At the Tomb with Mary Magdalene (Easter Homily 2013)

Easter Day 2013

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Throughout the latter days of this Holy Week, the church in every corner of our world has been focused on Jesus, walking with Jesus, praying with Jesus, witnessing his suffering and his dying, standing by his grave in the silence of death.

 

This morning, on this 3rd day, one woman (according to John’s Gospel) has gone in the darkness of early morning to the place where Jesus was buried. Mary Magdalene has gone there alone, but as the representative of all of us who have ever known loss, of all of of us who have ever seen the life drained out of someone we love more than life itself, of all of us who have seen violence from afar or up-close and have not known how to respond. Mary went to the tomb representing all the human tears that ever have been cried.

 

What she saw there, as the gospel recalls, is the tomb open and the stone rolled away. Now humanity has suffered so much at the raw hands of death, and we have learned through war and cruelty and dread sickness so to respect death’s reign, that Magdalene assumed only one thing when she saw this, one final indignity: that someone had come and stolen Jesus’ lifeless body and carried him away to God knows where. And so she ran.

 

She did what anyone would do faced with a radically new and unexpected situation. She ran to friends, to share her news, to ask them to help her to understand. And so Peter and the other disciple (likely the author of the fourth Gospel himself) ran to see for themselves. Mary Magdalene returned to the cemetery as well. They were all running toward a radically new situation. They had no idea how radically new it was. They had no idea they were running toward the scene and center of the re-creation of hope, the revealing of true life, the re-creation of humanity and creation itself.

 

When Peter and the other disciple arrived, their eyes could tell them only these things: the tomb is empty; Jesus’ body is gone; and the wrappings that had been gently placed around his wounded torso and head are still there, some of them carefully rolled up. What was there to believe? Was it only what they could see? Or was there something more?

 

Magdalene’s friends returned to their homes. She remained. She remained crying. She remained confused. She remained on that spot, because love would and could not allow her to go anywhere else. Love, I think, whispered in the ear of her heart that there was something more to understand, something more to know, something more still to believe. And so she remained.

 

For me, one of the most important questions we have before us this Easter morning, and indeed on all the mornings of our lives as the light dawns and we come back to life, is this: as she remained there at Jesus’ empty tomb, how did Mary Magdalene come to understand? How did she come to believe?

The question is so important because like us, Mary Magdalene is a human being; and like her, we have faced, and will confront many times again, situations that seem to proclaim only death, only silence, only despair, only emptiness. How can we, like Mary, come to know in those moments

that wrapped in the silence is song,

that behind the despair hope shouts,

that every emptiness will be filled,

and that beyond death is – always – yet more life?

 

What does the Gospel this Easter morning teach us in the very words it uses, and the story it shares? Listen to the words again:

 

“As she wept, she bent over into the tomb.”

 

What was Mary doing? She was taking a second, a deeper look. Before, she thought she knew and assumed she understood when she saw the stone rolled away and the tomb open. Now, she looks deeper, and perhaps with some more profound expectation.

 

“She saw two angels in white.”

 

There is more to every moment, to every question, than we can humanly recognize. There are advocates and helpers nearby that we do not always see and almost never recognize. But they are there.

 

“They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

 

The seemingly most obvious questions are worth asking, and worth asking yet again whenever we feel alone and undone and overwhelmed by death. In their answer may be hidden more than we thought we knew.

 

“She turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

 

We need not presume that we are at first going to recognize the best of all gifts by our side, even when the Word made flesh is there and living and visible and speaking to us. First there must be conversation – some call it prayer – and perhaps misunderstanding. But it needs to be spoken, and we will be heard.

 

“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!'”

 

To be known by name and to be called by name are transformative experiences in any human life; to be known as who we are, and valued and loved as we are: this is what opens up the deepest human possibilities in us, and reveals the presence of the divine in our time and place.

 

“Go to my brothers and say to them . . . ‘I have seen the Lord.'”

 

When we come to recognize Jesus risen and alive and loving and speaking to us, to our hearts, as Magdalene did that morning, we are inevitably given a mission. Somehow, in a unique fashion for each one of us, that mission will mean: Go, and share what you have experienced, what you have come to know, what has changed your life, what you believe.

