Homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on Easter Sunday (27 March 2016) at the Carmel in Traverse City, Michigan.
Questions come from different people for different reasons; they also arouse different reactions in different people. The four-year-old who, as the car has just left the driveway for a cross-country jaunt, asks, “Are we there yet?” gives us a hint that this will indeed be a very long trip. That same toddler is likely to have one word come to his lips, regardless of the situation, “Why?” An intelligent parent or teacher is not annoyed by the incessant round of “why’s” because it is a sign of a healthy curiosity. We also know, however, of people who ask questions simply to create “gotcha” moments. Which is why an old English proverb cautions: “A fool may ask more questions in an hour than a wise man can answer in seven years.”
As a life-long teacher (and student), I have always been intrigued by questions – and particularly those we find in the Bible. A warning to our Sisters: I have often threatened to produce an entire retreat based on biblical questions. This morning I intend on sending up a trial balloon by reflecting on what we might call “divine questions” found in the Resurrection narratives of the four Gospels – that is, probing done by divine messengers or by the Risen Lord Himself. Good teachers know how to ask good questions, which gently but clearly lead their students to apprehend the truth. Socrates, of course, was famous for this approach and has given his name to this mode of teaching – the Socratic method. Perhaps that is why Voltaire would say: “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Unlike Voltaire, though, I would hold that a good teacher raises questions which already have the answers within them.
So, what are some of these “Resurrection questions”? How did the first hearers of them respond? How ought you and I respond to them today?
The first question we encounter on Easter morning is not a divine one; it comes from the faithful women scurrying to the tomb to complete the burial rites for their dear, departed Master: “Who will roll away the stone for us?” What’s so interesting is that the all-knowing and allcaring God has anticipated their question and provided a solution to their quandary. Upon their arrival, they discover the stone has already been rolled away and then the heavenly messengers anticipate their next concern, making their unspoken question unnecessary: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” The empty tomb is the answer. How many of us take negative scenarios – in the Church, in civil society, in our own personal lives – as “givens” or permanent realities which we shall have simply to grin and bear? God had the last word in bringing the moral cesspool of the Roman Empire to the glory of Christendom. The Lord of the Church saw to it that the devastation wrought by the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution had an unforeseen and unimaginable flowering of holiness and vitality. The poet reminds us that “God can write straight with crooked lines.” Which is to say that He is the God of surprises who can roll away any stone and bring life where there was only apparent death.
St. Luke’s Gospel is chock-full of questions. This time around, “the men” (presumably angelic beings) ask a question fraught with irony: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” The contemporary application is, shall we say, a “no-brainer.” So often we hear Catholics of a modernist or heterodox stripe challenge the Church to change her teaching (really, Christ’s teaching) on matters like divorce and remarriage, artificial contraception, abortion. For what reason? So that the Church can be “relevant” and thus survive in contemporary society. For the moment, let’s put aside the basic fact that the Church is not her own Lord; Jesus Christ is and, therefore, she does not have the authority to change what He has decreed. Let’s consider not the theological concerns (since such proponents are surely not concerned with theology); let’s look at things from a sociological perspective. Every mainstream Protestant denomination in the United States has abandoned traditional biblical doctrine and morality and, as a result, has been in a free-fall for decades. Crassly put, they are dying; they are on life-support, sustained only by a patrimony that is drying up with each passing day. Indeed, “why seek the living among the dead?”
The Third Gospel gives us a greatly expanded version of an episode merely alluded to in two verses of Mark’s Gospel – the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As those disconsolate seemingly former (!!) followers of Jesus are high-tailing it out of Jerusalem (lest they suffer what their Master did), a Stranger approaches them and asks: “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” That “Stranger,” of course is none other than the Risen Christ. The first point to grasp here is that, even in the darkest times, the Risen One knows our sorrows and even our despair. He doesn’t wait for us to run to Him (because all too often we have given up on Him); He comes to us and asks us a question to rouse us from our sadness. Sometimes, however, we are too obtuse and too settled into our negativity, so that – like those two hapless individuals – we answer His question with what we think is a rhetorical question of our own: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” Yes, He knows – because it was He who endured them. He has endured every anxiety and suffering we have experienced because, thanks to our Baptism, He and we are one Body.
And then comes the divine question that modern man hates to hear: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” You mean that the Messiah had to suffer? Does that mean that I too might have to suffer? No, thank you. I want an Easter Sunday which bypasses Good Friday. The classical Latin maxim of spirituality, however, should spring to mind: “Post crucem, lucem.” The light can come only after the cross. That is the royal road trod by our Redeemer, a road He trod not in our stead but as our Trail-blazer. Where He has gone, we must follow.
After Our Lord’s explication of all the Suffering Servant prophecies – a Liturgy of the Word – those beleaguered disciples, still blinded by their own preconceptions, nonetheless invite this intriguing Stranger to dine with them – perhaps as a result of remembering their Master’s admonition to treat others as you would treat Him. And, in a remarkable reversal of roles, the Guest becomes the Host. In that characteristic action of the Eucharist, we are told, they finally recognize their fellow Wayfarer as the Lord. At which point, He vanishes from their sight. Why? Because in having the Eucharistic Jesus, we have the whole Christ – body, blood, soul and divinity.
