At Christmas we know that the Blessed Virgin Mary gives birth to the little baby Jesus – and He fills the crib….at Easter we find He has emptied His tomb. So what’s going on? How do we get excited about an empty tomb? Well, before we get to the tomb let’s start with the idea of Redemption.
What is that?
Redemption is an action – a saving action that one makes on the part of another who has been captured. We have all been captured – by the ignorance of our fallen condition, by our own personal sin and ultimately by death.
Redemption is what Christ does for all of us on the Cross: He has set us free.
Christ took what makes us human (our nature) to Himself and lived as our Brother. He becomes intimately close to us and never distances Himself from any of us through the slightest, most passing of sins. He lived through the human experience of dying. He took His life and the same human nature that is our hope back to Himself. His priceless life lived perfectly and given up paid fully for the imperfect and fallen life of Adam.
Gardens pop up throughout the story of Scripture. It is fitting that redemption takes us back to the Garden because a garden is a plot of earth that has been stripped of rocks and original vegetation before being cultivated and seeded with new life. Christ suffers His agony in a garden and is crucified in a garden and is ultimately put in a tomb which has its location in a garden. Jesus finds Himself in these gardens – these places of exchange – these places of redemption as the New Adam in place of the old.
So, today our Gospel places us in the middle of the exchange – not yet seeing the Risen Lord. True, but the reading is more personal than the empty tomb for we hear of three of Christ’s closest friends, and as redemption spreads to them they will experience an exchange of their own firsthand — being forerunners of the very kind of redemption we all hope to experience in the full.
Mary Magdalene is our first character and while the first redemption to consider in this Gospel is that of ignorance is worth mentioning that she had also been a great sinner and certainly experienced that redemption as well. While it is uncertain if she is the sinful woman who anointed Jesus after wetting His feet with her tears and kissing them and wiping them with her hair in Luke 7, and therefore it is uncertain if she was a woman of the night, we know she had been filled with seven demons which Christ expelled from her (Luke 8). She was probably the Mary (sister to Martha) who anointed Him with oil just before the Last Supper and it would seem likely she had been the figure in Luke 7 for she loved much and was forgiven much and was therefore one of the only characters strong enough in Christ and weak enough in herself to crouch down beneath the crucified Jesus — right by those same feet which she is believed to have been so fond of sitting beside to learn wisdom. However, we already see this kind of redemption in her before Christ dies on the Cross….the redemption that she now experiences is a redemption from her ignorance — she had one more big lesson to learn. Haven’t we been there in our own lives – fearful/doubtful/tied up hugeness of human tragedy? The first woman, Eve, had been fooled into thinking that man could be made like God by taking something precious from a tree. On the other hand, Mary Magdalene is grieving for she has yet to learn the lesson of that Jesus is not only man, but God become man..and that He would make other men like God by giving everything from a tree…from Himself.
Well, what was the key to Mary’s eventual understanding? The same window into her soul that allowed her to be forgiven: her great love. Her ardor for Christ kept her at the tomb weeping until her heart was satisfied. Perhaps during Lent you embarked on some ambitious habit of prayer — rejoice, but do not abandon it….keep the fire of love strong and you will grow in wisdom.
Another character needing redemption in this Gospel is Peter. Now, I think Peter often is unfairly criticized for being ignorant. “Oh, he was just a simple fisherman…uneducated…lower class”…yet how often those uneducated have great common sense. Peter knew the ways of the world around him. Mary Magdalene was redeemed from a point of ignorance…but Peter was the one to declare, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He saw Christ’s glory unveiled on the Mount of Transfiguration. If there was one thing Peter knew he needed redemption from it was sin. At one of his first meetings with Christ he commands our Lord, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” The depth of Peter’s sin however can give great hope for it is against Jesus directly. Peter denies Jesus three times. Don’t we all deny Him hundreds of times….each time that we sin….like Peter, we are not strong enough in our sin to stand under the cross — maybe we are hidden in the crowd. Yet, even the sinner who denies Jesus and is not near enough Jesus to have His Blood drip on his hands is not forsaken. Peter had received knowledge of the forgiveness of the Kingdom. “How many times must I forgive my brother?” Not only 7 times, but 70 times 7 times.
What was the opening into Peter’s heart that allowed him to be redeemed? His pride in himself was crushed and his humility was the key. Lord, you know everything – you know that I love you with a lesser love that You deserve. And Peter was rewarded with the strength to imitate Christ all the way to his own death on the cross. His sins were deep, but his redemption has brought him the great joy of imitating Our Lord and the unity that comes after. If your Lenten fasting helped you have more room for God, discover a way to remain in that humility that unites us to Christ in Spirit.
They say the only thing worse than death is sin, but without redemption from sin, death would still reign. Our last character may seem odd to put last. John the Apostle was not ignorant; on the contrary he was a great contemplative at a young age. Christ certainly redeemed him from sin, but he had never been known to be a great sinner. Rather, he was the beloved disciple was underneath the Cross and receives Mary as his own mother. But John’s very youth would have been a passing and useless thing without the Resurrection. All things are vanity without God.
John though can be our representative as redemption from death itself. The Blessed Virgin Mary never doubted in Jesus. She understood His sacrifice. But she was alone in this knowledge until Easter Sunday when John looked in and saw the empty tomb and the burial cloths and the cloth that covered His head “rolled up in a separate place” and John believed. What did he see? Nothing more than Peter, but recognized the great triumph for he loved God with a pure heart. Yet think back to the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve are expelled before they have their firstborn: Cain who is not afraid to murder, but is afraid to die. He wanders to an unknown end fearful. John is the firstborn of the Kingdom – born to Mary spiritually in the garden of Golgotha when Christ cries, “Woman, behold your son.” John spent his life growing by performing the actions of knowing and loving. These activities are the two activities that are translatable to heaven. He would have died a hundred times for Christ and yet he is the Church in embryo which perseveres in peace amid toil. John was the one Apostle not to die the violent death of a martyr. And so he demonstrates how close we can be to Christ even in a quiet passing – knowing however that we are close to Him. Jesus showed John and the rest of the Church that even death can be an act of love if it is an offering of self sacrifice – and every lesser act of putting God and others before us is a little death that always bears fruit. If you did works of alms-giving during Lent, recognize that when we spurn ourselves for the love of God we triumph over the love of self and the meaning of life comes into focus: living for the God who forever lives.
The stone has been pulled back, Our Lord is risen….His friends are redeemed. He has come to exchange our emptiness with life. Let us rejoice and carry on with the bold witness of His Resurrection that has made us blessed in Himself.