On Easter morning, it was Mary Magdalene who was the first to discover the empty tomb. And it was to Mary Magdalene, perhaps the greatest repentant sinner in the gospels, that the risen Christ first appeared.
Jesus found Mary outside the tomb. By then, Peter and John had gone home. But it was fitting that it was to a great sinner that Jesus should first appear. For it was she who knew sin most intimately and who thoroughly rejected sin by coming to know the mercy of Jesus. She would be the first to recognize the power of the resurrection.
Almost 2,000 years later in a Soviet labor camp, another Easter is celebrated. Father Kallistos Ware passes on an excerpt of a letter from an anonymous prisoner in that camp:
"On Easter Day all of us who were imprisoned for religious convictions were united in the one joy of Christ. We were all taken into one feeling, into one spiritual triumph, glorifying the one eternal God. There was no solemn paschal service with the ringing of church bells, no possibility in our camp to dress up for worship, to dress up for the festival, to prepare Easter dishes.
"On the contrary, there was even more work and more interference than usual. All the prisoners here for religious convictions, whatever their denomination, were surrounded by more spying, by more threats from the secret police.
"Yet Easter was there: great, holy, spiritual, unforgettable. It was blessed by the presence of our risen God among us -- blessed by the Siberian stars and by our sorrows.
"How our hearts beat joyfully in communion with the great resurrection! Death is conquered, fear no more, an eternal Easter is given to us!" (cited in The Orthodox Way, p. 117).
We find Easter celebrated with enormous joy amidst the profound suffering and persecution of a forced labor camp. We find a great sinner -- a sheep who had been hopelessly lost but who was found by the Good Shepherd -- to be the first witness of the resurrection.
The resurrection is of greatest importance to those who are stripped bare, who know they are nothing, who know that everything they have comes from Jesus. All they can do is rely on Jesus, wait for Jesus. And when the risen Lord comes it is like an earthquake which brings overpowering joy.
The result? Jesus tells Mary, "Go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'" (John 20:17). It is the first time Jesus has referred to the disciples as his brothers. His death and resurrection has changed their relationship. Jesus is the Son of God and now his followers are God's adopted children.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the Father raised up the Son "and by doing so perfectly introduced his Son's humanity, including his body, into the Trinity" (no. 648). But more than this. The lives of the faithful "are swept up by Christ into the heart of divine life" (no. 655).
The resurrection does more than simply free us from sin and death. It incorporates us into the very being of God. We are invited to much more than a personal relationship with Jesus; we are invited right into God's home. The Jews awaited a political Messiah. What they got was the Son of God who enables us to share in the very life of God.
Another catechism expresses it this way: "It is the risen Jesus who gives persons of faith the ability to experience his presence. He does this by allowing them to share in his own life, by bringing them even now, in their lives here on earth, into a real participation in his new way of existence. . . . The resurrection of Christ, then, is the foundation of the Christian life of faith, prayer and spiritual growth" (The Teaching of Christ, fourth edition, p. 132).
Easter in the secular Western world is marked by indifference. Is this because we lack a sense of our own sinfulness, of our need for Christ's redeeming power? Is it because we are a law unto ourselves and refuse to let ourselves fall under the judgment of God's law?
There lies our unadmitted poverty. We boast of our greatness and fail to see we are nothing without God. Somehow, we need to see the resurrection through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, through the eyes of the persecuted faithful of the Soviet labor camps. Somehow we need to see the life we have been given.
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