And what is the result of that experience? The Evangelist tells us that they ask a question: “Did not our hearts burn within us. . .?” His questions to them brought them, finally, to pose a question, which is really a statement, a conviction.
Their encounter with the Divine Questioner makes them ambassadors to the Apostles, who remain unconvinced, so that the Risen Lord must appear to them and chide them as He asks: “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts?” How many of us refuse to be consoled and settled in our faith by the testimony of holy, reliable witnesses – the testimony of the saints and the Tradition of the Church? How many of us insist on direct, empirical evidence? We need to recall that although the Risen One deigned to provide that assurance to Thomas, it was accompanied by a stern reminder: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!”
And then we turn to the master theologian of the Evangelists, St. John. In the Garden of the Resurrection, the Risen Jesus (again, veiled from sight), approaches Mary Magdalen: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her weeping is not comfort for Christ; it signifies a lack of faith and hope. One weeps for the dead, not the living. Tears of joy are quite distinguishable from sobs of sorrow. He goes on: “Whom do you seek?” He must give her the same lesson the Easter angels gave to the women prepared to complete the burial rituals. He doesn’t chastise her; He calls her by name. He does the same with us when we find the Good News of the Gospel too good to be true. He calls us by name, the name we received in Holy Baptism, “Christian,” that is, “Little Christ.” In that gentle reproach, she is reborn to a life of faith. The sorrowing one is transformed into an evangelist. She becomes an “apostle to the Apostles” as she proclaims to them: “I have seen the Lord!”
In the final chapter of the Fourth Gospel, we come upon the man upon whom Jesus had vowed to build His Church, doing what? Going back to business as usual: “I am going fishing.” And to make matters worse, James and John agree to tag along. Keep in mind that it was precisely these three who had beheld the Glorified Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration – they had had a “sneak preview” and knew how the story would end. Nevertheless, they too apparently lost faith, lost their moorings, we could say. Once more, the Hidden Christ makes His entrance and asks, “Children, have you any fish?” Of course, they don’t because their very act of going fishing is a rejection of their vocation by which Jesus had made them “fishers of men.”
Disobedience can never be rewarded. But then they receive the divine commission to cast their net to the starboard side, which they do. And their obedience is rewarded with a miraculous catch of fish. Mother Teresa often reminded us that “God does not call us to be successful, only faithful.” Interestingly enough, when we are faithful, we generally end up successful.
Yet again, the Risen Lord hosts a meal for His disciples – the first Sunday brunch in Church history. The fish cooking on the charcoal fire and the loaf of bread cannot help but bring to mind the Banquet of Banquets presided over by the Risen Lord – the Holy Eucharist. Remember that the early Christians used a fish as the emblem of admittance to their necessarily clandestine liturgies – fish being a Greek acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Savior.” And this time, the Evangelist tells us, “none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’” Why? Because, St. John asserts, “they knew it was the Lord.” In truth, you and I – like two millennia of Christians – meet the Risen Christ in the Sacrificial Banquet of the Most Holy Eucharist.
Finally, the Fourth Evangelist brings us in as would-be eyewitnesses to one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in all of Sacred Scripture. The Risen Christ asks the most important – and embarrassing – question possible of Simon Peter: “. . . do you love me more than these?” The answer should be self-evident, no? But it isn’t because just a few days earlier, Simon has betrayed the special name Christ had bestowed upon him. In denying he even knew Jesus, he failed to be “Peter,” that is, the Rock on which Christ willed to build His Church. And so, Our Lord doesn’t ask Simon once about his love, nor only twice, but thrice. Now, even dim-witted Peter gets the point: The Risen and Divine Questioner is giving him the opportunity to undo His triple denial by a triple affirmation of love.
It is worth mentioning a linguistic matter here, which eludes us in English. In the original Greek, the Lord asks Peter if he loves Him sacrificially. Peter replies that he loves Him – as a friend. Peter is then confronted with the question a second time: Do you love me sacrificially? Peter again offers Jesus the love of friendship. Amazingly, the third question comes: Peter, do you love me as a friend? The Lord of the Universe is willing to accept our most feeble professions of love. And, even more amazingly, He takes that as sufficient grounds to rehabilitate the sinful denier and, yes, commits to him the task of serving as His substitute shepherd: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.
The Glorified Christ, thanks be to God, deals with us in exactly the same way as He did with the weak and sinful Simon Peter – the promise of rehabilitation held out to us most especially in the Sacrament of Penance, instituted by the Lord on the octave of His Resurrection – the Gospel we shall hear proclaimed next Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday. So, we have come to the end of our review of “Resurrection Questions.” If the Risen Christ wasn’t afraid to ask leading questions, we can presume He doesn’t resent our questions of Him – as long as they are presented in good faith as coming from honest seekers. As Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman put it: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” The ever-patient Father in Heaven lovingly receives our difficulties and hands them over for resolution to His Risen Son. The Magdalen came to understand that, which helps explain why she addresses the One she mistakenly took for the gardener with the tender title of “Rabbouni” (“my little Rabbi”). We need to etch deep in our consciousness the realization that the Risen One is the Logos – the very Source of reason and truth from all eternity – and that He who can pose all the right questions likewise has all the right answers.