Annunciation

“Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

We celebrate the moment Mary conceived Jesus today because the usual date of the feast, March 25, fell during Holy Week this year.

Her consent to this conception made present in history the mystery of the Incarnation, God with a heartbeat, a body, a human story in a specific community that both recognized and rejected him. Jesus, the Word made flesh, deepened and altered forever human destiny and the fate of all creation.

One way to look at the story of Mary’s consent is to imagine that, in the moment of her visitation, she was at prayer and pondering a passage of scripture, say Isaiah 7:14: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” Because of Mary’s capacity to hear the Word and her openness to receive it, this Word came true in her hearing. The Word became flesh in her body.

On this feast we ought to ask for that same capacity to listen deeply, to be given the passage of scripture that comes alive for us in the same way that it did for Mary. Then say, yes, let this come true. Mary’s act of faith and her desire to do God’s will set in motion a conception and birth that has made all the difference. We are part of the story her consent made possible. Our own consent will continue the story in our time and place, the Word made flesh in us.

Doubting Thomas

Jesus' first post-resurrection physical

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).

The Rest of the Story

The late radio storyteller Paul Harvey entertained audiences with tales of ordinary life that began in adversity and ended in triumph. The stories always reached their lowest point at the commercial break, but then roared back to life with the words “And now for the rest of the story.”

The Gospel of Mark originally ended with the scene at the empty tomb where angels tell the women that Jesus is risen and will reconnect with the disciples in Galilee. But the women depart in terror and tell no one (cf Mark 16:8). Where is the rest of the story? This abrupt end was so shocking that a new ending was added to the Gospel sometime later in which everything is fulfilled as promised and the disciples are sent to preach the good news to the whole world. What are we to make of this?

Among the many explanations, which include a missing part of the papyrus roll the Gospel was written on, or authenticating the later ending as original, is the following idea, which accepts Mark’s text as is, its sense of incompleteness as a deliberate decision on his part. The story ends here because in fact it tells the truth; the women struggled to believe that Jesus was alive, and when they did tell the apostles, they rejected their testimony. Easter faith emerged from later experiences that forced the early church to take up the mission of Jesus themselves. Only when they stopped waiting around for the Second Coming or for Jesus to reappear in history to continue his preaching and miracles, did they understand that the mission was now theirs. Empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, they were to be the body of Christ in history. God was counting on them to continue what Jesus began.

And in fact, when they took up the work of proclaiming forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world from injustice and violence, they did experience Jesus present with them again. They had the power to preach and even work miracles to advance the reign of God he had preached during his earthly life. He was with them in the Eucharist, in the community and in the mission. Easter faith was now embodied in the church, and despite persecution and many other obstacles, the Gospel spread like wildfire and transformed the world.

We are now those disciples. There is no waiting around or looking for shrines to worship Jesus as the only one who can do the work of salvation. He trusts us to continue his mission. He even told us that if we want to see him, he will always be present in the poor, the weak, those most in need. His life, death and resurrection now live in us and in every word we say and every action we do in the name of Jesus. The resurrection is now, it is us. We are the rest of the story.

The Sea of Tiberias

“Boys, have you caught anything?” (John 21:5).

While Luke insists that the disciples remain in Jerusalem to witness to the resurrection, John, in what appears to be a later addition to his Gospel, has Peter and others return to Galilee and to their fishing boats. The dramatic weekend that moves so quickly and triumphantly in Luke from death on Good Friday to reappearance on Easter Sunday is extended in time for John, suggesting that the disciples’ coming to faith was a slow struggle shrouded in mystery rather than sudden revelation.

After their traumatic loss and dispersal in Jerusalem, the disciples are like the lost boys of J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic, Peter Pan. Stunned and saddened, they retreat the familiarity of their boats. Peter has not only lost his Master, he is in anguish over his denial of Jesus his friend. For all of them, life is one long night on the water with nothing to show for it. As dawn breaks, a stranger on the nearby shore calls out, “Boys, have you caught anything?”

The rest of the story is one of the most joyful and poignant reunions in all of literature. The swift restoration of lost hope, a heartbreaking reunion between estranged friends, an almost comic baptism of a naked man who puts on clothes to jump into the water to rush to shore, the hospitality of a Eucharist on the beach played out like a game of hide-and-seek as the disciples learn to see with their hearts what their minds still cannot grasp.

Resurrection leads to mission. It is time for the lost boys to grow up, to exchange the fantasy of Neverland for the Always reign of God, now breaking like first light over a darkened world starving to hear the Good News.

Bread and Fish

“Have you anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:42).

The evening of the day when two disciples on the road to Emmaus encounter Jesus, first as a mysterious stranger and then in the “breaking of the bread,” we find them and the other disciples in the upper room back in Jerusalem. Jesus again stands in their midst, but they think it is a ghost. To dispel all doubts circulating in Luke’s community 50 years later, that the resurrection was only a vision of spirits, Jesus is shown offering his hands and feet for examination—no ghost but flesh and bones, he says—then asking for something to eat. They give him a piece of baked fish and he eats it in front of them.

The density of themes is evident; hands and feet, bread and fish, a risen body to be touched, no ghost, but Jesus himself, with them at table, opening their minds to the Scriptures, sending them to tell the world that his death and resurrection mean forgiveness for sinners and new life.

This witness comes to us with the same questions and challenges the first disciples faced and worked through. Is the Gospel an absurd wish, a fish story, or a tale too good to be true? We will know only by welcoming strangers on the road, taking our places at table, opening our minds and hearts to the Scriptures, believing that to touch one another is to touch the crucified and risen body of Christ.

