April 17, 2022 / Easter Sunday / Cycle C
Holy Trinity, Washington DC
9:30 AM (Church)
Acts 10:34a, 37-43 We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead
Ps 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24 This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
Colossians 3:1-4 Seek what is above, where Christ is.
John 20:1-2, 11-18 Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples, “I have seen the
How wonderful it is to celebrate this solemn Easter feast in a church awash in color, ablaze with light, alive with triumphant song! This is, after all, our joyful celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and darkness. We celebrate so lavishly, in light and word and water, because we too share Christ’s victory. Through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, we too triumph over despair and death – if we allow these Paschal mysteries to change our hearts.
And that’s precisely where this morning’s gospel begins – in the depths of despair and death. We find Mary Magdalene lingering just outside the tomb, weeping inconsolably. Because of the Jewish Sabbath, she had been waiting impatiently at home until she could slip out at dawn to anoint Jesus’s body. In earlier years, she had faithfully kept company with him in his ministry, avidly drinking in his every word about God’s compassionate love, and watching, mesmerized, as he healed the sick, fed the hungry, and hobnobbed with outcasts. Then, on Calvary, when the other disciples cowardly slinked away, Magdalene fearlessly stood by him, keeping mournful watch with Mary, his mother and John, the disciple he loved. She stayed on too as Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross and laid it in the tomb. And now, three days later, crushed by grief, she returns to prepare that corpse for burial.
And here is where our story takes a dramatic turn. She finds that the stone which secured the entrance to the tomb has been shoved aside. She spies two angels, and then, someone else whom she mistakes for the caretaker. “Sir” she says, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” It wasn’t just those cascading tears that blurred Magdalene’s vision. Whatever hope she held had died with Jesus on the Cross. Whatever faith sustained her had crumbled when she caressed his mangled body and laid it in the tomb. On that early Easter morn, she was simply incapable of believing that he could still be alive … until he utters that one word – her name – Mary. “My sheep know my voice and they follow me.” The tone and timbre of Jesus’s voice breaks through her incredulity. She recognizes him, her heart melts, and she runs to embrace him.
However, after a tender moment, he chides, “Do not cling to me.” But, far from an ungracious rebuff, that somewhat disconcerting phrase – Do not cling to me – is really an invitation for her to relate to him in a new way. “Let go of your old ideas about me,” he says. "Surrender your fears. Release your despair. Abandon the idea that nothing has changed, because everything has changed. Be open to it, Mary.”
And then he sends her to tell the other disciples what she has seen and heard. In other words, Jesus commissions her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” No mere messenger girl who parrots someone else’s words, she – the first eyewitness to the Resurrection – testifies to the Church, from her newly-rediscovered faith, that Χριστός ἀνέστη, ἀληθώς ἀνέστη / Christos anestē, alēthōs anestē. Christ is risen! He is truly is risen!
Of all the post-Resurrection stories, this encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has to be the most intimate. But do not allow the affective dynamism of their reunion distract you from its deeper importance. Because of Magdalene’s dogged faithfulness and her unwavering loyalty to Jesus – but most of all, because of her sensitive ability to perceive things with eyes of faith – Jesus appoints this woman as a leader to the other early Church leaders. Our Christian faith in the resurrection of Christ the risen Lord, therefore, depends principally on the testimony of Mary Magdalene. This fact speaks eloquently of the important role of women in our Faith, and Mary Magdalene stands in a long line of women who have loved and served Christ, who have told others about him, who have witnessed to the truth of the Gospel, and who have been, for most of us, our first teachers and preachers of the Gospel. How momentous!
But then also, how tragic that most Catholics never get to hear this Gospel. Never! Not on Easter Sunday, nor on any of the other six Sundays in the Easter season, nor on any other Sunday throughout the year. This narrative is simply not included in our U.S. Sunday Lectionary. And let’s face it, Sunday is our principal day of worship and the only day that most Catholics come to Mass. Fortunately, the bishops of Canada, our neighbors to the North, have rectified this omission. With Vatican approval, this Gospel is proclaimed to our Canadian sisters and brothers on Easter day. (By the way, if anyone asks where you went to mass this morning, please tell them it was Montreal!) Ursuline Sister Eileen Schuller, a Canadian biblical scholar, has stated that including this gospel account of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene has helped to change perceptions about women’s leadership in the Church in Canada.
Dispensing, for a moment, with our facile cynicism about the U.S. bishops, let’s acknowledge that they are not dummies. It cannot, therefore, be by mere coincidence or unconscious oversight that they continue to exclude important biblical testimonies about women in both the Old Testament and the New. Why is it that most Catholics never hear of the important role played by Shipra and Puah in the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt? (Exodus 1:17-22) Why do we hear all twenty of the healing stories in Luke’s gospel except one – the healing of the crippled woman, the one Jesus calls “daughter of Abraham”? (Luke 13:10-17) Why do we so seldom hear about women in positions of leadership in the early Church, like Lydia, Prisca, and Phoebe, like Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis and Junia? If St. Luke and St. Paul valued their ministries enough to preserve their memory in their canonical writings, why are we so timorous about hearing them read aloud in Church? How can we ever hope to engage in substantive conversation about women’s ministry and leadership in the Church, or about more gender-inclusive versions of our liturgical readings and prayers, if we cannot even hear the Word of God proclaimed in all its integrity?
My sisters and brothers, if our Easter celebration is to be anything more than a reverent recollection of an event that occurred some two thousand years ago, if, instead, it is to be a wholehearted embrace of the Holy Spirit’s power to move in the Church today, then you and I must take more seriously Jesus’s challenge to Mary Magdalene: “Do not cling to me. Let go of your old ideas about me. Surrender your fears. Release your despair. Abandon the idea that nothing has changed, because everything has changed. Be open to it, Church.”
As I suggested on an earlier occasion, perhaps now is the time to see how the Spirit of God, moving through the ministry of women, might lead the Church to a healthier, holier way of being. Perhaps when women participate fully and authentically in all the Church’s ministry, the heart of Jesus will, at long, last beat within the Body of Christ.