Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
Life can change in an instant.
As I read the Gospel of John for the Mass on Easter Sunday morning, I could not think that Mary Magdalene must have been amazed at how quickly things had changed in her life. Just one week earlier, she had been part of the crowds that had joyfully welcomed Jesus into the city of Jerusalem as the one who would set His people free. There was such joy on that day and such high hopes for the future. Together the disciples had celebrated the Passover with Jesus and learned that He was about to be arrested and handed over to the Romans. After that, she and the disciples witnessed His trial, crucifixion and burial. On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint His body for a proper burial and there she encountered one who she first believed was the gardener. Questioning where the gardener had laid Jesus’ body, she discovered that it was actually Jesus who has risen from the dead standing before her. Thinking that the one she had thought she had lost was once again before her, Mary Magdalene’s natural reaction was to cling to the one she had known. She longed for the familiar and the way life had been before so much had changed. She wished everything was the way it had been. She desired to cling to her hopes and desires about the way she hoped things would be.
You and I have learned how much life can change over this past year.
For all of us, this past year has been a year of constant and great change. As rapidly as things changed for Mary Magdalene and the disciples during that first Holy Week, so too we have all seen radical and difficult change. Some have lost loved ones and not been able to be with them at the bedside as they were taken by COVID-19. Businesses and parishes have opened and closed with the rise of each wave of the virus. Loved ones have been prevented from visiting with those dearest to them. Like Mary Magdalene, most of us wish we could cling to what was and return to those wonderful pre-COVID days when masks were not necessary and we could come and go where we pleased without concern. However, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, for all of us, no matter what this year has brought, God has a different future in mind.
The kind of future which Jesus has in mind for all of us is not different from the future that He had in mind for Mary Magdalene and His first disciples. His words to Mary Magdalene point to the kind of future that He has in mind for all of us. Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” When He does ascend to the Father, Mary Magdalene will be able to understand, because Jesus and the Father will send into her heart – and the hearts of all disciples – the gift of the Holy Spirit by which they will have the light of Christ to guide them. When Jesus ascends to the Father, the disciples receive that gift of the Holy Spirit that will convince them of His resurrection and its significance. This will change their lives and allow them to know the true freedom that Christ had come to give them.
We see an example of the kind of change that the Holy Spirit will bring about in the lives of the disciples in the first reading for Easter Sunday morning from the Acts of the Apostles. After Jesus had been and arrested and crucified, the first reaction of the disciples was to run away and hide. Peter was so frightened that he denied even knowing Jesus. And yet, as we see in Easter Sunday morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, once the Holy Spirit has convinced the disciples that Jesus has destroyed death and risen, they are no longer afraid of dying themselves and they go out and witness to His resurrection. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, they no longer desire to cling to the past out of fear. Their confidence that Jesus has destroyed death impels His disciples to confidently embrace the unknown future, confident that because of Christ’s resurrection, He is always with them and they need fear nothing.
In St. Peter’s Church, there is a beautiful image that captures powerfully the other scene from the Easter morning Gospel of John. In a window over the choir loft there is a scene of Peter and John before the empty tomb. As they look into the tomb, the window shows what is inside the tomb as completely dark. I have thought about this window a great deal during the pandemic. It reminds me that there is often uncertainty in life; that we often do not know what goes before us. However, the empty tomb proclaims that Christ has overcome the darkness and with Him at our side, we too can overcome all of the changes and uncertainty of life. Christ is the light of the world who has come to disperse the darkness of the uncertainty that we all experience at different times in our lives. His ultimate assurance to each of us is that because of His resurrection, we who profess Him as our Lord will not be defeated by any force in this world. With Christ, we too shall share in his resurrection and know eternal life.
(Reflection continues below)
The power that Christ’s light is to have in our lives is something that we celebrate beautifully at the Easter Vigil. In the darkness of the night, the Paschal Candle is lit so that Christ might disperse the darkness of the night and guide us on the uncertainty of our journey. As each one of us also is given a candle, we acknowledge that we each have a role to play in bringing Christ’s light into the world. In the dark, I cling to the wall in order to find my way securely, in the same way that Mary Magdalene hoped to cling to the familiarity of Christ. After Christ ascended to the Father, and the Holy Spirit was poured into the disciples’ hearts, they did not fear the uncertainty of the future. They received a courage form the Holy Spirit that allowed them to navigate the uncertainty of the road ahead of them confident that with Christ, in the end, all would be well.
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a beautiful poem at a time in his life when he did not know what was ahead of him. It is called, “Lead, Kindly Light.” It speaks of his uncertainty about the journey ahead of him, but the certainty that God will lead him. Some words speak to our situation in the midst of these changing and uncertain times. He writes:
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet;
I do not see the distant scene; one step enough for me.
The celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter is an invitation to the same kind of trust from us. Believing that Christ has destroyed death, you and I are invited to believe that He is with us each step of our journey — even when we are uncertain ourselves of the way to walk.
Ultimately, as we celebrate Easter in these everchanging times, we are asked to believe in a change that no one ever expected. This change is brought about because Christ has destroyed death. No matter what life may bring our way, we shall not die. No matter who we might lose to illness or age or disaster, all will be restored because of Christ’s resurrection. Our future, and our salvation, are not found in clinging to the past. As Jesus told Mary Magdalene as she desired to cling to whom He was, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Because of Easter and our baptisms, we are children of God; His daughters and sons. This means there is nothing on earth that we need fear or that can defeat us. Easter proclaims that no matter what change and uncertainty we experience in life, the best and most significant change of all is yet to come. The nature of this final change, which has been won for us by Christ’s resurrection, is beautifully summarized by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians as he proclaims the significance of Easter: “The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
There has been much change for all of us this past year. For some the changes have been as significant as those experienced by the disciples during that first Holy Week. Many have lost much, have buried loved ones, and wish that life was as it was before COVID-19. The Easter proclamation is that all will be restored in Christ. We have all known fear and anxiety, as did the first disciples. Like Mary Magdalene, many of us may have wanted to cling to the past. However, with Christ, we are called to embrace a future in which all will be restored by the power of His resurrection and we are called to walk in the light of the Holy Spirit that is sent in to the hearts of believers.
Despite the news that another lockdown is coming to the Province of Ontario, many are saying that the pandemic is nearing an end and the light is at the end of the tunnel can be seen. These words of hope are helpful for those who might be able to return to some of what they knew before the pandemic. This will not bring comfort to those who cannot get back what they have lost. For those who have lost friends and loved ones, Christ’s resurrection is the only hope, and the only future, worth placing one’s confidence in. Easter reminds us that Christ has a change prepared for us that will defeat even death itself. Because of His resurrection, we shall all be raised up and no one will be lost. By destroying death, Christ has defeated everything that you and I might fear. We who believe in His victory are called to proclaim with the psalmist: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” Because of Christ’s Easter victory, which we celebrate today, the uncertainty of life has given way to the hope which can be found in Christ alone. Christ is truly Risen!
This reflection based on the readings for Easter Sunday morning Mass: Acts 10 34a, 37-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3: 1-4; and John 20: 1-18.