Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Great "If" - Homily for Easter Sunday (2016)

He was of poor birth and of no esteem until we hear of him in the Sacred Scripture. He had little if any formal education; rather, he was known to pal around with fishermen and could even pass for one. In his life, he would change bread and wine into God; he would cure the sick, even just by the passing of his shadow; and he would walk on water, if only for a time. He would be arrested and eventually crucified. And upside-down, for Peter “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped” either.

Yes, I have been talking about Peter. And his story continues…

It was illegal to take bodies down from crosses (unless by decree of the local governor—see Joseph of Arimathea), so the early Christians had to sneak at night into Nero’s stadium in order to remove Peter’s body. Since he had been crucified upside down, Peter’s feet were much higher than reach and haste would allow. So the early Christians had to sever Peter just above (or in this case, below) the ankles, his body falling to the earth, but his feet remaining nailed, high in the air, to the cross.

Quickly, they would carry Peter’s body across the road separating Nero’s stadium from the local cemetery. And there, they would bury Peter, just a few feet from the road, placing a small marker to indicate where he was. Word spread and pilgrims began to visit, leaving tokens of affection and requests for prayers. A small, cement-like gravestone would be built.

Time passed, Nero’s Stadium would be leveled, and the cemetery itself would be covered in several feet of earth, the result of floods and also the Emperor Constantine who desired to build a great basilica in honor of the great apostle which, in its third form, exists today as St. Peter’s at the Vatican.

But as to the tomb of Peter, history became legend. Legend became myth. And some things that weren’t to be forgotten, sadly, were. Nineteen-hundred years passed until, with the rise of archaeology in the 1930s, a team began to dig under St. Peter’s basilica. From the legend, they were able to ascertain roughly were Peter’s tomb would have been. And they began to dig. In time, they discovered the small, cement-like gravestone that was the marker. And underneath it, they found a tomb.

Opening it, they saw some bones. Bones not of a man, but of a mouse. (!!) And next to the mouse, a woman. They were amazed. And confused.

At that moment, they could have given up, chalked it all up to myth.

But one of the archaeologists went back to the cement gravestone and began looking more closely at it. He noticed some markings on its face. They were words, in Greek: “Petros enni”—meaning: Peter is within. Within? Taking the words literally, they began to drill the gravestone and in the gravestone there was a box with more bones. And they discovered something: they were the bones of a man, whose diet was heavily fish, and his feet—they were missing, severed just above the ankles.

Peter had been found.

*          *          *

I learned of this story two years ago when I visited Rome. I went on the famous Scavi tour that goes under the Basilica and I had likewise been given the opportunity to offer Holy Mass at the very tomb of St. Peter. It was there, while I was offering Holy Mass, that I became overwhelmed by the realization that this Peter wasn’t just simply a bed-time tale. Peter was real.

(Of course, I had believed for a while in the reality of everything Catholic. I had come to know and appreciate that there were many, many saints who were much, much smarter than me (or is it I—I don’t know), and who were closer to Jesus and who, as a result, had bushwhacked through the jungle of confusion and doubt thus bequeathing to me a clear path of faith on which I could walk).

But to be there—to be at the tomb-- and to literally breathe in that air…. I will never forget that moment. The history and the reality of it all was palpable.

And maybe I’m reading into it, but a part of me can’t help but think that Peter, upon entering the tomb of Christ, would have felt the same thing. The Gospel says he “was amazed.” He had heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene, she who was a true believer and who had known intimately Jesus’ forgiveness. She had been to the tomb. There was no reason to doubt her….

So, is it true? And what if it’s true?

The question spurred Peter, already an old man, to run. And John, still in his youth, to run as well. Together, young and old, they ran and they found the tomb empty.

*          *          *

On this Easter morning, the Gospel story ends there. “They did not yet understand,” it says. They had questions, yes. And something was different… But that is where today’s Gospel story ends. (You will have to come back next Sunday to hear the next part!)

But I won't leave you hanging. In the first reading, we are fast-forwarded into the future twenty years or so. We see Peter standing up and giving testimony, saying:

“This man [Jesus] God raised on the third day and… [we] ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Peter, who was a coward on Good Friday, standing at a distance, denying Him for fear of being crucified too—he is now bravely standing up and putting his life on the line. So, something had happened. Something had happened between Good Friday and this moment to change Peter.

