Sunday, April 08, 2007

Quo Vadis?: The Direction of the Resurrection

(Easter Sunday-Year C; This homily was given 8 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 20:1-9 and Colossians 3:1-4)

“Domine, quo vadis?” Lord, where are you going?
Those are the words of St. Peter spoken to Christ in a legend regarding the early Church in Rome. According to that legend, St. Peter, discouraged and fearful amidst the persecution of the Church under Emperor Nero, made a decision to flee the city.

As he was leaving, he saw coming toward him the Risen Christ. In his amazement he dropped to his knees and said, “Domine, quo vadis?” Lord, where are you going? Christ responded:

“I am going into the city, to be crucified anew, since you have chosen to abandon my people.”

At that, Peter realized that he had been going in the wrong direction; he turned around, went back into the city of Rome, and was himself crucified for his faith in Christ and his leadership in the Church. [That last part of the story is no legend; it is an historical fact. Peter was literally crucified upside down, not considering himself worthy to die in the exact same way as Christ.]

Our gospel this morning, St. John’s account of the empty tomb, is about going in the right direction. In fact, we could call it “the direction of the resurrection.”

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning and discovers that the stone has been removed. She is the first one to encounter the evidence of the resurrection, and her immediate reaction is to run. But she does not run into the tomb, in joy and exaltation. Instead she runs away from the tomb and away from the mystery of the resurrection.

Mary, quo vadis? Where are you going? Like St. Peter in that legend, Mary is going in the wrong direction (and not just geographically). She is not running to share the joyful news of the resurrection; she thinks Jesus is still dead. Worse still, she thinks that His body has been stolen! She says to St. Peter and St. John:

They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.
—John 20:2

They. We don’t know exactly who “they” are, but Mary is convinced that “they” have taken the body of Christ. Was it the Romans? The scribes and Pharisees? One of the concerns of that time period was that grave robbers would come in the night and steal the costly burial clothes, carelessly discarding the body of the deceased. We don't know. Whoever they are, Mary is distraught and brings her concern to the Apostles Peter and John.

And suddenly everything in that gospel changes. Peter and John (followed by Mary) run back in the direction of the resurrection; they make their way back to the tomb, and then discover what Mary, moments before, had missed: the burial clothes are still there but it is Jesus Christ Himself who is gone. No one has broken into that tomb. For the first time in all human history, someone has broken out! He is risen!

That news, that great event, changed the course of human history. It changed the direction this world was going in. Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us, is risen from the dead. Those who are baptized into Him and follow Him faithfully here on earth are given that same promise of resurrection. That fact should change everything about our lives. It should change the way we live and the direction of our lives on earth. Each of us can ask ourselves this morning: Is that the case? Are we going in the direction of the resurrection? Not everyone is, you know.

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, tells us that the direction of the resurrection is up. He says:

Brothers and sisters: If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not what is on earth.
—Colossians 3:1-2

Everything that we do here on earth should be done with our sights set on heaven. One of the prayers we prayed at Mass all throughout Lent says “[Lord] you teach us how to live in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end” (Preface Lent II). The ultimate destination for our lives is not here on earth. The direction of the resurrection is up.

But we find ourselves pointed in that direction and we remain in that direction not by doing whatever we want to, whatever feels right to us, or by following the popular opinions of the people around us, but by the guidance and teachings of our faith. It is from the Scriptures, from the Sacraments (especially Christ in the Eucharist), and from the teachings of the Church that we discover, and remain in, the direction of the resurrection.

In our culture today, that is far from a reality. So many people, a great many of them Catholic Christians, take their bearings from their own feelings or from the people around them. There was an article in the Religion section of The Providence Journal yesterday morning that discussed the latest phenomenon of the “discovery” of the bones of Jesus. One New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, summed up quite well the problem we face. He said:

“We live in a Jesus-haunted culture that’s biblically illiterate. Everybody knows who Jesus is. But the actual knowledge about early Christian history and the Bible is very low in the culture and even large segments of the church.”

Doesn’t that explain a lot of what we have seen in the last few years? People are ready to sell Christ down the river and abandon the traditions of their faith because they read about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in some fiction novel, or because National Geographic is doing a special about the “Lost Gospel of Judas.”

We can ask ourselves: Quo vadimus? Where are we going? These people are not the ones we should be listening to when it comes to our eternal salvation! Read the Da Vinci Code if you want. Watch the latest fiction story about the bones of Christ if you choose. But, for God’s sake, and for your own sake, do not base your eternal salvation on them!

We need to look to some very different sources, very different authors when it comes to our eternal life; we need to start reading authors like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

If we want to know about the life of Christ and His relationship to Mary Magdalene or any of the disciples, we should start there.

If we want to know the secrets of the early Church we should read the Acts of the Apostles.

If we want to know the “historical” Jesus, truly know Him, the person, then we start by growing closer to Him right here in the Eucharist.

This is where we find the direction to live our lives.

The 40 days of Lent are over. Now, for the next 50 days we celebrate the resurrection and our eternal life with Christ. How is He challenging us to focus on the teachings of our faith as we celebrate that mystery?

So that the next time someone asks us, “Quo vadis?” Where are you going? We can honestly say that, with the grace and help of God, we are going in the direction of the resurrection, and in the way of eternal life with Christ.