 

This morning we stand at the tomb with Mary. She is the first evangelist, the first to proclaim the truth of resurrection. What do we learn from her? What will we carry from this beautiful church this morning back into the corners and crevices and the darker moments of our own real lives? Maybe simply this:

 

  • Take a second and a deeper look. Expect to find more.

 

  • Look for the advocates and helpers, God-sent, who may not be immediately obvious.

 

  • Allow them to raise the simple questions that you told yourself were answered. Hear them again.

 

  • Know that God’s own risen and living answer to every situation of death is standing directly by our side, even when we cannot recognize him. He is there. Talk with him.

 

  • Hear Jesus call you by name; hear him recognize both your need and your goodness; allow his recognition of you to open wide your eyes and your understanding.

 

  • Accept the mission he gives you: to share the good news you know by heart with the world around you. This particular telling of the Gospel of Christ can only, uniquely, come from you.

 

And finally, in and through all this, rise with Christ! His birth, his words and works, his suffering and death, and today his rising, are all for you. For all of us. As the Creed puts it, “for us and for our salvation.”

 

My friends, ‘this is the day that the Lord has made! Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” For Jesus is risen from the dead, and he lives forever. Alleluia!

 

(c) John P. McGinty

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Maundy Thursday: Finding Jesus

Thursday evening of Holy Week: Holy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. The moment when the liturgy recalls the mandatum of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. To paraphrase, “Do you know what I have done? I who am master and Lord have watched your feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you must do for each other.”

Do we know what he has done?

Perhaps partially, if at all. He has served, yes. But in doing so in this particular way, at this particular moment on the way to his death, he has revealed the very heart of God as a a heart of service. He has introduced God as One who wills to bend down before the other, to hold, to embrace, to wash and dry, to do whatever is needed. Whatever is needed for the sake of love.

This evening I went to pray at an evening Eucharist nearby. The homilist directed our attention to feet. Oft overlooked (no pun intended) they tell the story of who we are, of where we’ve been, and (in the path of the steps behind us) they tell what is important to us, what counts for us, where we have had the energy and the will to go. The two priests of the parish came into the assembly, got down on the floor, and washed the feet of all who came forward, of almost all who were there. Gently. In silence. With respect for the story told by the feet of each sojourner who stepped forward.

I love this night, with a special love. I always have, as long as I remember. This evening I recall Holy Thursday at dear Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn. I believe the night I picture in my mind now was either in 2003 or ’04. Two winters before, a frigid killing winter, we found Tommy. He was living in a car up the street. He was wrapped in blankets. He was cold, very cold. He wasn’t eating right. He didn’t have the medication he needed. He didn’t have the daily reminders of the love we all need. He was often drunk. He had a heart of gold.

Over the year and a half we had known him at Sacred Heart, Tommy came and went. He sometimes helped out at the Food Pantry on Thursdays. He would offer to do odd jobs. Sometimes he was sober for weeks at a time and stood taller and walked stronger and told stories about his childhood and growing up, and about his dad the fire chief. Other times he was very low, dragging himself to the door; hungry but not knowing it; lonely, but it couldn’t be admitted. The hole was too deep and dark.

But this one year I thought: Tommy should be asked if he will be one of those having their feet washed at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. We were asking twelve. I thought, ‘Tommy should be one of those twelve.’ I was thinking: ‘he’s become part of this community. He’s not perfect, Sometimes he’s radically imperfect. But hell, he’s only showing out loud what is true of every one of us here. Including the priests.’ So I asked. And he said yes.

Holy Thursday evening came. And so did Tommy. I wasn’t sure he would show up. It depended on a bunch of factors coming together just right. And they did. I think the English word for such a moment is: God. We came to the point in the liturgy for the washing of feet. Tommy moved up with the others and sat down. He took his shoes off, the best ones he could find. As I was privileged to do with the others, I poured warm water over his feet into a basin. I wiped them dry. I kissed them. I looked into his eyes. He was smiling. He was smiling like nothing had ever gone wrong for a single moment his whole life long. I think there’s a word in English, and every other language, for moments like that. I think you know what that word is.

In the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to John, it is Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. Peter first protests, and then insists. The others, it seems, went along. Judas was there among them. Jesus washed his feet as well. With a special knowledge, but still with the very same love.

