"The true division of humanity," Victor Hugo wrote in Les Mirabiles, "is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness." Victor Hugo, it seems, understood Easter.
We love to think of Easter as the feast of dazzling light. We get up on Easter Sunday morning knowing that the sorrow of Good Friday is finally ended, that the pain of the cross has been compensated for by a burst of brilliant victory from the gates of the grave, that Jesus is vindicated, that the faith of the disciples is confirmed for all to see, and that everyone lived happily ever after. We love fairy tales. Unfortunately, Easter is not one of them.
On the contrary, Easter is raw reality. Easter stands in stark witness not to the meaning of death but to the meaning of what is to go on despite death, in the face of death : because of death. To celebrate Easter means to stand in the light of the empty tomb and decide what to do next. Until we come to realize that, we stand to misread the meaning not simply of the Easter Gospel but of our very own lives. We miss the point. We make Easter an historical event rather than a life-changing commitment. We fail to realize that Easter demands as much of us now as it did of the apostles back then. Most of all, we miss the very meaning of the Easters that we are each dealing with in our own lives and in our own time.
Easter is the feast that gives meaning to life. When Christmas is over, Christmas ends. Jesus was born once and for all time, after all. But Easter is the feast that never ends. After Easter, the tomb stands open for all of us to see forever. Easter goes on happening every day of our lives. To get the full impact of Easter, we must look further than the empty tomb.
There is a story under the story of the Resurrection that shifts the Easter light away from Jesus to where it is really, perhaps, supposed to be : to the story of the people at the tomb. To the ones who had to go on living after Jesus died. To those who will now have to go on living after Jesus is risen. We know these people better than we think. They are around us everywhere, and they are within us too. Mary Magdalene, Peter and John are models of us all.
Mary Magdalene: clinging to belief
Mary Magdalene is he one who has followed Jesus all her life. Luke writes that she and the women with her "followed Jesus, supporting him out of their own substance." She had been with him from the beginning. She had never doubted him. And she goes with him all the way to the cross.
Mary Magdalene is an admirable figure, and Jesus loves her. She has great insight and great commitment. But she is more of a believer than a doer. Mary Magdalene sees that the tomb is empty, but she does not enter it. She is afraid perhaps; or worse, she knows that whatever is going on in that tomb is going to demand even more from her than she has already given. And it is the thought of doing more and doing it differently that stops her where she stands.
She believed in the Beatitudes. She believed that the curing of cripples was a more important moment in time than even the celebration of the Sabbath. She believed in women as he did, and in the poor as he did, and in the reform of the synagogue as he did. She believed in him first, before anyone else; and she followed him to the end : even when all the others had disappeared. But all of that was over now. It was a memory to be revered, a wistful hope that could not die, but a fantasy to do without.
She followed him in the light; and finally, like the rest of us, she followed him in darkness. She had come to the place where it was clear that failure lay, to tend the tomb of it. She went in the faith, of course, that what had come to life in her because of him would not die. Not in her! Whatever happened in the rest of the world, faith was enough for her.
We know Mary Magdalene very well indeed. She is the part of us that takes pride in our "Catholicity." We're faithful to our parish. We join its committees to see that they function well. We support the annual campaigns and even ask others to give too. We read the parish bulletins faithfully and attend all the programs we can. We take tickets at the door and get our businesses to donate heir old computers. Most of all, we're regular in our observance. We go to Mass. We pray our rosaries. We study the Bible. We join religious book clubs. Like Mary Magdalene, we cling to Jesus.
But clinging to Jesus is exactly what Jesus does not want of her. He wants her to speak out about him. He wants her to witness to his everlasting presence among the cripples and the lepers and the women and the poor.
He wants her to be his voice now, to speak the truth no one wants to hear, to turn the world upside down with the awareness she knows to be true but that she cannot prove: Jesus lives! Again. Yet. Forever. But this time in us. He sends her away from himself because he wants more than passive belief.
If we are going with Mary Magdalene to the tomb this Easter morning, this time we are meant to speak our truths to the powerful, to heal those crippled by the system, to cure the lepers of their social diseases, to raise women from the deadening effects of sexism in both church and state, and to call the apostles to do the very same. There is a Mary Magdalene in each of us this Easter; and Easter wont really happen for us here until we face it.
Peter: playing it safe
Peter is also at the tomb. Peter is the blundering but stalwart one there. He makes great promises, and then breaks them. "I'll never betray you," he says to Jesus. And then he does. He makes bombastic assertions: "You will never wash my feet," he says, and then takes off his sandals to watch the master teach him how to minister.
Peter gives cowardly directions. "Don't go up to Jerusalem, Jesus," he says, as if going up to Jerusalem to cleanse the Temple in the very face of the high priest is not exactly what Jesus' whole life has been meant to do. He makes great political statements designed to save his own status, whatever the effect on Jesus. "I know not the man!" he says defiantly, and then slips away when he realizes that being seen with Jesus is beginning to exact a social price.
