Homily preached by the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, at Mass on Easter Sunday. Livestreamed from the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool on Easter Day, 12 April 2020, at 11am.
Watch the Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool
This Easter Gospel doesn’t help us too much. It seems to leave only some hints of impending good news, ‘hints of immortality', for us, but only hints. We are forced to deal with a story that, like our own lives, leaves much hanging. We are left looking into one tomb or another, fearing, wondering and hoping against hope that all we believe will come true — some day. Some of our projects and hopes come to fruition and yield a happy ending or two. But death doesn’t release its grip on us or our world right away. Like today’s story of the coronavirus as well as that of the empty tomb, the questions remain and are monumental; the answers not so easily available. Look at the way the television presenters and the journalists ask the same questions over and over again at the daily briefing on the spread of the virus and the national fightback. As a nation we are facing an enormous loss of life.
The disciples in this story have faced enormous loss too, the slaughter of an intimate friend and the crushing of a dream they shared with him. As the disciples say to the stranger on the road in Luke’s gospel: ‘We had hoped that he would be the one to free Israel.’ So can’t we feel what they feel? Haven’t we known death in one manifestation or another? Death is drawing close to every one of us as the virus tightens its grip.
But there are other kinds of death: the loss of a loved one; the failure of a venture, the frustration of a dream; the loss of youthful vitality and enthusiasm for a life project; the chilling of a marriage, the betrayal by trusted friends; the appearance of corruption, abuse and deceit that turns up even within our lives. What we feel at this moment is close to what the disciples felt at the tomb this day, that sickening sense of loss to an evil power against which we can only pound our fists in frustration or wring our hands weeping at the dark tomb with Mary. Considering recent events in Jerusalem, these disciples go to the tomb looking for a corpse. We would draw the same reasonable conclusion as Mary did: ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb...’ Some foul deed has happened – feel their indignation and frustration. What else can go wrong in their/our lives? Wasn’t the way he died enough?
A question that comes to my mind is whether we have become hardened, indifferent and rebellious to joy. Our hearts are closed, even hostile to joy and we seek fleeting experiences of a false happiness based on material things. We don’t expect happiness, we no longer expect joy. Have we made a virtue of our vices, have we become pessimistic and then call ourselves ‘reasonable?’ We know about war, the woes of the economy, the conflicts between nations, classes, genders and races. But we smile incredulously when anyone suggests to us that real happiness exists. Maybe we don’t really believe in God, nor God’s power to bring new life from death. We do not allow ourselves to be carried away by hope, which contains the seeds for joy.
The ending of today’s gospel does attempt to address the devastating last days of Jesus and the now empty tomb, by gently opening a note of hope. We are told the ‘other disciple’ saw and believed. Then we are reminded about the scriptures that said ‘he had to rise from the dead’. Things are not cleared up for the disciples, there is more to come for them, more startling revelations. But not at this moment of the story – they are where we find ourselves now in the 21st century, in a world under lockdown. Before us are the empty tomb, the grieving and the invitation to believe, to ‘understand’ the Scripture as it promises new life to us. This is why we need the faith of ‘other disciples’. In this present crisis we are fortunate to have the witness of all those people who are putting their lives at risk to help others and are carrying on caring for the elderly, emptying the bins, teaching our kids, reaching out to the lonely. We are encouraged in our belief by the people who don’t know God but display love and generosity beyond our expectations. Those people of other faiths and none who are manning the ICUs in hospitals across the country as well Christians – these are the ‘other disciples’ who confirm for me that Christ has risen from the dead.
I find that is also true in less trying, but still difficult times. When my mind wanders during Mass as a doubt sweeps over me, I look across the church at the ‘other disciples’. I sense their faith and my own is buoyed up. I get through another tomb experience thanks to ‘the other disciples’. Also, I can’t count the number of times I have been uplifted by a passage of Scripture I hear during Mass, or have read during some quiet moment at home. Something, rather Someone, breaks through my doubts, and even as I am still staring into the tomb, helps me ‘understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead’.
We can’t be truly happy or joyful on our own. Life just has too many difficulties and cares. Today shows us how much we are remembered by God; how much God wants to intervene in our lives and have a place in our hearts and teach us that real happiness lies in Him. The resurrection of Jesus shows us just how powerful God is and what joy God is holding out for us as we ‘see and believe’ and come to ‘understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead’.