gregory the Great reminds us that we are like Mary, we come in darkness to seek Him, but we find, too, that the tomb is empty, that He is Risen indeed. Chrysostom remarks upon the deep love for her Lord which took Mary to the tomb at that hour. As Augustine comments: ‘She was unquestionably more ardent in her love than these other women who had ministered to the Lord’. But although John mentions her alone, it is clear from her later comment that ‘we do not know’, that she was not alone.

St Cyril of Alexandria too comments upon her ardour and her piety. The moment the Jewish sabbath was over, she went to the tomb, and bearing in mind the hatred shown to Jesus by the Jewish authorities, she feared they had taken the body; her love is so great that she goes back to get the most faithful of the Apostles to go back with her to find him. For her, though seemingly dead, he is still her ‘Lord’. The others run to see whether what she says is true, despite their previous fear, they, too, need to see what has happened. As St Gregory Nazianzus put it in his Easter Oration:

Be a Peter or a John;

Hasten to the sepulchre,

Running together,

Running against one another.

Vying in the noble race.

And even if you are beaten in speed,

Win the victory of showing who wants it

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Not just looking in the tomb, but going on

Chrysostom reminds us that the scattering of the grave clothes is a sign of the resurrection; grave robbers would not have left them behind. Augustine points out that John did not yet believe in the resurrection, what he believed was what he had seen, that the tomb was empty and that Mary was telling the truth. Peter and John were, as St Cyril comments, two men and therefore competent witnesses according to Jewish Law. But it was only once the Rise Christ had appeared that they too believed and saw the meaning of the prophecies He had made.

Rabboni

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It was still dark when I left; no point taking any more risks. We knew there were soldiers guarding the tomb, and we didn’t expect them to welcome our ministrations. By the time we reached the tomb, the darkness was beginning to give way to the first rays of sunlight, and we could extinguish the lights we had brought; that would make it even easier for us; we would not be seen by the guards until we were there, and if they were there, we could step back without being seen.

We had left the men back in John Mark’s house. It didn’t seem as though anyone was looking for us, but you could never be sure, and as women, we were safer than the men, especially if we travelled together. Mary came with me directly, and we picked up Salome on the way. We had not worked out what to do if the guards would not let us into the tomb, but hoped that they would let us through rather than put up with our wailing; the Romans did not like violent shows of female emotion, and they were going to get a lot of it from us, if that was what it took. All such thoughts were banished as we turned the corner – there were no guards – and there was no stone blocking the entrance. Mary and myself dashed forward, leaving Salome to follow, but I was faster than she was and when I got inside there was, I thought for a moment, no one there; until my eyes adjusted to the light – that wasn’t a torch, it was someone bathed in light; Salome and Mary had stopped at the entrance to the cave – the light had grown brighter.

The man sitting on the ledge where they had lain the Lord turned his gaze on me, and I could hardly bear the light. ‘Do not be afraid’, he told me, his very vice assuaging my fears, ‘I know you seek Jesus, but he is not here; he has risen. Do you not remember that He told you He would rise again on the third day? Go, tell the brethren that He is not here, He had risen!’ We ran back to the house as fast as we could, leaving the spices behind. Mary ran fastest, and as I got there, John and Peter were coming the other way. ‘What has happened, Mary?’ Peter asked. ‘The Master is not there, I do not know where he is, the angel said he had risen’. ‘Well’, Peter said, ‘Let us see what new mischief this is.’ I turned to run with them.

I think I would have beaten John to the tomb, had I not already run back once; but I still beat Peter. John waited for Peter, and they went in and saw it was as Mary and I had told them. By the time I got there, John and Peter were already running for home. I was out of breath; the walk there, and the tension, followed by running back to the house and then back here meant I was out of breath; and the sun had now risen. So I sat outside for a moment. But curiosity, and the coolness of the tomb, drew me back in. At that point the tears, which had been welling up, came forth with a wracking cry; someone had taken him; they had taken my Lord.

As I looked up through my tears, I saw the light again. ‘Why are you weeping?’ “Because they have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ I turned round to go, in my great distress, only to find the way blocked by the gardener. Relieved at finding someone there, I stood still, and he asked me why I was weeping, and asked me whom it was I sought. I asked him where Jesus was, where he had been taken so I could go to do what needed to be done. ‘Mary’, he said, and with that voice my eyes were opened, the shades of night and grief banished for ever, it was Him, He was alive: ‘Rabboni’, I said, falling to my knees and reaching out to touch his feet. ‘Do not hold on to me Mary, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go and tell the brethren, tell them I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.’ Marvelling at this, I lay prostrate before Him. When I looked up again, the tomb was quite empty but for the discarded grave-clothes. There I scooped up and put them in my sack.

