Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter Thursday

Acts 8:26-40 / John 20:11-18

If we would understand the mystery of Christ risen from the dead, ought we to begin from our experience, or from a revelation received from without? The Scriptures today seem at first to incline rather decisively against the capacity of experience to lead us to Christ. The Ethiopian eunuch, for example, found himself unable, on his own, to understand the mysteries of the prophet Isaiah, and he admitted the necessity of receiving enlightenment from another. And Philip running thither, heard him reading the Prophet Isaias; and he said: Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest? Who said: And how can I, unless some man show me? Mary Magdalene's encounter with the two angels in the Tomb and with the risen Lord in the garden seem to point in the same direction. Although she sees the empty tomb, although she sees Jesus himself, drawing on her own experience to make sense of it, she can only imagine that the dead body of Jesus has been taken away: Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him ... Sir, if thou hast taken Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him; and I will take Him away.

While it is certainly true that knowing the Lord, knowing Jesus Christ risen from the dead, is only possible by the gift of faith and the mediation of those by whose preaching faith comes to us, our experience, where we find ourselves when confronted with the Gospel, has a rather important role to play. After all, Philip did not preach Jesus Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch on his own terms, based on where he thought it would be good to begin. Rather, he began his explanation precisely where the eunuch has posed his question, precisely at that point where the Ethiopian, who had already determined that the God who set up his house in Jerusalem was the God to be adored, found himself in his pilgrimage of faith. Then Philip opening his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached unto him Jesus.

So, too, did the angels and the risen Lord respond to Mary. They began not arbitrarily, not without reference to her actual condition, but rather by responding to her anxiety about the empty Tomb and beginning with her tears: Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? Her initial response to the mystery of Easter, her understanding of the quest she was on, is allowed to lead the presentation of the Good News. It is in answer to the questions she herself has posed, the journey she has chosen to travel, that the Lord is able to step in, speak her name, and disclose to her the truth. Even her desire to cling to him in the garden becomes the Lord's starting point for appointing her apostle to the Apostles: Do not touch Me, for I am not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them: I ascend to My Father and to your Father, to My God and to your God. It is this commission, beginning with a response to her experience of sorrow and a response to her desire to hold on to Jesus, that enables her to enter more deeply into the joy of Easter, and to summon the other disciples to share in that joy: I have seen the Lord, and these things He said to me.

Each of us in the Church has received the faith from another, and none of us would have been able, on the basis of our own experience, to have arrived at the truth of the rising of Christ crucified. Indeed, like the Ethiopian eunuch, none of us, merely by attending faithfully to the Scriptures, would be able to know the great Good News they offer unless some man show us. Even so, each of us has received the faith in such a way that met our needs, our questions, that encountered us not in some absolute sense without reference to our particular lives, but rather as it were a personalized response to the puzzle that each of us faced. This we ought to remember when we, like Philip, are moved by the Spirit to witness to the risen Lord. Jesus Christ is already at work by the power of his Spirit in those who will receive the Gospel from us. He is already making use of their life's experiences to confront them with just that question that our preaching of the Gospel is meant to answer, the answer at once private and peculiar to every member of the faith and, at the same time, the single and solitary answer to all human quests from the dawn of time until the Last Day: the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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