“But Him They Did Not See”

Easter Sunday

Saint Peter and Saint John Running to the Sepulchre by James Tissot.

Holy Thursday Homily – The New Passover Lamb
Good Friday Homily – The New Adam
Easter Vigil Homily – The Beginning of the New Creation

It’s surprising and remarkable that the Church’s Gospel for this Mass, the Mass on Easter Sunday morning, does not feature even a brief cameo of Jesus. In this morning’s gospel, the risen Lord does not make any appearance. Mary of Magdala runs back from his tomb without having seen him. She goes to Peter and John and reports her fear that someone has stolen his body. So Peter and John run to the tomb. They arrive and investigate, but him they do not see. And then those two disciples return home.

Later that same day, in encounters recorded by the Gospels, they would see the Jesus alive in the flesh, and touch him, speak with him, and rejoice. As St. Peter announces in our first reading:

“This man God raised on the third day
and granted that he be visible,
not to all the people, but to us,
the witnesses chosen by God in advance,
who ate & drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Jesus did not appear to everyone, but only some, mostly his friends and others open to receive him.

The Risen Lord did not appear to King Herod, whom he met briefly during his Passion. Herod was a man of vices and pleasures and was curious and excited to see this wonder worker. But when Jesus only answered him with silence, Herod was not entertained and, no longer interested, sent Jesus away.

The Risen Lord did not appear either to Governor Pontius Pilate, who presided over his Roman trial. Pilate thought Jesus had committed no capital crime, but this cynical man of the world (who had scoffed “What is truth?”) thought life would be easier with Jesus out of the way, and so he put him to death.

And the Risen Lord did not appear to the High Priest Caiaphas, who conspired against him. The High Priest was offended by Jesus’ calls to conversion and he envied his popularity and influence among the people. Caiaphas was too proud to learn from and follow Jesus, so he condemned the Christ and became his enemy.

The hedonism of Herod, the pragmatism of Pilate, and the conceitedness of Caiaphas kept them from accepting and following Jesus. Imagine if Jesus had appeared to Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas after rising from the dead. Would they have loved him then? Seeing his power they might well have submitted to him, but that’s very different than devotion.

Jesus did, however, appear to his disciples, his friends, following his resurrection. For example, Jesus met Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning after Peter and John had left. On Easter evening, Peter, John, and other disciples were visited by Jesus within the Upper Room even though the doors were locked. And Jesus would go on to appear beside the Sea of Galilee, to reconcile and rehabilitate Simon Peter who had denied him. Each encounter with the Risen Lord was surprising, personal, and beautiful. But at the time of our gospel reading there was only Jesus’ Easter tomb, an open door paired with an inner emptiness, which pointed to something greater, something divine, something real but still unseen.

In 1937, when the Gallup polling organization first began asking the question, 73% of Americans said they were members of a church, synagogue, or mosque. That figure remained near 70% for the next six decades, until about twenty years ago when the number began steadily declining. This week, Gallup’s latest polling indicates for the first time, a majority of Americans (53%) report not belonging to a house of worship. It’s a discouraging trend.

This seems related to a different Gallup poll published in 2020. At the end of that very trying year, surveyed Americans’ self-assessed mental health was worse than it had been at any point in the last two decades. The percentage of those rating their mental health as “excellent” fell for almost every demographic compared to the year before. Every age group, men and women; the married and the unmarried; the wealthy, the poor, and the middle class; each of these groups polled eight to twelve points lower on this question. Only one group reported higher rates of excellent mental health than before, increasing by four points despite the trials of 2020. It was those who, at least once a week, attended religious services.

Like other churches around the country, our public liturgies were suspended for awhile, about three months last year, due to the pandemic. But we have been safely celebrating public Masses in my parishes since last June. I am very pleased that none of my parishioners who have been attending Church have died from Covid; which suggests our Masses here are quite safe. But next Sunday, the weekend after Easter, will all our Masses be filled again like this?

Jesus says, To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Jesus here is not primarily speaking about earthly economics, but of spiritual wealth. Christian discipleship requires real investment to show a great return. Like the Easter Tomb, our church door is open. Like the Easter Tomb, perhaps you find an emptiness within you. These things point to something greater, something divine, something real but still unseen. I urge you to begin coming back to Mass again, because Jesus reveals himself in surprising, personal, and beautiful ways to his disciples and friends.

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