It has been more than two years since the pandemic began. Since the start of it, many people have been hoping and praying for a “new heaven and a new earth,” free from this illness. There have been many temporary “fixes” that made some people think that we were on the verge of being delivered from anything that might threaten our safety and way of life. So many people placed a false hope in the announcement that a vaccination had been found. We were then told that a second dose would provide the solution that we were all praying for. Then a third and then a fourth. And now we are being told that it is something that we will have to live with for the time being. As the hopes of life returning to normal seemed to be in sight, the terrible and sad news of war came to us as Russia, without provocation, invaded Ukraine. The terrible spread of death that this was has unleashed in Ukraine, and the unsettling threat that it could spread elsewhere, once again leaves many feeling the reality of our uncertain situation.
Amongst all the changes and difficulties many are hoping for a “new heaven and a new earth’ where we might all be at peace and safe.
For many decades, we here in North America, and in much of the the West, enjoyed relative peace, stability and safety. The prosperity that followed the Second World War, and the developments in medicine and science, led many of us to believe that we could not be touched by sickness and war, and that each one of us was in charge of our own reality. We liked to believe we were in charge of our own world and above the concerns for safety, health and insecurity that often plagued past generations and nations.
We are now so much more aware of how suddenly our situations can change and what a fragile and precious gift life is.
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 believes to be the gardener. Questioning where the gardener had laid Jesus’ body, she discovers that it is 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 is to cling to the one she had known. She longs for the familiar and the way life had been before so much had changed. She wishes everything was the way it had been. She desires to cling to her hopes and desires about the way she hoped things would be.
For all of us, these past years have been years 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. Vaccination requirements have divided families and cost some people their jobs. The war in Ukraine has dislodged loved ones and caused many further concerns about the safety of people for whom they care. We all struggle with rising costs and the financial consequences of the pandemic and political turmoil. Like Mary Magdalene, most of us wish we could cling to what was and return to those wonderful pre-COVID, pre- war days when we did not question our security and safety each day. However, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, for all of us, no matter what these years have 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 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.
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.
Saint 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 these past few years. 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.
The uncertainties of our times are causing us to encounter a reality that was known to many in past generations: that life is a precious and fragile gift, and that ultimately we can depend only on God. In the face of the uncertainties of our fragile lives, 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! In Christ alone is fulfilled our hope for a “new heaven and a new earth.”
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor, St. Peter’s Church—Toronto, Ontario
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.