By: Fr. James Gross
To her eternal credit, Mary of Magdala is the first one who comes upon the scene of the empty tomb. She was not named “the rock,” as Simon Peter was. She did not get to see Jesus transfigured in glory, as Peter, James, and John did. But her love for Jesus took a backseat to no one’s. She did not go to the tomb because someone else sent her there, but simply because of love. And that love would be rewarded as Jesus eventually appeared to her first, before the inner circle of His Apostles. Now there is a whole new way to remember her. No longer does that mysterious line by which the Gospels introduce Mary of Magdala to us, that the Lord Jesus had expelled seven demons from her, remain her badge of identity. There is far more to her than that.
Her love led her first to inform Peter & John that the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. When they hurriedly came onto the scene, we are told, they found the tomb as Mary described it, but John is the first one on whom the truth of what has happened begins to dawn. In a touching display of modesty, he refers to himself as “the other disciple” when telling the story.
St. John provides a lengthy description in today’s Gospel of the burial cloths. But couched in this description is a very helpful piece of evidence. We are told that the cloth over Jesus’ head was rolled up and left in a separate place. In other words, the Lord had tended to it in a special way. A Jewish custom at table would be for a guest to shabbily wad up one’s napkin at the end of a meal to indicate that he or she was finished. However, if the person needed to leave the table and intended to return, he or she would fold or roll it up as sign to keep their place setting intact. Now we can understand why Jesus rolled up his head cloth. It was his little “wink and a nod” way of telling his friends that he was coming back. The empty tomb was not a result of foul play. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, just as he promised!
The joy of this event is unsurpassable, but it didn’t unfold immediately. For Jesus’ friends, the grief that came from losing him (and, in most cases, deserting him) sunk in very deeply. When we read the Gospels, most all of his disciples spend that Easter Sunday a few steps behind, scratching their heads and slowly arriving at the truth. Mary of Magdala suspects that “they” (whoever they were) took the Lord’s body away. Peter steps out of the tomb wondering and pondering, but not yet able to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus outright. Thomas will refuse to believe it when the others insist they saw the risen Christ with their own eyes!
Naysayers of the resurrection of Jesus have absolutely no leg to stand on other than a stubborn denial. Think about it: Jesus’ enemies made all sorts of contingency plans in case he should rise on the third day after being destroyed, as he had prophesied. Not only did the Jewish leaders arrange for guards posted at the tomb, but they had a plan in place to protect the guard’s jobs in case Jesus should rise and evade them. The disciples, on the other hand, came around to the facts more slowly, as if awakening from a trance. Now, if they were to manufacture a rumor that the Lord has risen when he hadn’t, would they not have acted differently, more boldly, almost overselling their case? On that first Easter Sunday, the Good News was so good that it was better than they had expected.
The spirit of our Easter celebration is one of unbridled joy and bold, bright colors in the sanctuary. Shame on us if we were not to behave this way! Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven comprise the final and supreme chapter in the story of the world’s salvation. Nothing more needs to be done. The work now is in our hands and the Holy Spirit’s hands, to share the light of God’s victory with the world. Compared to what God has done for us, anything else the world conjures up is as darkness.
We as Catholics celebrate Easter as a 50-day season. What we do with that time says a lot about how we approach this season. Are we celebrating with the crowd today mostly because everyone else is? Will we allow everything to return to normal tomorrow, or will we follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, who not only applied the teachings of Christ to their lives and prayers, but also shared it with whoever would receive it? Lots of Catholics do not identify evangelizing with their own experience. They’ll say something like, “Isn’t that what others do, like the Holy Rollers down the street? What does evangelizing have to do with our parish or with me?” The answer is everything.
Recent Popes have spoken about their desire for a “new evangelization” among the faithful, not to put us down, but to reshape our way of thinking. Evangelization is not a static or historical thing, something done once upon a time for my ancestors so that I’d be here today. No, evangelization has a rightful place now, both for us and for those in our community who do not have a relationship with God as we do.
One day Jesus brought a dramatic question before His Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” That question was not exclusively for them, but is just as crucial for each of us. Please ask yourselves: “Who is the Risen Christ to me? Do I long to make room in my life for Jesus, or do I act as though I’ve had enough of him? Do I entrust myself to his authority, over my soul, over my marriage, over my family, or do I resent it?”
I invite all of you to keep these questions in the forefront of your minds this Easter season. May we all pray for a greater ability to answer “Who do I say Jesus is?” Our Savior has come so that His joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. His Resurrection to new life changes everything. My prayer for all of us this Easter is that our joy may be genuine and strong.