I was thinking on that evening ten years ago, and ever since, and again tonight: when you today as priest kneel down in front of men and women and do what Jesus did; when you hold their feet gently, when you look into their eyes, you are the disciple. That night, when I looked up into Tommy’s eyes as I dried his feet? I was looking at Christ. I was looking into the eyes of Jesus. Jesus struggling. Jesus suffering. Jesus trying. Jesus loving.

Saint Augustine, the amazing North African bishop long ago said it this way:

“If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to what the apostle Paul says to the faithful: ‘You are Christ’s own body, his members’; thus, it is your own mystery which is
placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you receive. At communion, the priest says: ‘The body of Christ,’ and you reply ‘Amen.’ When you say ‘Amen,’ you are saying yes to what you are.”

It was true before he said it and it is still true. But he said it so beautifully.

So did Saint John Chrysostom, who warned us sternly to care for Christ first on the streets, in the squares, lying in the gutters, and then after inside the church building. Chrysostom preached: “The temple of our afflicted neighbor’s body is more holy than the altar of stone on which you celebrate the holy sacrifice. You are able to contemplate this altar everywhere, in the street and in the open squares.”

During the distribution of the Eucharist tonight, as each one affirmed that here was present the Body of Christ and the Bread of Heaven, we sang the hymn Where Charity and Love Prevail. The tune was different than the one I learned as a boy at Saint John’s Parish by the water in Swampscott, on the north shore of Boston. But the lyrics remain the same. And the things that remain the same are rock-solid, damn-that’s- good-count-on-this foundational.

Remember the last couple of verses?

“Let us recall that in our midst dwells God’s begotten Son; As members of his body joined, we are in Christ made one.
No race or creed can love exclude, if honored be God’s name; Our family embraces all whose Father is the same.”

That is saving truth, given us to live. This night and every night. There are feet to be washed on any given evening. And Jesus to be found.

Tommy, thank you, on this Thursday evening when you are alive to me again. And rest in peace, dear brother.

Ecclesia pro parvulis

 

Within days of his election as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis shared the story of how he came to choose the name of Francis of Assisi in speaking to representatives of the world’s communication media gathered at Vatican City. In that context, Francis said, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” This short phrase, entirely in accord with his talk at that occasion, caught the attention of the world’s media and of millions more (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/16/pope-francis-church-poverty).

 

These words stood out for most Catholics, and for followers of many other denominations and faiths, as words of hope. I think they are words of hope as they are heard, in part, because of how difficult it is for the church, as an institution, to make real and present the spirit of Jesus, who walked the roads of ancient Israel asking nothing for himself, describing himself and his life in these words: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NRSV). To hear an echo of that spirit from the person in charge of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly as the spirit and style of a ministry is being determined in its first hours, catches people’s attention.

 

It’s important to recall, lest the hearers shortly hereafter begin to doubt the reality and possibility of those words of Pope Francis, that in expressing this desire this man stands in a long tradition. In 1964, while the second Vatican Council was still ongoing, French Dominican and ecclesiologist Yves Congar (1904 – 1995) published a slim volume entitled Power and Poverty in the Church (http://www.amazon.com/Power-Poverty-Church-Yves-Congar/dp/B0000CM9T2). Its preparation was inspired by the discussions then being heard both within the Council and outside it, from trattoria tables in Trastevere to breakfast tables in the Irish countryside. What was being heard, and having an effect, were words like those of John XXIII, spoken to the Diplomatic Corps the year before, and quoted in Congar’s Foreword:

 

It is the spirit that counts more than the gesture; and this lesson does not apply to the leaders of the church alone: every position of power, every exercise of authority, is a service. The Pope gladly calls himself Servus servorum Dei; he is conscious of being, and strives to be, the servant of all. God grant that those who bear the burden of responsibility for the human community may take to heart this last great lesson of Maundy Thursday, and recognize that their authority will be all the more acceptable to their people for being exercised in a spirit of humble service and complete devotion to the welfare of all men.

 

That ‘last great lesson’ of Maundy Thursday is the lesson of humble service preserved in the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel. There, at his last meal with his beloved, Jesus gets down on the floor and washes their feet. He acts as the servant of all. And then he speaks quite clearly of what this act implies: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14 NRSV). John XXIII, in embracing this service as his own call, reminded the representatives of the world’s governments that they, no less than he, are similarly charged. He is saying that the church, as the presence of Christ, must be the poor servant of all and, in doing so, give example to all who exercise authority or power. Or control vast sums of money which, in this world, are equivalent to power.

