The story begins in darkness. It was “still dark”, St. John tells us, when Mary Magdalen went to visit the tomb, three days after his agonising death.
There was darkness outside for it was before dawn, and there was darkness inside, in Mary Magdalen’s heart for she was grief-stricken at the death of Jesus, her friend and Lord, whom she had witnessed being crucified in all its brutality. That remarkable man who had called her from slavery into freedom, from darkness to light, she saw tortured, humiliated and dead. And Mary Magdalen’s darkness was compounded with horror when she saw the stone rolled away assuming the body had been taken. She was, in all probability, an emotional wreck.
She runs to Peter and John and relays her worst fears: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”. In turn, Peter runs with John back to the tomb. Why is everybody running? Out of fear: they are running because they feared some sort of interference had taken place, deeply contrary to Jewish burial customs. So what begins in darkness is soon followed by fear. And their fear was not entirely misplaced, of course, some sort of interference had indeed taken place!
Next, when they entered the tomb, they saw the burial clothes folded neatly, and at that moment, it all made sense. They believed. They believed what they had failed to understand before: he must rise from the dead in order to fulfil what was foretold in the Old Testament.
Seeing the empty tomb and the folded linen was when Christ’s resurrection was revealed to them, their Eureka moment, a moment of epiphany when they finally understood. The Gospel doesn’t relate this detail but I like to think that it was this moment when dawn broke because it at this moment when the disciples first saw by the light of the Resurrection.
About 2000 years later those same pivots on which John’s account of the resurrection turns — darkness, fear, revelation — finds a certain parallel in our own troubled times.
First, who could doubt the very real darkness in the sufferings and hardships endured by so many people? This darkness takes various forms, whether it be losing a job or doing one at great risk without protective equipment; the loneliness of solitude or painful separation from family; having to suffer ill-health or even the loss of life. There are many more. Looking around, it seems that darkness abounds. But it is into our darkness that Christ’s Easter light shines. As John insists at the very start of his Gospel “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Second: whatever darkness we endure, there is the fear that a still greater darkness awaits us beyond. Fear throngs the very air we breathe. In recent weeks I’ve heard many people tell me of their anguish, stress and anxiety. For the most part the fear is not hysteria but a sincere troubling. But these fears, however reasonable, are subsumed by cosmic reality of Easter: i.e. Christ’s resurrection by which he won our salvation. So against the fears we nurse, recall Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, which we read last night, and hear the words spoken to Mary first by an angel and then by Christ: “Do not be afraid”. Thus St. John Chrysostom in his Easter homily about 1600 years ago made bold to declare “Let none fear death; for death of the Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death”.
So far so good. What about revelation? Where is the revelation for us when you and I can scarcely walk out the front door, let alone behold an empty tomb? Well, God reveals himself in more ways than moving a stone and folding some linen but to receive His revelation requires faith. Faith is a gift, a grace from God to which we can assent, and which we must also nourish, especially in hard times. Many people come to Church of course in hard times but we can’t even do that. We Catholics feel this acutely being without the sacraments, most especially the Holy Eucharist – a loss we feel today more painfully than any other day in the liturgical calendar. This can leaves us feeling terribly lost, abandoned even. Do not despair because God gives us other gifts, besides. Let me mention briefly two: His Word and His Spirit.
God reveals himself through His Word. St. Paul wrote to the Romans: faith comes from what is heard. The Word of God, found in the Bible, is the means by which God speaks, not as a dead letter but to each of us actively, personally. Only yesterday, I was reading the end of John’s Gospel and it struck me that the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples twice in their confinement. Granted their lockdown was different to ours — their doors were locked because they feared the Jews — but the point I took away is that locked doors are no obstacle for Jesus. And more: on both occasions when the Risen Lord appears, he bestows peace upon the disciples and shows them his wounds. The wounds testify to the reality of the bodily resurrection, and which Thomas memorably concedes only upon inspection. But Jesus tells him “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Blessed are we who haven’t seen but have only heard or read, and yet believe. Search the scriptures for they are the means by which God reveals Himself to us. His Word is truth, and it encourages our faith because it testifies to the “Good News” that is Easter!
And God also reveals Himself through His Spirit. I’ve been struck by the power of the simple prayer, which we’ve been saying each day at Mass: the Spiritual Communion. A line reads: “Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You.” Such a prayer — such an invitation — is an Act of Faith because it calls upon Jesus who has left the tomb empty. As with the Scriptures, we call upon God’s spirit to reveal Himself, to make Himself known, and so nourish our faith for as Jesus Himself promises “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you”.
Friends, just as it was in the Gospel so it is for us today: darkness and fear give way to Easter revelation which today we receive in His Word and His Spirit, though sadly not in Holy Communion not in His Body, the Eucharist. But let us now channel that loss into deep prayer so that the heaviness of recent days becomes a levity for now, that our sorrow give way to joy, that the dead might have new life in Jesus Christ. For by His Resurrection, Christ was won victory over everything the world throws our way, including the Corona Virus! So in these difficult days, the poetic words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, might become our prayer this Easter morn: “Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us”.
“…to the dimness of us” The resurrection story — our story — might begin in darkness but it ends in the glory of Easter light, the dayspring.
Yes, “Let Him easter in us”; heaven knows we need it! Amen.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.