Broken bread and baked fish, the first clues in a lifelong search for the God who is already standing in our midst.

Emmaus Explained

"Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him" (Luke 24:15).

In the Garden

“Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

For authors and audiences looking for romance in the Gospels, today’s reading about Mary and Jesus in the garden offers both less and more than we imagine. The first hint of this is that we are clearly dealing with sweeping theological themes. The garden setting brings salvation history full circle from Eden to Ending, Fall to Fulfillment, as Jesus, the new Adam, restores and advances the old creation of sin and death to the new creation of grace and eternal life.

Mary’s love for Jesus, in progressive stages from man and teacher to Christ and Lord, is inseparable from the story. Her grief at his death and her desire to anoint his body is a prayer so deep that we might say that Mary’s lamentation is the first movement in a symphony that requires resurrection. If death defeats love, then there is no Gospel, and every promise made to us in the scriptures retreats so far into the future that the human heart is left exhausted and without hope. Mary’s faithfulness to Jesus mirrors his faithfulness to her. He is risen. He is there. He says her name and reveals himself.

But then he distances himself, saying, “Stop holding onto me,” for I must complete the story of divine love that makes even the most exquisite human love a pale sacrament of the intimacy that surpasses all human longing and prepares us for a divine destiny, life in God. We who are made for love are also bound for glory. The greatest love story ever told ascends now to the story of cosmic transformation that will salvage history and creation itself from every distortion and failure human freedom has inflicted on God’s original design.

Because Mary loves Jesus, she lets go of him in order to follow him.

Faith Seeking Understanding

“…while we were asleep” (Matt 28:13).

Please read Mary McGlone’s masterful commentary "A New Perspective" (on the ncronline site) on the resurrection tradition for a big frame of reference for this small reflection. The historical facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are hidden under layers of theological interpretation. We must read the New Testament backwards to discover the questions and problems its authors were addressing for their faith communities 30 to 50 to 80 years after the fact.

Today’s passage from Matthew 28 illustrates this well. First century skeptics in Antioch were challenging the resurrection, claiming that sentries stationed at the tomb contradicted the Christian story. So Matthew writes into his Gospel that the sentries were bribed to say that the body had been stolen while they slept. Other writers describe how spiritual the risen Jesus was (able to pass through walls, appear without being recognized) but also how corporeal he was (letting people touch him and eating fish) as more and more details are added to the tradition. John’s Gospel, written last, tells a new generation about doubting Thomas, then praises them for believing without seeing. This, of course, is our current challenge as we try to make sense of Easter for ourselves.

Just what do we need to understand about the resurrection in order to believe in Jesus? How do we apply this to the funerals we attend, the corpses we entrust to the earth or to cremation? What does this mean for each of us as we ponder our own inevitable deaths. Easter faith is a process that begins with trust in someone who has affirmed love over death. Looking for answers and surrendering to mystery are both valid and necessary steps in what is a lifelong process. We are like the person who stays awake all night to learn where the sun goes after it sets. When we have waited long enough in holy darkness, both the answer and the mystery will finally dawn on us.

Easter Sunday

“Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark” (John 20:1).

It is just after midnight. I am up making cinnamon rolls for Easter, always an adventure, since I know the ingredients but not how the magic works. And it hasn’t always. I once ended up with two bowling ball-sized batches of dough that were totally inert. I even imagined that there might be a connection between the yeast and my worthiness, but some great rolls came when I was in a rotten mood and vice versa. The magic either works or it doesn’t.

The resurrection is too big a mystery to get at with a metaphor about baking, but the principle is the same. If all the ingredients are there, get mixed right and the oven works, the dough blooms and the bread rises, giving off a warm fragrance like no other. But it takes patience and good hands to knead and roll, and the mysterious leaven that disappears in the process, but is the process.

Mary went to the tomb while it was still dark. The body of the man she loved was to be lavished with precious oil and her abundant tears before she let him go. All the ingredients were present for resurrection. But the tomb was empty. The mystery of his death had already gone forward to the mystery of another, deeper life. But not before he greeted Mary, called her by name and sent her to share the yeast of new life with the others. Love, God’s, his and hers, and ours, is the magic that makes resurrection possible. Happy Easter everyone.

Interval

“God saw how how very good it was” (Gen 1:31).

Stan and Ollie (not their real names) settled into the cemetery to wait. The faint odor of cordite hinted they had crossed into the time-space continuum moving too fast, a common error, though they were not rookies, had done other assignments — heavenly choirs, messages, things like that. Materiality was another challenge, size and shape, but they would look like simple gardeners by dawn when the women arrived at the tomb. In the meantime they would play cards, a game involving prime numbers to tune their lightning-like intelligence.

Humans were agonizingly slow, and there had been some celestial grumbling when God had granted them consciousness and free will. Angels were perfect, but only God has infinite patience and did not seem bothered that people were taking so long to get with the program. God called it evolution. Like all species, they died and got recycled with only the vaguest notion that there was anything more. Why make immortal a failed experiment? News of some kind of a major breakthrough had put the whole cosmos on high alert, the reason Stan and Ollie had been sent to protect the site. God liked surprises, so even they didn’t know what was coming down. With human freedom in the mix, you never knew.

The women were right on time. The sun was just coming over the horizon and a pair of doves was cooing up a storm. Something wonderful was about the happen. The stone needed rolling back, no problem. The angels felt for the first time a tinge of envy at these women. Angels were brilliant, but without bodies they had never felt the quickened pulse of being in love. The women, naturally equipped with divine intuition, already knew love was about to trump death. The angels were only there to tell them they were right, absolutely spot on right.

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