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Monday, 17 April 2006

Easter sermon

This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 117.24)

The four gospels all give accounts of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. Like all eye-witness accounts of a major event, there are some conflicting elements. There is full agreement on the basic facts that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was truly risen from the dead in flesh and blood.
St John’s account focuses on St Mary Magdalene At first, she is distraught that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”. It would be quite believable that the enemies of Jesus had taken his body to desecrate it or to bury it in an unmarked grave where his disciples could not pay their respects. We can imagine how awful that must have seemed.

We are told of the apostles going to the tomb. St John tells us that the other disciple (that is, himself) saw and believed. The other accounts have the women go to tell the apostles. Indeed, St Luke tells us that the disciples thought the women were talking nonsense. In fact, it may well be that St John, the beloved disciple did understand that Jesus was not simply missing but risen.

But let us return to St Mary Magdalene She is still weeping and the angel asks her why she is weeping – again “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Finally Jesus himself asks her “Why are you weeping?” and this time, thinking him to be the gardener, she asks if he has taken away the body.

Clearly, St Mary Magdalene loved Jesus very much. And The Da Vinci Code is only the latest in a long line of dirty-minded and blasphemous speculation that cannot imagine a genuinely spiritual friendship.

We cannot necessarily identify St Mary Magdalene with the “woman caught in adultery” (although historically, many spiritual writers have.) Much more likely is that she was the woman in Luke 7 who wept over the Lord’s feet and wiped away her tears with her hair and anointed him. St John reports this action as done by “Mary” the sister of Martha in chapter 12 of his gospel.

St Mary Magdalene's love for the Master was obviously familiar to the apostles. John had actually referred to her earlier as the woman who had anointed the Lord’s feet. It was not something people were likely to forget in a hurry and obviously Mary was referred to as “You know, the one who anointed the Lord’s feet.” Both Matthew and Mark also report an incident of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive ointment.

This deeply affectionate gesture was also an act of great humility. She knew she was likely to be gossiped about and indeed they did gossip. But Our Lord rebuked them and said that she must have been forgiven much to show so much love.

Now we find her inconsolable in her grief that the Master has been crucified and it seems that they cannot even leave his body to rest in peace. Then Jesus rewards her by his presence and she goes to tell the disciples the wonderful news that the Master is risen and alive.

As we celebrate Easter, it is a good thing to think of St Mary Magdalene during the Mass. Pope Benedict today carries out his office as the successor of St Peter in once again proclaiming that it is true, that Jesus Christ our Lord is risen. In the Mass, our Lord is truly, really and substantially present in his risen body and blood. We should reflect that without Christ, we would be lost in our sin, there would be no hope of salvation or eternal life. Our joy on this day should be very great. As we imagine the intense joy of St Mary Magdalene, we can ask her prayers to help us to celebrate the feast of Easter beginning at this Mass.

We can also think of the others, St Peter, St John and the rest of the disciples. They were slow to believe that it had really happened but they must have experienced the most incredible excitement and hope for the future when Jesus got through to them that he was truly alive.

During the Easter season, I want to focus a little on the life of prayer of the Christian, what it really means to pray and how we can pray well. St Teresa of Avila said that prayer is “conversation with Christ”. Well you can’t have a conversation with someone who is not alive. At the heart of prayer is our faith in Jesus Christ who is risen, alive, real and listening to us.

The challenge of prayer is the call to make our prayer a real conversation in the way that we speak to our Lord. It is a lifetime journey and at times a hard struggle. However, when we look back at a period of our life when we have sincerely tried to love Christ in prayer, we will be able to see that it was a time of blessing not only for us but for all those around us. If we are faithful to that prayer of familiar conversation with Christ, we can change the world.
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