30 Mar 2008
“‘Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’” (John 20:29) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
The book Fahrenheit451 tells of a future when books are banned and burned. Some malcontents fight against this government-sanctioned ignorance by memorizing books instead. If books are outlawed on the printed page, they can still be kept in the human memory. An underground network forms. People are organized into living libraries. One may memorize a Shakespeare play, another a Greek tragedy. The main character of Fahrenheit451 is assigned the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This character is held firmly by the shoulders and the leader of the network tells him: “You are the Book of Ecclesiastes.”
Today’s Gospel selection continues to tell us about that first Easter Sunday. Last week we read of the rush out to the empty tomb by Peter and the Beloved Disciple; this week we hear that all of the disciples finally see the risen Jesus. In between, however, is an important story that the church conveniently chooses to skip right over. As a matter of fact, it’s the only Easter-day story in John’s Gospel that the church doesn’t ask us to read. And that’s kind of strange, that is until we read it anyway. It’s the story of Mary Magdalene and how she is the very first person in the world to actually see the resurrected Saviour. Even more than that, Mary Magdalene is the very first apostle of Jesus Christ. Maybe now it doesn’t seem so strange that the church left this tidbit of information out of our Easter readings. Maybe it makes things a bit easier if we gloss over this woman’s story. Apostle means one who is sent out by Jesus. Mary Magdalene is sent out by Jesus Himself to announce the resurrection to the disciples. She is, therefore, the apostles’ apostle. This woman!
Mary Magdalene’s job may not have been all that easy to accomplish either. The disciples may have dispersed after the crucifixion. Each may have gone their own way, each thinking that Jesus’ ministry had ended at the cross, and without Jesus there was no need for them to stay together any longer. Last week, for example, we read that Mary turns away from the empty tomb and runs to inform Peter and the Beloved Disciple what she has seen. There is no mention of the other nine. Where are they? When we next hear of the disciples, the Gospel tells us the unflattering story that they are now together, but that they are hiding behind locked doors. Even when we hear about them the following week, they’re still behind locked doors. Mary may have had to go to separate locations, looking for and coaxing-out each of them separately. She tells them of the resurrection, but still they’re terrified. Only reluctantly do they seem to come together. Only Mary has been certain enough to venture out in public and start telling others about Easter. Only Mary at this point has acted the apostle of the risen Christ. Again, this woman is the apostles’ apostle.
This story is not to forever disparage the male apostles. Without them, we are not here today. But it is expected to broaden our definition of apostle, and maybe because of that the expectations of our own faith as well. I don’t think anyone reading John’s Gospel for the first time would ever have expected Mary Magdalene to be the first, and for a time the only, apostolic witness to the resurrection. She comes into the Gospel only in a passing comment as one of the women standing beneath the cross of Jesus. We never hear of her until the end of the story, and yet there she is as the apostles’ apostle.
Or take the example of the more traditional male apostles. Again, I don’t think a first time reader would expect to find in them Jesus’ trust for the future of Christianity. Unlike other ancient hero accounts, the Gospel-story rings true to human nature and circumstance. These are not men whose faults and failures are erased and whose accomplishments are extravagantly magnified. These are ordinary people who come to have an extraordinary faith not so much because of who they are but because of what they witness. Their transformation is one of the most profound testimonies to the reality of Easter. I think it’s only possible for them to become apostles when the risen Jesus replaces their visions of His crucifixion-wounds with the vision of those same wounds now on His resurrected body. Only then are they changed enough to move from fear to fearlessness.
The example of Mary Magdalene tells us that anyone who believes can be an Easter witness to others. The example of the once-terrified disciples tell us that we can all be changed by Easter, overcome our limitations, and be an Easter witness to others. Just like in Fahrenheit451’s “You are the book of Ecclesiastes,” so these resurrection stories are Jesus holding onto us by the shoulders and saying firmly to each of us, “You are Easter.” Easter is not intended to make us safe. If it were, Jesus would have kept the disciples behind the locked doors. Instead, He promises them peace, He equips them with the Spirit of God, and then He sends them out into the world. We are Easter to a world that has in large part grown ignorant of the resurrection. We can’t remain safely behind these closed church doors. Jesus needs us to be Easter out in His world. And we can be sure that we still today are an intended part of that great and powerful apostolic mission of believers sent out by Christ because John also includes with these stories of Mary Magdalene and the terrified disciples, Jesus’ words to Doubting Thomas that are meant more for us than for him: “‘Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’” That’s us. John has brought us, you and me right here, into the Easter story. We’re now as much a part of it as Mary and the other apostles.
The world’s in tough shape: the wars, the economy, the future. But that’s exactly why the world needs to hear from us of Easter’s message that Christ is still here. And for good or bad, we are Easter to them. May we come to have enough faith in Easter that our own faith will be strong enough to carry others too, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)