Readings: Acts 10:34, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
Where the Hell is God, sounds like a rather irreverent title for a book written by a Jesuit! And yet the popularity of Richard Leonard’s book suggests that his question resonates with many suffering Christians who, in their spiritual darkness and confusion, desperately seek a God who seems hidden, absent, or perhaps even non-existent. Mary Magdalene, Peter and John would have been able to empathize with such sentiments as they struggled on that Easter Morning to make sense of their Master’s ignominious death and then the apparent disappearance of his body from the tomb. However, these three disciples provide more than empathy, and each of them–as encountered in this morning’s gospel–illustrates a unique and crucial stage in the spiritual journey we all must undertake.
Like all three disciples before the calamitous events of the crucifixion, we typically begin our spiritual lives with the comforting and reassuring sense of God’s presence and care for us. But if we are seriously engaged in following Christ, true spiritual growth seems to inevitably lead into darkness, aridity, suffering and confusion and like Peter, Mary and John, we stare at the apparently empty tomb of our formerly robust and comforting faith. In this state of confusion we may initially attempt a rekindling of our seemingly lost faith. And so, perhaps, we try some alternate prayer form or technique, seek out a new spiritual director, or scour bookstores and libraries hoping for that book that will throw light on our darkness and show us what we did wrong and how we lost our way.
When these sincere and persevering efforts fail to recreate those earlier feelings of devotion and consolation, we may simply give up–at least temporarily–and like Peter decide to go fishing, seek distraction and escape from our painful inner state. However if we don’t close ourselves off from grace we are eventually given the strength to turn back and in facing our inner emptiness take our place alongside Mary Magdalene weeping at the empty tomb. Although we may have repeatedly banged our head against a spiritual wall, we know intuitively–and from experience–that seeking our heart’s deepest desire anywhere else is a lesson in futility–Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
And the, perhaps unexpectedly, our persevering waiting may begin to be blessed with a reawakened sense of God’s presence, but one that is qualitatively different–just as Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the one she thought to be the gardener was somehow different. However this briefly reawakened sense of Christ’s presence is only temporary and transitional and like Mary Magdalene we are exhorted not to cling to it as if we were finally in the presence of the full reality of the Risen Lord. Instead we are challenged to enter deeper into the darkness that is, in reality, the blinding light of God’s presence. And this to be what John the Beloved Disciple had already done. Something seems to have happened as he stood at the foot of the cross that enabled him to let go of his Master’s purely physical and earthly presence. And as a result his loving heart was awakened to a presence that was no longer to be sought out there–in the tomb or any place else–but mysteriously, darkly, and yet surely, present within. And so although having gazed at the same empty tomb as Mary and Peter, he seems to have done so with eyes of a purified and deepened faith so that, in the words of the Gospel, he saw and believed. Thus in joining Peter and returning home from the empty tomb he did so with a heart very different from that of Peter; John’s was a heart overflowing with inner peace and joy and thus how apt he would have found Paul’s assurance that nothing could now separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And so on this glorious Easter Day perhaps you might ask yourself where you find yourself spiritually: still walking dejectedly with Peter in the darkness of God’s apparent absence in your life and still restlessly seeking to find God somewhere out there. Or, have you experienced the futility of this undertaking and taken your place beside the weeping Magdalene, no longer restlessly seeking out there but yet still seemingly bereft of the presence of the Master. Or does today find you blessed for having persevered long enough in the waiting to have been given that breakthrough by which the inner eyes of faith are opened, and like the Beloved Disciple now know that the Master dwells within.
However, regardless of who we find ourselves with: Peter, Mary or John, we can all make our own the prayer of Origen: Would that the Lord Jesus might put his hands on our eyes that we might begin to look not at those things which are seen, but at those which are not seen. And would that he might open for us those eyes which contemplate not present things, but future, and might reveal to us the aspect of the heart by which God is seen in spirit, through the Lord Jesus Christ himself, to whom belong glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.