The journey to the house passed in a blur. He was alive. He had said He would rise on the third day, this was the third day, He was alive. I dashed up the stairs – the men stopped their excited chatter: ‘I have seen the Lord’, I said. They were amazed. Some then doubted, but soon, not even Thomas doubted. One day the whole world will believe.

This is the testimony of a woman, in our law, worth nothing, and yet the men believed, because it was not me, but the Spirit which opened their eyes and hearts. He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!

The hour is growing late?

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It is often said that we are moving into a post-Christian era in the West; perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the age inaugurated with Constantine is ending? The close association between Church and State begun then has been eroding for some time; it may now be near its end.

Constantine wanted the Faith because he thought it would lend stability to his empire; later rulers have felt the same. It has not always worked that way, but from Canterbury, through Rome to Moscow, the Churches have enjoyed material and political benefits from the State; to lose them is hard. To become what the Nonconformists have always been will not be easy for those used to having access to power and influence.

That may be the optimistic reading of the future. The Copts, whose faithfulness in suffering moves us to prayer, bear witness to the price that sometimes must be paid for a hostile State. Such a fate would be hard, but not new. But might the Faith benefit from a change?

Has the closeness of Church and State always been beneficial to the Church? The sort of persecution which the State has undertaken on its behalf, from Theodosius through to Franco, has hardly lent lustre to its history. When State conscripts Church, it tends to be for its purposes, not those of Christ, and we might wonder whether some of the things rendered by us to Caesar were not, by right, Christ’s?

‘And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.’ [Mark 12:17] How right they were, for the line between the two is far from clear-cut, and we shall always be in negotiation with Caesar over it. There is certainly no easy formula, and we have been warned that the world is likely to hate us if we are His.

But such a renunciation may be to the good of the Faith all the same. As in the days of the Fathers, there will be a variety of responses. There will be the Athanasius and St. Cyril reaction: the Church militant here on earth, fighting its corner regardless; there will be the St. Leos and the St. Ambroses, men of great secular talents who lend them to Christ’s causes; and, of course, there will be those like St. Isaac and St. Gregory Nazianzen, who can abandon their bishoprics for closer communion with God,.

From the Watchtower we see the riders approaching, and the winds begin to howl. But we are not afraid – we have His word; in His Light, let us not fear the coming of the dark

How many women were at the foot of the Cross?

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Mary of Clopas

Reading the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion reminds me of one the pieces of evidence which convinces me that they are genuine – they fail to agree on simple facts – in this instance, who was at the foot of the Cross.

Let us begin with St Matthew’s account:

many women … who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee 27:55-56

St Mark tells us that there were:

women … among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome 15:40

St Luke, who we know gathered all the information that he could, wrote about ‘the women who had followed him from Galilee’ 23:49, whilst St John tells us that they were :’his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene’19:25.

Is John referring to three or four women? My own view is that he is referring to four. Apart from anything else, it rids us of the necessity of arguing that The Virgin Mary’s sister was also called Mary. In a piece I wrote here last year I gave reasons for suggesting that “Mary of Clopas’ was the mother of James the younger and Joses, who are described elsewhere in the New Testament as the ‘brothers’ of Jesus; indeed, ‘Joses’, or Jude, so identifies himself in his epistle. If Mary of Clopas was, as suggested, the wife of Cleophas (or Alpheus) who was the brother of St Joseph, then it would have been natural enough for her to have been at the foot of the Cross, and for her sons to have been disciples. I don’t much want to get drawn into another fruitless discussion on the meaning of the word ‘adelphoi’ which, as I have shown elsewhere, does not necessarily mean uterine brother, and Joseph Richardson has some well-researched posts here which do the job better than I could, but simply cite it here in evidence of the supposition that ‘Mary of Clopas’ in St John, and the ‘Mary the mother of James and Joseph’ were the same person. If ‘Salome’ was, as I have suggested, the ‘mother of the sons of Zebedee’ and the sister of the Virgin Mary, we can then reconcile the four accounts: at the foot of the Cross were the Virgin Mary and her sister, Salome, and her sister in law, Mary, along with Mary Magdalen.

This suggests that Jesus’ family circle was a close one, and that its female members stood with him to the end – and it would be the same group, minus his mother, who would go to the tomb and find that far from it being the end, it was the beginning. It also reminds us of something easily forgotten – the importance of the role played by women in the church from its beginning.

 

 

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