Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Witness of the Empty Tomb

(Easter Sunday-Year B; This homily was given on 12 April, 2009, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Colossians 3:1-4 and John 20:1-9)

Each Sunday, week after week, we gather together in this Church to listen to the Gospel. That word, Gospel, literally means “Good News,” and it is the expression of all that we have received from God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

We hear that good news announced from St. Paul in the epistles, and in various way through the Apostles of the early Church. We listen to the Gospel especially from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—the Four Evangelists—who relate everything we long to hear about Jesus Christ, for He Himself is the Gospel, He is the good news of our life and our salvation.

So, isn’t it a little odd that in the Gospel passage we just listened to, on one of the greatest feasts of the entire liturgical year, He is not even there at all? We do not listen to His life-giving words or see His saving actions, because the greatest witness to the good news that God provides for us this Easter morning is the empty tomb itself. That empty tomb proclaims a powerful message indeed, if we are open and able to hear what God is trying to communicate to us through it.

You may have seen the movie Good Will Hunting. It came out several years ago, and won all kinds of awards. This young man named Will is a born genius, a brilliant child prodigy, but he has grown up in the streets of South Boston, so he is constantly getting into trouble with the law, constantly in and out of the courts. Some influential people discover his incredible gifts and talents and they try to give him an opportunity to get out of “Southy” and offer him a whole new lease on life.

At one point in the movie, Will is working construction with his best friend, who suddenly realizes that Will, despite the opportunities he has been given, has no intentions of leaving South Boston. The friend, recognizing that Will has the ability to accomplish things that they could never even dream of, becomes quite serious and says to him:

“Every day I come by to pick you up, and we go out together, we have a few laughs. But you know what the best part of my day is? The ten seconds before I knock on the door, ‘cause I let myself think I might get there, and you’d be gone. I’d knock on the door and you wouldn’t be there. You just left.”

***Spoiler Alert***

And if you have seen the movie then you know that is exactly what happens at the end. His friend goes to pick him up, but he finds an empty house instead. Good Will Hunting is gone. He had made it out of South Boston and, in a certain sense, had taken all of his friends with him.

Mary Magdalene and the other disciples come to an empty tomb this morning and, without realizing it yet, they stand before the greatest event that has ever taken place. The empty tomb is the doorway, the entrance through which all of us now have access to eternity. Jesus’ resurrection affects us all.

Christ came and destroyed sin and death by rising from the dead, just as he said he would. That fact changes everything . . . or at least it should. It should move us to look at death, and even at life, in a whole new way.

That is the good news of the Gospel: that all the economic problems of this world, all the financial and familial difficulties, all the injustices and sufferings of this present life WILL NOT LAST. We can live in this world and have hope even in the midst of trials and difficulties, for we belong to Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. That changes everything!

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, reminds us of the focus we must have as followers of Jesus Christ and those who have understood the witness of the empty tomb. He says:

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 of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.
—Colossians 3:1-4

The empty tomb challenges us to see everything in that eternal perspective. It challenges us to seek reconciliation with those we are in conflict with; challenges us to evaluate our lives and be willing to change anything that is incompatible with this heavenly calling, because this world is not all there is and heaven simply cannot wait.

Just a few days ago I was able to visit my grandparents in St. Anne’s Cemetery just a few feet from where we celebrate this Mass this morning. I knelt down in the grass before that stone which marks so many of the people who have passed on the faith that I live and profess today. I am a priest of Jesus Christ today because of them, and because of all those faithful souls in my family who have passed the faith down to my parents, who taught that faith to me. It was a privilege and a joy to be able to pray there and to spend some time remembering them. I know that so many of you have loved ones in the very same place, and in cemeteries throughout this state and beyond.

But the witness of the empty tomb reminds us today that those graves will not always be places of remembrance; they are not the final resting place for the ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. At the heart of our Christian faith is the belief that those graves will one day all be empty! Have you ever thought about that?

When Jesus Christ returns—and He will, because He said He would—this cemetery here will be the busiest and liveliest place in the State of Rhode Island! The place of greatest activity and abundant life will not be Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium; it will not be the Providence Place Mall or Showcase Cinema. It will be right here, in St. Anne’s Cemetery, where thousands of souls and bodies will suddenly be raised from the dead to be joined to Christ forever. That is what the witness of the empty tomb challenges us to acknowledge this morning.

There’s a very moving passage in the Confessions of St. Augustine in which Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, is about to die. They are in a foreign country, far from home. Augustine and his brother are standing by the bedside, and the brother says to Monica that he would like her to be brought back home so that she might not die in a strange country. Monica—who was a tough woman, even on her deathbed—reproaches him, and says to both him and St. Augustine:

“Bury my body wherever you will. One thing only do I ask: that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

Monica understood the meaning of the resurrection; she listened well to the witness of the empty tomb. This is not our home; it is not our final destination. This is just a stop along the way and the greatest thing that we can do while we are on our way home to God is to remember each other “at the altar of the Lord.”

That is what we are doing here this morning. We gather around this altar because we have the answer to Mary Magdalene’s dilemma: she thought that someone had taken the Lord and she did not know where they had put Him. We know where He is: He is in that tabernacle, and in a moment He will be here on this altar.

We are never closer to our deceased loved ones, and to each other, and to our Lord, than when we gather together here at the altar of the Lord. We come here today as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and we are strengthened in the Holy Eucharist so that we can say, with St. Paul and all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, that we “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

We are called to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” For we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then we too will appear with him in glory (see Colossians 3:1-4).