 

In the body of his book Congar, a master of the church’s self-understanding through the centuries, writes of the influence of the Roman Empire upon the post-Constantinian church, and of the lingering vestiges of the way things were done in feudal times. In two brief segments, however, he places that history and past ways of being in the context of the mid-20th century and says, “Men [and women] want the truth of the Gospel, its authenticity and simplicity, and on those conditions they are ready to accept its demands ungrudgingly. We can no longer hope to dazzle men with purple and gold, heraldry and titles ending in ‘-issimus’. He compels us now to show forth in our lives the truth of what we profess to believe and love with all our heart. Who can complain of that?”

 

For Congar, and for many church leaders at that moment in time (as he reveals in a catena of quotes from Council Fathers that he includes as an appendix to his work), “In a world that has become, or has become again, purely ‘worldly”, the Church finds herself forced, if she would still be anything at all, to be simply the Church, witness to the Gospel and the kingdom of God, through Jesus Christ and in view of him. That is what men need, that is what they expect of her. In fact if we listed all their most valid claims on the Church we should find that they amounted to this: that she be less of the world and more in the world; that she be simply the Church of Jesus Christ, the conscience of men in the light of the Gospel, but that she be this with her whole heart.”

 

The heartfelt appeal of Pope Francis, as well as this confirmation in the words of John XXIII, Yves Congar, and many others in the 1960’s stand in a long line of seemingly occasional, but always dramatic and appreciated responses to an oft-ignored message at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Anthony of the Desert (251 – 356 AD) walked into church in the year 269 as these words of Matthew’s Gospel were being read: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony took these words to mean just what they said, and he did exactly that, becoming first a hermit and then the father of monasticism.

 

Centuries later the present pope’s namesake from Assisi heard a sermon on the 10th chapter of the same Gospel, including these words of Jesus as he sent the Twelve out on mission: “You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.” He too took Jesus at his word, and that changed everything.

 

The founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, stands in that same line. So too does the 20th century Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 – 1945). A Russian revolutionary spirit, married twice, she converted deeply to the Gospel of Christ and reached out in Paris to provide everything she could in the name of Jesus to Russian emigres and others in need, asking nothing for herself. She died in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck on Holy Saturday, 1945.

 

Image of Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 - 1945)
Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 – 1945)

To return to John XXIII words, “it is the spirit that counts more than the gesture,” though both spirit and gesture carry unique power when they are inspired by the Gospel itself. What does a “Church which is poor and for the poor” look like, sound like, move like? Does it mean some measure of divestiture, of traditions which are not central to the Gospel, or of goods and property? Perhaps. But perhaps whether it means that or not, it must mean something even deeper, something fundamental to the church’s very being. Is it not a call to be more faithful to the person of Jesus Christ than to anything or anyone else? Before Anthony of the Desert, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Mother Maria or Dom Helder Camara of Brazil; before Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, or any of the innumerable unnamed and unknown who heard the Word and responded as inspired, there was the first poor man, Jesus. His church is, to use the old church language, ecclesia pro parvulis.

A Second Look

Homily for the third Sunday of Lent 2013

[Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9]

Syrian mortar shells fall on the Golan Heights;
a pope resigns;
the sequester becomes reality in the United States;
the Newtown Creek area straddling Brooklyn and Queens is pronounced one of the most polluted in the nation with an underground oil leak bigger than than Exxon Valdez spill;
a sinkhole in Florida like a horror movie takes a man in an instant from home to lost;
Pilate brutally mixes the blood of Galilean Jews with their sacrifices to teach the population a lesson;
eighteen are killed when the tower near the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem unexpectedly collapses.

Good morning! In the midst of all this and so much more, it is very good for us to be here. Throughout the week we as the current human occupants of the planet have just lived, and long before as reflected in the telling of woes with which the Gospel opens today, there is plenty of big bad news around us. And what’s more, take any of the big stories – Syria, sequester, Newtown Creek, Macedonian riots – and poke around just below the surface and you will find the little stories that hurt even more, the tiny human stories of men and women and children and the old and families who are suffering, and who have neither power nor authority to do anything about it.

