No Turning Back

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by Rev. Fr. Bob Buenconsejo, S.J.

John 20: 11-18 (Tuesday Within the Octave of Easter)

14 April 2020, San Jose Seminary

What I find remarkable in the Easter accounts, such as tonight’s Gospel, is that the disciples always fail to recognize the Risen One as Jesus. Invariably, the friends of Jesus never identify him correctly when He appears to them. We behold Mary Magdalene standing still in the darkness of unbelief. Her tears of grief blind her to see the Resurrected Jesus as he is; she even mistakes Him as the gardener. We also remember Cleopas and the other disciple who failed to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Peter and the rest of the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus standing on the shore of Tiberias. They have become so familiar with the Jesus they knew, earthbound and on whom they projected their failed expectations. As Herbert McCabe, O.P. writes, “they thought they knew him”, and now they were seeing the real Jesus as if for the first time.

The piercing light of the Resurrection is now opening their eyes, removing the blindness of over-familiarity and unbelief. When Jesus calls her “Mariam,” His tender call awakens her deepest sensibilities. She recognizes Jesus as the Rabbi whom she had known throughout the ministry. She hears the voice of love, at once familiar and unfamiliar: gentle yet stronger than death. It is a love that transforms the blurred, revealing the bright moment of truth.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” the fox shares his secret with the Little Prince. Perhaps, at Easter, Mary and the disciples are seeing Jesus with the heart. Daniel O’Leary tells a story of a young monk who was returning to the monastery after his yearly retreat. A veteran monk, upon seeing the young monk, cuttingly greeted him, “In spite of all your costly retreats you still look no different to me.” The young monk paused, and with a smile softly said, “Ah, maybe, but you look different to me.”

This past month has been for many of us dark and dreary. The isolation has blurred our vision as the shadows of death and disease loom large. The painful irony is that in these trying times many of you who desire to go to church, attend Mass and receive the Eucharist have been unable to do so. The Church seems to be so isolated and you probably have felt so bereft of what would have sustained you in these difficult times. I conjecture that this is what spiritual writers call the “dark night of the soul,” an experience when what have always been familiar points of access to God have been painfully withdrawn from us. We are all going through an ecclesial dark night of the soul. This is a time when liturgical rituals which provided comfort in the past, and all manner of worship and devotion we have become familiar with have been rendered inaccessible.

It seems that even Jesus is also practicing social distancing, now of all times, when we direly need Him. On Easter, someone sent me a cartoon depicting Jesus about to come out of the tomb, but is halted by the guard who orders him, “Quarantine Regulations: Go Back Inside!”

Mary Magdalene is also ordered to adhere to physical distancing. She must abstain from her impulse to reestablish the relationship she once had with the earthly Jesus. She has to let go of possessively holding on to Jesus and in a radically challenging mission, she is to tell the brothers and sisters that Jesus is ascending to his Father and their Father.

In our dark night, God is purifying our soul that we may worship Him in love. When finally, there will be a clear directive that we can return to our churches, we hope we can worship God as God is, with clarity of vision, freshness of faith, and purity of love. We cannot return to our old ways of relating to God as One who is expendable or a comfort-providing Reality who remains in the backburner of our consciousness. God is and will always be God, with or without us. We are the ones who need God.

In our dark night God also seems to tell us that He is greater than our prayers and our rituals—not that they are insignificant. Perhaps in our dark night God is making us realize that the Church is not just a physical structure but we ourselves are temples of the Holy Spirit and that in our deepest groanings, it is the Crucified and Risen Jesus Himself who prays and brings our supplications to the Father.

When all this is over, we cannot return to unreflected lives and pretend that all of this is just a long nightmare, but finally gone. Even now in our dark night, we must question our old views about people. We need to change our worldview and realize that the poor, the elderly, the infirmed and vulnerable are not expendable. Human dignity is not dependent on one’s productivity. Economic policies must never exclude anyone or favor only those who can contribute to society.

We cannot cling to our old ways of relating with members of the family and community, avoiding or ignoring people we do not like. Like Mary Magdalene, we cannot just look at the gardener as gardener, the driver as driver, the health worker as health worker, or our lolos and lolas as old people rocking their chairs in the dark corner. At Easter, when love triumphs, we see the Crucified and Risen present in each one. Jesus lives in each one of us, and every person is a reflection of His glorious divinity.

Like Mary Magdalene, we are ushered to a new order where we have to let go of our old ways, our old views, and our attachment to comforts of the past. Let us not put the learnings of this tomb to waste. There is no turning back to our old worlds but radically renewed, we move forward to our Easter existence. Only with painfully purified hearts do we see clearly. This dark night is a school of the heart, purifying us that we may gain a new vision of love. Let this difficult apprenticeship strip us of everything that blurs and blinds. Let the love of the Crucified and Risen find us in our dark tombs; let His love transform us and lead us to new life.

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