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Lasting Joy

by Apr 2, 2024Friar Reflection

In the gospel reading today we encounter a well-known scene. It is Sunday morning in the first light of the day, the third day since the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene is there to complete the burial rituals to honor the corpse of Jesus – only to discover an empty tomb. She was already grieving, carrying that pain and loss until the completion of the Sabbath, and now this – someone has taken the body of Jesus; a final insult and desecration. It is too much. She is in tears.

She encounters two angels who ask her why she is crying. There is no reaction to the encounter itself. She is taken in her grief. She shows no concern for angels, but only asks where someone might have moved the body. They have no answer and so she moves on encountering a person she takes to be the gardener. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or Peter and the disciples later at the Sea of Galilee, she doesn’t recognize Jesus.

Jesus repeats the question of the angels, “Woman, why are you crying?” and adds, “Who is it you are looking for?” Even as she replies, I imagine she dismisses the gardener, perhaps turning away and looking for Jesus. She was looking for a corpse whereas she should have been seeking a person.

The risen Christ utters but one word, her name. When the Good Shepherd calls his sheep they know his voice (10:3–4). Immediately she recognizes it is Jesus, and she abandons her grief and turns to the One who promised the grief in his absence would turn to joy and that they would not be left as orphans (16:20-22; 14:18-20). Yet this moment of joy is only the beginning of this encounter with Jesus. In 20:17 we read: “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Is it as though that somehow the Resurrection has been minimized? Not so, but the appearances of the Risen Christ is not the counterpart to the Cross or the climax of the story. The cross brings the story of the Incarnation to a close, but the Johannine story of the “Word of God” finds its conclusion only in Jesus’ return to the Father – the counterpart to his descent from heaven. For St. John, it is the return to the Father that makes new life possible for the believing community because Jesus’ ascent to God renders permanent what which was revealed about God during the Incarnation. The love of God embodied in Jesus was not of temporary duration, lasting only as long as this earthly life. Rather the story concluding in the Ascension is the fulfillment of the Covenant and makes the Kingdom of God a reality – a new and full relationship with God, a fresh possibility of life as children of God. A life of lasting joy.

Image credit: Noli me tangere, fresco by Fra Angelico | Museo nazionale di San Marco – Florence | PD-US