And then there come the days when this is obvious, too painfully obvious right here at home, as in the tragic loss this past week of Martha Carr Atwater, whose funeral was celebrated here in a packed Grace Church on Friday. The blog this talented woman and beloved wife and mother wrote was subtitled, “Solving the World’s Problems One at a Time.” It seems that “one at a time,” as near-impossible as even that is, is nothing like enough. The world’s problems, near and far, come at us at a much faster rate.

No kidding about it at all. When you dare to take a cold, hard look around, sometimes it can all look cold and hard.

We are here, we choose to come to places like this every week, to take a second look. Like Moses’ attention riveted by the bush that burned but was not consumed, when he stopped his sheep-herding everyday work to say, “I must turn aside and see why this is so.” Like the gardener in the parable Jesus tells this morning asking to take a second look – a yearlong second look – at the fruitless fig tree, so we are here to take a second look at life, another look at people, another look at sorrow, a second look at love and possibility.

The Apostle Paul wrote in the tenth chapter of his first letter to the troubled and troublesome church at Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” There’s something deep in me that wants to say to that great man: ‘Paul, my brother, that assurance is cold comfort or none at all. Help me instead to take a deeper, a second look. In all the chaos, the striving, the pain; in all the hunger and in all the feeding; in all the violence and in all the peacemaking; in all the despair and in all the determination to hope; in all the sickness and in all the healing; in all the dying and in all the birthing – what is going on here?’

When Moses paused to take that second look, he quickly found that he was, and had been already, standing on holy ground, standing in the presence of God. When the owner of the vineyard appears in Jesus’s parable and orders the non-producing fig tree to be ripped out of the earth and thrown away, we can spontaneously presume that that owner of the vineyard is God, and that by extension he is looking our way out of the corner of his eye as he speaks to the gardener and saying to us, ‘You’d better produce, or you’re a goner too!’

But what if, like Moses, we pause, step closer, and take that second look? What if the vineyard owner is not the figure of God in that story? What if the more proper image of God there is the gardener? Humbling himself, responding to the complaints of this owner – whoever that may be, who is filled with ego and declares his desires loudly like law – what if this Gardener-God reveals here the Motherly and Fatherly understanding for the plight of the tree, for the plight of all who are set-upon and frightened, hungry and alone and unable to accomplish what they would like to do, unable to grow and to bear fruit as they are created to do? What if this second look reveals that we, like Moses, are standing on holy ground? What if, in fact, our closer look helps us realize that we are planted in holy ground, right here, and that by our side in the midst of all the coldness and hardness, the challenges and the losses, the strain and the pain, is God? God who nourishes and feeds and protects and nurtures, stands by faithfully and watches by our side? What if this is the deeper truth? What if this is, at last, the only truth? The one that lasts? The one that dies and rises? The one named Jesus?

The collect for this third Sunday of this amazing season brings both comfort and hard truth. As is often the case, we reach the comfort by accepting the hard truth. The truth is this, in the collect prayer’s words: “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” The power to help us is not in us. But it is as near to us as our own beating heart. There is the comfort: “Almighty God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, defended from all adversity which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” Great Gardener, in your gentle humility and faithfulness, stand by us in your care.

In the midst of this past week, full of all the roar and earthquaking of any earthly seven-day period, I came across in reading a reference to a hymn by the great Charles Wesley. By coincidence the church celebrates Charles and his older brother John on this date, March 3, each year. I looked this hymn up, until now unknown to me, and heard it sung. Written in 1738, the year in which Wesley dated his true conversion to Christ, it is titled “And can it be that I should gain?” Originally Charles called this poem, “Free Grace,” and he shared it with his friend, John Newton whose own hymn of conversion we sing as “Amazing Grace.” Both proclaim and ring out and sing confidently into the storm of life the virtue of that second look which always, always, always, can and will reveal where we are as holy ground, made such by the One who stands with us.

Something about the second verse of this hymn singing of Jesus and his mission knocked me down and set me back up one evening this week:

“He left his Father’s throne above
so free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love! how can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

“Emptied himself of all but love.” Life can and will empty us too. In God’s saving grace, God’s amazing love, may life leave us only love.

On a second look at all the coldness and the hardness, may we see only love, feel only love, live only love.

John McGinty
March 3, 2013
Grace Church Brooklyn Heights