It must have been sometime in May or June 1993. I was back at home having just finished my final engineering exams in Galway. I had gone for a walk and returned to learn that my mother had received a phone call to say that some funding I had applied for had come through. I could now go to the UK for further studies, which I did. It was a turning point in my life.
The news was less of a surprise than a shock. I had been told that I had just missed out on the funding and should make alternative arrangements; but, in the very unlikely event that extra money came through, I was next on the list and they’d get in touch. I was all geared up to go to Cork, and was very happy at the prospect. My parents and I had even gone down to Cork to suss out the place and to get ideas about accommodation.
And although the news about funding was objectively wonderful, the plans I had settled on, and the peace of mind that went with it, were now completely upset. I’d have to think about accommodation in an overseas country and many other things. The arrival of the internet was a few years off and such matters were far more difficult to sort out in those days.
And, in addition to all this, my mother was upset with me heading far away; and, truth be told, it was also the same day when a family member was distraught after having had a bad haircut, which my mother was vainly attempting to rescue – probably not unlike the haircuts many of us are getting these days since we can’t go out to the hairdressers or the barbers.
So everyone was upset. Here we were afflicted with wonderful news and a bad haircut. I had certainly received wonderful news; but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I should have been dancing for joy; but I could not help feeling bothered, confused, and burdened. It would take at least several days for things to settle down in my mind, and for a lightness of heart to return.
The story of Easter morning as recounted in the Gospels is a very dramatic and extreme case of: it was wonderful news, but it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary get up early to visit Jesus’s tomb. They arrive with the sort of expectations that we would come with when visiting someone’s grave. Like me returning from my walk, there seemed to be nothing dramatic or unexpected on the horizon. They would come; they would do what they had to do; and they would go away. And that would be that.
But, instead, they received the most wonderful news, wonderful beyond imagination; but the whole way that morning turned out must have felt to them that it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
And, as if unwittingly reflecting what a profound shock the whole business of the resurrection was, we can see in the Gospel accounts, especially those of Matthew and Mark, that their great artistry as writers seems much less apparent when it came to the Resurrection. It’s as though the Evangelists are struggling to find words, or appropriate ways to speak, about something so radically new and wholly unexpected as the Resurrection.
And maybe that’s how it ought to be. After all, when it comes to something so radically new as the Resurrection, surely all our words and our ideas are to be found poor and inadequate.
So just compare the sheer craft employed again and again by the evangelists in ratcheting up the tension in bringing us to the events of the Passion and death of Christ; the artistry shown in the interactions with Judas, with Herod, with Pilate, and with the crowd baying for Jesus’s blood, not to mention Peter denying the Lord and the other disciples running away.
But when we come to the Resurrection accounts themselves, it’s all very quick and abrupt, almost disjointed. Mark’s account has the women running away afraid from the empty tomb and the angelic messenger. It was surely wonderful news, wasn’t it? But it certainly wasn’t supposed to be like that – with good people running away terrified.
And Matthew, as we have all just heard, and as scholars also tell us, gives us a more polished and elaborate version than Mark’s account; but it still lacks Matthew’s usual sophistication. Using the traditional literary devices of the time, he introduces an earthquake no less; and Matthew’s angel does not simply sit waiting for people to come, like the one in Mark’s account; no, he swoops down from heaven and rolls away the stone before people’s very eyes. It’s all very dramatic, almost theatrical. It is as though when it came to the careful setting out of events, especially in Matthew and Mark, that their artistry was more in its comfort zone when it came to the Crucifixion than the Resurrection.
You see, these evangelists as writers could cope well with the sorts of things they were used to in daily life: for example, the dynamics between people, such as those between Jesus and his disciples or the Pharisees; but in the Resurrection we encounter something that goes far beyond the sorts of things we see or hear or touch in daily life: we encounter nothing less than the pure and direct action of God.
Just as we cannot get our limited minds to understand the great mystery of the act of Creation of the universe out of nothing, even though we accept that it happened like this; so too it seems that the evangelists and the early witnesses to the Resurrection could not get their heads round an event just as miraculous and just as divine as the act of the Creation itself. This divine act of the Resurrection was nothing less than the transformation of earthly reality with its death and decay, so that a new age has now been inaugurated, a new age in which death is for ever overcome. This is a new age in which a man tortured and abused is now alive, not merely resuscitated, but alive in an eternally transformed way and who also offers the same gift of resurrection to you and to me.
And so in face of this turning point of all history and of all reality, the initial reactions of the women and of the disciples are understandably confused and bothered and this is reflected too in what the evangelists wrote. After all, their usual way of looking at things has been upset and turned upside down. It was fabulous news, for sure; but, again, it was not supposed to be like this.
But with time and space to reflect on things, they could begin to get their heads round it all. But to see this we need to look elsewhere than in the Resurrection accounts themselves. We might, for example, begin to notice that all the events in the Gospels, even the passion and crucifixion of Christ, are presented in a fundamentally victorious way that assumes, and is permeated with, the Resurrection.
And we see perhaps the most joyful response to the resurrection on Pentecost morning itself – a full fifty days later – the disciples, now enlightened by the Holy Spirit, so ecstatic and so animated by the divine, that onlookers thought they were drunk. This was surely the sort of celebration the Resurrection merits.
And yet our reactions, which do matter, are ultimately secondary. Whether our hearts are aflame with joy, or whether we feel burdened even right now, it ultimately does not matter too much: because the reality of the Resurrection with its victory over death and its inauguration of the New Creation, all this does not depend in the slightest on what our emotional condition happens to be at any given time. The Resurrection is, thankfully, much, much, much greater and more wonderful than that.
Wonderful news, for sure; but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I found out back in the summer of 1993 that our reactions to things can sometimes go off in unexpected directions; and we can all bring to mind similar experiences in our lives. But among the events that did not go as they were supposed to is surely the Triduum of the year 2020, a Triduum touched by anxiety and sadness during which we friars have felt acutely and painfully the absence of your physical presence with us.
But I can imagine myself as a very old man reminiscing, telling stories to young friars about, say, life in the Edinburgh of several decades before. And I can imagine myself telling amusing anecdotes to the young friars about the brethren living in Edinburgh at that time – that is, right now! – hoping that the anecdotes told about me are not too bad.
But the future young friars will presumably also ask about the Triduum of 2020. How did we possibly manage with the social media as it was forty or fifty years ago: the technology of 2020 was so primitive compared with the technology these days, they’ll say. And I’ll reply: yes, for sure, the Triduum wasn’t meant to be like that, but when the Good News is so good, such limitations, while they do matter, are by no means the main thing.
What matters is that Christ is Risen. Death and sin and all that life might throw at us have been fundamentally overcome; the New Creation has been inaugurated, and now that it has been inaugurated, it cannot be stopped. And that’s what matters – whether we are confused, whether we shed tears, whether we’re delira and excira – what really matters is that Christ is Risen and all that goes with that.
Thanks be to God. And a blessed Easter to one and all. 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.