Homily of Bishop Kevin for Easter Sunday
Over the past few days, as I prepared for this Easter celebration, something caught my attention. The word “witness” is used five times in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Obviously it is significant. Peter and Paul, John, Mary of Magdala and Luke are all witnesses. The Gospel tells us that Mary saw the stone rolled back. She came to the conclusion that the body had been taken away “by some person or persons unknown” and she went to break the news to the others. Peter and John arrived within moments of one another. John followed Peter inside. He is an observant witness. He gives us the kind of detail that allows us to imagine what might have happened. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but it is clear that John saw the signs that Jesus was risen.
In the Jewish tradition, the evidence of two witnesses is necessary for the validity of a legal process and the presence of Peter and John together at the empty tomb is symbolically important. In the final analysis, however, the empty tomb and even the evidence that the cloth which had been over the face of Jesus was neatly folded, are only signs pointing to the Resurrection, for those who want to see them. On their own, however, they don’t prove anything. We have to look elsewhere for the meaning of it all.
St. Paul never saw the empty Tomb. Like Peter whose preaching is recorded in our first reading, Paul’s evidence is about his own uniquely personal experience of Jesus, risen from the dead. In much the same way, other accounts of the Resurrection in the coming weeks will tell us of how some of the women encountered Jesus on the way home that Sunday morning and how Mary, distracted by grief saw Him but didn’t recognise him, until He spoke her name. Two disciples, later that afternoon, had their own encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Like Mary, they didn’t recognise him until, hours later, he sat with them and broke bread.
In any courtroom, or on any news report, each witness tells the story as he or she remembers it. Each one sees from his or her own perspective and each one has his or her own interpretation of the facts. Little details can be very important, but what counts most is that the evidence of the witnesses is consistent. When it comes to the Resurrection of Jesus, there are lots of little details, but what counts most of all is that all the witnesses are saying the same thing: He is risen. Jesus is alive.
At the end of our Gospel passage this morning, St. John tells us that “until now they had not understood the teaching of the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead”. For both Peter and John, it is important that the Resurrection of Jesus is consistent with the Jewish Scriptures. With their own experience of the Resurrection, they can look with fresh eyes at the person of Jesus. They begin to see more clearly how his life and ministry are the fulfilment of God’s promise so often spoken of by the prophets. This is why in the first reading from the Acts, St Luke reports Peter as saying: “It is to him that all the prophets bear witness”.
Being a witness has another meaning, which is very evident in the lives of the believers after the Resurrection. We sometimes talk about life-changing experiences. People are often challenged and changed by what they have witnessed. The truth requires that we take a stand. If Jesus who died has now risen from the dead, this surely means that everything He did and everything He said in his earthly life has to be seen and heard in a new way. His whole ministry has been authenticated by God himself.
We hear St. Paul, in the second reading, using an image from baking, urging the Christians of Corinth to “get rid of all the old yeast, and make yourselves into a completely new batch of bread – the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the believers were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers and that they were highly regarded by everybody. Their way of living as brothers and sisters bears witness to the fact the Jesus is alive. The “fellowship” is neatly placed between the “teaching of the Apostles” and the “breaking of bread”, where it can’t be forgotten.
Before I finish, I want to go back for a moment to the reaction of Mary when she discovered that the stone had been rolled back from the tomb. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb” she said; “We don’t know where they have put Him”. I think the empty tomb is an interesting image for Christians in modern Ireland and all over Europe. Our history and our culture, our art and our architecture are filled with references to Jesus. We set great store by that heritage. But, where is Jesus himself? Where have we put him? Has he, in some sense, been taken away from us? Or is he is really alive in our society today?
What are the signs of hope; where are the witnesses? By witnesses I don’t mean people who just heard a rumour that Jesus was risen. I mean people who have actually experienced his presence and action in their lives and in whom He now lives. Today, as we have listened to His word, he invites us to be His witnesses. We don’t have to control the whole of society, anymore than the first Christians did, but we do need to be present in the public space and let people see for themselves that Jesus is alive.
Bishop Kevin Doran
Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo