This homily is based on John 20:1-9.
Today’s Gospel begins with Mary Magdalene telling Simon Peter about the empty tomb. Upon hearing her report, Peter, along with the beloved disciple, immediately make a run for the Lord’s burial place.
They’re anxious to verify Mary Magdalene’s report, for if true, it raises many questions. If the tomb is indeed empty, who would do be responsible for such a thing? Perhaps the enemies of their Master have not been content with the crucifixion, and have now committed the unthinkable–desecrated his tomb. Or could it have been just some thief? Or is it possible–could it be the case–that all that strange talk of Jesus about rising from the dead has actually come true?
When they finally get there, the first thing they see is the burial cloths–which virtually rules out any theory about thieves. The cloths, after all, would be the only valuable thing in the tomb.
But the tomb is empty. The body of Jesus is nowhere to be found. Peter and John, for the most part, see…nothing. Unlike the other Easter accounts, there are no appearances of the Risen Lord himself, no angels, no instructions or explanations. Peter and John find nothing in the empty tomb.
Then the story ends with two of the most disconnected and bewildering verses in the Gospel:
“Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
For they did not yet understand the Scripture
that he had to rise from the dead.
The other disciple saw and believed, but they did not understand?
Let’s break it down: What the disciple saw was nothing more than an empty tomb. Yet he believed. But by the way, they still did not understand.
This tells me two things:
First, it’s possible to believe even without understanding. We don’t need to have figured things out completely first before having faith. This has been an oft-repeated message of the Gospel, but for us, it’s not an easy pill to swallow. We are creatures of reason (or so we’d like to think!) and we need to be convinced first before we will concede to believe.
In short, we tend to insist on understanding as a precondition to faith. But that’s the exact opposite of the famous motto of the 11th-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury: fides quaerens intellectum--or “faith seeking understanding.” Ours is instead a case of “understanding seeking faith.”
The message of Easter is not “to see (or understand) is to believe.” Far from it. Easter instead challenges us: “Believe, then you will see.”
This is a most timely message for us. Who knows why this whole coronavirus business is happening in the world? Why has God allowed it? What does it all mean–and what will it all eventually lead to?
The answer to all those questions is: We don’t know. The scientists are still trying to figure out this virus. The rest of us have put on our philosopher’s hat trying to make sense of this global phenomenon. But our lack of understanding need not keep us away from having faith.
For it is when we see through the eyes of faith that things can make more sense, and as a result, we can actually grow in understanding–even if not completely–never completely–because as we know, the world is a mystery and can never be completely understood.
This is what happened in the empty tomb that first Easter morning: The birth of faith even without understanding. This Easter we can ask God to give birth to the same faith in us.
The second thing that those two disconnected verses are teaching me is that I need to look beyond the deceptive appearance of emptiness. There is a pregnant emptiness about Easter. Beneath the surface of things, there is a hidden presence–the presence of the Risen Lord! Again we need the eyes of faith to detect–and to connect to–this presence.
When you think about it, we are no strangers to empty tombs. At least, not any more.
For the past weeks, this global pandemic has disrupted our normal lives, forcing the world to suspend all its usual routines. We’ve had no choice, but to stay home, stay away, withdraw from the world-at-large, slow down, un-clutter our days, quiet down…
It is a kind of emptying, and we have coped with this emptying in so many different ways. We’ve tried to escape it, fight it, wish it away, but also, hopefully somehow begun the process of coming to terms with this unfamiliar and disturbing emptiness in our lives.
The world today can feel like an empty tomb. But it’s his empty tomb.
Easter invites us to enter his tomb, just as the disciples did that very first Easter morning, and perhaps stay there for a while. We may still be bewildered; we may still be without understanding, but we can choose to believe so that with the eyes of faith, we can recognize the pregnant emptiness of our lives and detect beneath its surface the secret and sacred presence of the Risen Lord.
Are you ready to make the decision today to accept this empty world and unwrap the gifts hidden in its emptiness?
Let us pray to God that the Spirit of the Risen Lord will shine in our lives.
Happy Easter to all!