This is the challenge of Easter. Unlike Christmas which is adorable and peaceful and, let’s face it, nostalgic (see the manger scene and the cute animals?)—unlike Christmas, Easter makes a claim on us. It’s a wild claim about who Jesus is, about the limitations of death, and about whether we believe in what Peter and others have seen. And about what motivates the way we live… and for what we are willing to die. Christmas can be tamed; but Easter is wild.

This is the crux (pun intended) of Christianity: it’s the resurrection. Without the resurrection, Jesus is just another teacher; just another tragic figure that, while good, was ultimately a casualty of the times and of the unending story which is the pride of men. His “religion” would just be another ethical system from which one could pick and choose—or simply dismiss. Even less would it be something for which to die for…. And tell that to our brothers and sisters who are being martyred in the Middle East!

But if Jesus is raised from the dead, then that’s a whole new ballgame.

*          *          *

Paul puts a fine point on it when he says, “If Christ has not risen, your faith is vain.” Paul was a contemporary of Peter; he could have literally said to him, “Peter, if Christ is not risen, then your faith—your trust, your going to your own crucifixion over this—it’s all vain, it’s all for naught.”

At the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, there is a large and beautiful mosaic in one of the domes of the church and it depicts the moment of the resurrection. Along the bottom of the dome, Paul’s words are inscribed. The thing is, depending on where you stand, a pillar will obstruct the first word of Paul’s line.

So, for example, when you stand at a distance, all you see is “Christ has not risen, your faith is vain.” There’s truth in that: when we stand at a distance from Jesus, we don’t experience the resurrection. Paul’s line becomes the accusation of the world: “Christ has not risen, your faith is vain”—you’re upside-down, your morals are backwards, your religion is make-believe and so on.

And if Christ has not risen, then the tomb is still empty—and, with it, all of our hopes for life after death. Indeed, without the resurrection, all that is left of Peter are just bones in a box. And that will be us someday. That’s the emptiness that leads to despair. Of course, the world tries to tell us to fill that emptiness with stuff and comforts and so on—but it’s never enough, because all the world can’t save a man from death… and his desire for more.

The wonderful thing about that mosaic is that, if you draw near to it, you see the “if.” That small little word is so full of hope. That little “if” beckons us to ask questions, “What if it’s real? What if Jesus is risen? What if the world is wrong and this—this!— is right?” How I wish we would be more willing to doubt the world’s doubt!

Yes, this small “if” lays a claim to us—it is wild and it challenges us to investigate, to study, and to pray—and to do so running (that is, with a zealous eagerness) because we’re talking about matters of the highest kind: about life and death and beyond. What if ….?

*          *          *

Peter had seen. He had touched. He knew it was real. And I, for one, believe that. I saw 24 people from RCIA last night enter into the Catholic Church and I’ve witnessed the changes in their life, many of which could be classified as miraculous. I’ve seen over 2,000 people come to confession here at St. Joe’s during Lent (that’s an approximation—it’s likely more)—and there in those confessionals, I have felt such an overwhelming sense of the divine… I could keep going.

But I tell you this because I know it is hard to believe out there. I know the slavery of the calendar and of keeping up with the Jones’. I know too that there have been scandals—either from priests, or parents, or from those who call themselves Catholic and act anything but. Or maybe there has just been disappointment after disappointment—you’ve been looking, but all you have to show for it is the wrong box with a mouse. Where is God?

I want you to take us priests and those Catholics who really are living out this faith (not those that are here on Sunday, but asleep and doing silly things Monday-Saturday)—I want you to take us by the arm and say, “Tell me! Tell me why you believe!” I want all of us to do this.

Because all of us are going to have to tell Peter why we did or did not believe him. Because Peter is not just bones in a box. He is real; he is alive; and his testimony continues.

I pray that anyone who is at a distance—whether because of doubt, scandal, disappointment, death—anyone who is at a distance, come close. Draw near. There is a great “if,” a great hope for us to discover together. So, take us by the arm; walk with us every Sunday; ask us questions; give yourself entirely to the moral life; pray fervently—old and young, let us run to see!

I think you will find that, as you draw near, your hearts will become full. You will see. You will be changed. And you’ll find yourself with courage and joyful in the Truth:

Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!

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