Peter, once revered because of his close association with Jesus, is now marginalized because of it. The adoring crowds are gone. Only the power of the state and the reactionary synagogue remain. This time, the weight of each may very well fall on him.
Have no doubt about it! We harbor the spirit of Peter within ourselves too. Peter is the part of us who knows how to be a Catholic without a cross. He loves everything Jesus stands for as long as the crowds love what Jesus stands for. When the crowd changes its mood, so does Peter. Peter talks big, but he doesn't really risk much, whatever his brave claims. He swears fidelity to Jesus, but he crumbles at the first sign of opposition. He brags to his colleagues, but he shrinks away at the first opportunity for public witness : and to a maidservant! He sounds committed, but he slinks silently into hiding the minute the fate of Jesus is sealed. Clearly, Peter values what people think of him more than he values his integrity, more than he values the truth.
Oh yes, Peter draws a sword on a Roman soldier, true, but at what cost? Speaking up to the army of occupation can make someone a small-town hero. Speaking up to your own on the other hand (to the high priest or the Pharisees or the crowd calling for Barabbas' release instead of Jesus'), can leave a man isolated and shunned, Peter does not speak out when the price is high. But we know what is going on here. Peter is simply a realist. He wants to do things; but he wants to do them politically. He wants to rock no boats.
Yes, there is a bit of Peter in us all. We stand for things. We know what they are. We just don't say much about them. No need to upset the bishop! No reason to mix work with religion. No gain to be had by upsetting the foursome or the cocktail hour or the family reunion with delicate topics. No use talking about things where such topics are not welcome : about the role of women in the church, for example, about attacks on the innocent brazenly called "war;" about the right to raise questions in a church and state that both oppose them.
The Peter in us wants a nice, respectable, quiet, servant church. The Peter in us does not really want to follow Jesus : at least not all the way to the cross! The Peter in us wants to follow the gargoyles: "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." The Peter in us would give anything not to have to pay the public price belief requires.
But if this is to be Easter for us too, then like Peter we are going to have to go all the way this time. We are going to have to come out of the tomb prepared to suffer ourselves for what we see but to this point have been very loathe to say. We are going to have to stand publicly with those who believe what Jesus believed and risk our own reputations to make it happen.
John: lost in contemplation
Finally, John, "the one whom Jesus loved," also went to the tomb. Called by Mary Magdalene, John (scripture says) outran the other two; but then he stopped at the tomb's entrance. Some say he did it out of deference to (the slower and much older) Peter. Well, maybe. But having run so fast just to get there, we have to wonder whether or not he didn't stop for reasons of his own. John, the lover, had after all gone all the way to the cross, stood with the women there, and he was faithful to the end. So why stop now?
Maybe for the same reason you and I don't go all the way into the tomb. Maybe John, the mystic, knew that it was one thing to contemplate the scene. It is entirely another to become the Jesus we purport to discover there. John knew down deep, as all mystics do, that the purpose of contemplation is not to avoid the obscenities of life; it is to be driven to challenge the callused core of it with the very heart of God. To go into the tomb, John must have known, was to challenge the very integrity of his own life.
If there is a temptation in the life of the spirit, it is certainly to use prayer as an excuse for not doing anything else. It gives us the right, we suppose, to float above the fray of life. But that is not genuine mysticism; it is pseudo-mysticism : mysticism for its own sake, "feel-good" prayer.
Real prayer breaks open the heart of the world in the very center of our own world. To pray is to come to understand the plight of the poor, the cries of the oppressed, the will of God for the world. Like John, the real person of prayer knows that it is one thing to live in the wonder of the Resurrection, but it is entirely another to take on the responsibility for proclaiming (even to ourselves!) what an empty tomb implies. If Jesus is risen, than you and I have to keep looking for him.
If Jesus is risen, then you and I must go on following into all those godforsaken places where only one sent by Jesus ever goes. If Jesus is risen, you and I can't stop at the baptismal font and say, "Enough! I've done it all. I've been faithful to the end. It's over now."
No, if Jesus is risen, then you and I have no choice but to walk into the tomb, put on the leftover garments ourselves, and follow Jesus back to Galilee where the poor cry for food and cripples cry to be carried to the pool, and where the blind wait for the spittle on their eyes to dry. All the fidelity in the world will not substitute for leaving the tomb and beginning the journey all over again. Today. Each and every day. Always.
That's what Easter is really about. It is the "division of humanity" to which Hugo refers in his great dramatic rendering of the struggle between light and dark. It is about the conversion of the clinging Mary Magdalene in us into the proclaiming disciple. It is about the change of the blustering Peter in us into the outspoken prophet. It is about the awareness of the contemplative John in us that now that the tomb is indeed empty, the rest is up to us. "Only that day dawns," Thoreau teaches, "to which we are awake."
Yes, Easter is about dazzling light, but only if it shines through us!