Homily preached on March 23, 2008, Easter Sunday
Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early, while it is still dark. She risks life and limb walking the streets of Jerusalem before daybreak. She cannot keep away from the tomb any longer. She wants to go and honor Jesus’ corpse again. She does not even stop to ponder how she will ever remove the massive stone from the grave. Devotion to Christ consumes her.
Now Mary Magdalene is not filled with love because she’s the girlfriend of Jesus. That’s a 21st century invention called the Da Vinci Code. Mary is simply one of Christ’s most fervent disciples. She does have deep affection for Jesus. It is a chaste affection that our society has become incapable of grasping. Our vision of the kind of human relationships that are possible has become so narrow.
Mary has great love, but she still lacks faith. She sees the stone rolled away and simply runs off to tell the other disciples. She does not even look inside the tomb. She does not ask whether Jesus has risen from dead. The thought doesn’t even cross her mind. Instead, she assumes that the corpse has been stolen. “We do not know where they have laid him.”
Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb. They are filled with excitement. They enter the tomb and see the burial cloths carefully folded. The beloved disciple sees and believes. He remembers Jesus’ promise that he would rise again. But oddly, this disciple does not share his faith with Peter or Mary Magdalene. Instead, he and Peter go back to their home, leaving Mary alone at the tomb.
Mary weeps. She looks inside and sees two angels. Notice that she does not see the burial cloths. Now when angels appear to human beings in the Bible, what happens? Usually, angels cause great fear. But Mary does not recognize these angels for what they are. She assumes they’re men. She does not even ask what they’re doing in the tomb. She simply repeats her lament. “I do not know where they have laid him.”
Mary turns around and looks back towards the garden. She sees Jesus, but she does not recognize him. “Sir, are you the gardener?” Jesus is looking right at her. He’s standing just a few feet away. She has seen him so often. But he’s changed. His corpse has indeed come back to life. That is why he will show his other disciples the marks of the crucifixion he still bears. But this same body has been transformed. The glory of the resurrection renewed him. He must have been stunningly beautiful.
Jesus begins speaking to Mary. “Woman, why are you weeping?” But she does not recognize his voice. Jesus has to speak her name. Only then can she identify him. This is no accident. Jesus awakens faith within Mary. He speaks her name, and in that moment, he infuses within her the gift of grace. He gives her new supernatural eyes. She needs to learn a new way of seeing. Immediately, she responds, “Teacher.”
She then tries to cling to his feet. She has fallen down in a posture of adoration and worship. At this point, the text becomes ambiguous. Is she actually holding on to his feet, so that Jesus tells her to stop clinging to him? Or does she try to grab his feet, and Jesus prevents her? The Greek text could support either meaning. But the fundamental message is the same. She should not cling to him. She reaches out to renew the same friendship that they had before. She clings to the past, to the way things used to be. But something has changed.
Jesus has a renewed body. Not a whole new body, but the same body now glorified. In this resurrected state, his body no longer belongs to this world. “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The resurrected body really belongs in heaven. So Jesus will only stay on earth another 40 days. Then he goes up to his proper place, to his eternal dwelling.
Mary wants to cling to Jesus, as if he still had an ordinary body. But Jesus wants to teach her something new, for she will be the first preacher of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection is all about the body. He’s not just instructing her about his body, but about the ultimate purpose of every human body. Our bodies are made for eternity. They’re not just for earth, but even for heaven. God created us body and soul because that is how he wants us to commune with him. The deep friendship of Jesus and Mary, body and soul, their chaste love and affection, is a sign of the deep friendship we are to have with Christ also. And our communion with him cannot just be spiritual. It must be utterly holistic, a friendship that involves the whole person. Jesus goes to delight body and soul in the presence of his Father. And that is where we are supposed to go as well. The body was made for glory. It was made for holiness and utter bliss.
It is no accident that Jesus begins to teach this lesson to a Jewish woman and his other first disciples, who were all Jews. The ancient Jews had a belief that looked bizarre to their Mediterranean neighbors. They believed in the resurrection of the body at the end of time. The ancient Greeks thought that was silly. The Jews understood that the body is made for eternity. But even they could not imagine the glory that awaits us. Even they could not imagine how any human body could rise after three days in the tomb. So Jesus continues the lesson God began in the Old Testament. He gives Mary and the other disciples an advanced course. He shows them the glory that is to come in showing them his resurrected flesh.
The Resurrection changes everything. It isn’t just about Jesus coming back to life. It changes our entire vision of the human body. Because now we see its real purpose. The body is not so much a pleasure tool for me to use, though there are many physical delights in life that we should enjoy. The Resurrection teaches me in the most powerful way that my body was made for communion with God. Salvation isn’t just about the soul. It’s also about the body.
Because the body matters and was made for glory, what I do with and in my body really matters too. It means that any spirituality that restricts my relationship with God to a private spiritual exercise like meditation is not enough. We should meditate, but we cannot forget about the body. For God gave us flesh and blood to worship him. Eternal life is all about worshipping God. Just read the Book of Revelation. The book is filled with visions of heaven. In every vision of heaven, the saints and angels are worshipping God. You see heaven is an eternal Mass. If you’re bored at Mass, you need to start working on that. Start practicing, because this is what eternity will be like. But of course, it will be so much better. We will actually see God. Eternal life is all about physically falling down before Jesus, like Mary Magdalene. So the greatest form of prayer or contemplation is not a solitary exercise within my spirit. The highest prayer is the worship of God, body and soul. The loftiest prayer is the Mass, where I bring my whole self, flesh and spirit, to encounter the resurrected body of Christ in the Eucharist, to meet Jesus’ flesh, spirit and divinity.
The body was made for glory, so what I do with it really matters. Today, many people seek spirituality, meaning a set of private spiritual exercises like meditation. People often look for a spirituality that doesn’t teach a specific moral code. But if the body is made for glory, then how I act has real consequences. My actions in the flesh take me towards or away from resurrection. Everything I do in the body prepares me for resurrection or it hinders me.
So if I want to be a good person, good intentions are not enough. If I want a glorified body, then I should begin to glorify God in my body here and now. It means my enjoyment of the delights of the world has eternal consequences. It means that I cannot separate my sexuality or friendships from life with God. So the way I relate to others, the way I express affection, my enjoyment of food and drink, money and entertainment, none of these things belong in an isolated sphere of life that has nothing to do with eternal glory.
Jesus came to teach Mary Magdalene about the wonders of the glorified body. We need him to come and teach us again. Today, we can easily fall into a dualistic vision of the human being. We are often tempted to assign spirituality to the soul, and then do whatever we want with the body as long as we have good intentions. We sometimes live as if the body were mainly a tool for pleasure. That’s straightforward dualism. It says that I am a spirit using a body. Dualism proposes that there is a self somewhere inside my body that uses my flesh and bones like instruments. But Jesus teaches us a holistic vision of life. He announces a philosophy that is so much more beautiful. He reminds us that the body was made for glory. It has been made for eternal friendship with God, and that begins here and now.